Local chef and entrepreneur Melissa Mauselle trained in the culinary arts while attending the Sabin-Schellenberg vocational charter school. She then landed cooking jobs in nearby Portland, Ore., a city known for its creative cooking and restaurant scene.
“I had the opportunity to learn vocational skills in high school instead of being pushed to get a four year college degree,” said Mauselle. She worked also in Alaska, Montana and at Galena Lodge north of Ketchum before starting her own catering business in Hailey last year.
“Working for myself has been a life-changing experience,” she said. “I am able to choose the quality of the product I sell and who I work with. I am developing new standards that will extend into the rest of my life.”
At 18, Mauselle had the equivalent of a 3-year associates degree when she went to work as an apprentice for a catering company in Portland. There, she honed her understanding of the intricacies of flavor design and development.
“I had learned how to create food without relying on recipes,” she said. “It’s about the balance between fat, salt, acid and spice. Sugar doesn’t deliver flavor, it directs it.”
After two years in the catering business, Mauselle worked the line at Henry’s Tavern in the city’s Pearl District. On any given summer weekend, Henry’s would serve up 2,000 meals.
“It was insanity,” she said. “I was one of 25 line cooks. I also worked at Papa Haydn and then at Higgins, owned by Greg Higgins, one of the early proponents of slow food or farm to table food.”
The restaurant business can be a toxic or a wonderful experience, depending on the circumstances, Mauselle said.
“I have had a chef actually throw a plate of food at my head,” she said. “I have also had such a beautiful time with coworkers that when I left, I felt like I was leaving my family.”
During seasonal work in Alaska, Mauselle was able to stretch her wings as a chef, designing menus around fresh seafood. Six years ago, she eventually found her way to Galena Lodge where she worked winters. When it came time to move to town, friend and fellow local cook Lindsay Czech told Mauselle that there was a shortage of private chefs to cover the demand for custom meals in the Wood River Valley.
“She was able to give me some clients,” said Mauselle. “But with COVID, it has been a challenge lately.”
Mauselle saw her business drop by 60 percent. She adapted by focusing on her baking skills, delivering custom “holiday bake boxes” of sweet delicacies to her customers.
“This is what got me through the quarantine,” she said. “I have always done a lot of baking. I think of it as chemistry because it is very exact. On the other hand, you could think of cooking on the savory side as more a combination of art and craft.”
Now that the economy is somewhat more open, Mauselle employs a meat smoker for some of her delivered items. She is expecting tighter lockdowns and has decided to adapt further in case the coronavirus cases spike again.
“I am developing a drop-off menu for my customers that will include entrees and side dishes,” she said, “but not the kinds of meals that would break the bank.”