Ox Pasture features local big sky flavor. For Executive Chef Chris Lockhart, seasonal produce and products from the environs around Red Lodge shape his menu planning. Local bounty plays the starring role backed by flavors and food from afar. Contributors to the local offerings include Laurel Farmers Market, owned by Leslyn and Greg Johnson. Even more, “local” also applies to the strong community support, filling the restaurant with eager patrons who have become regulars at the popular restaurant.
Gena Burghoff, Lockhart’s wife, works as the General Manager, allowing that their 17-month-old son, Saxon, has added another dimension to her life. She helped her husband reopen Ox Pasture in May after being closed for the winter since last October.
Burghoff attributes their success to “being extremely passionate about what we do. Chris and our Sous Chef Danny Mowatt have amazing ideas. We try to give great customer service, and the fact that we are using local produce and meats, it gets the buzz out there faster.”
With an acting background for 20 years, the restaurant environment was by no means foreign. Burghoff has for many years supplemented her craft. She jokingly shared when one is discovered to be an actor the response was, “Oh actor, ‘what restaurant?’”
Her first job was at a McDonalds, a company she lauded as providing a “great training system with awesome customer service.” After working at the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming she had stints working the front of the house in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
The couple met in Cambodia when Lockhart was on a year long backpack trip, and Burghoff, who was working for Cirque du Soleil at the time, was taking a three-month break. An alumnus of Powell High School in Wyoming, and her mother a resident of Red Lodge, the couple was drawn back to Big Sky Country. At first, Burghoff said, “We had planned on coming to visit for a year and ended up loving it.”
Their first culinary endeavor was a food cart named the ‘Local Yokel’ where they pioneered serving local food. They sourced from a 60-mile range, picking up their own products ranging from produce from Laurel Farmers Market to driving to Billings to secure fresh bread. “We picked all our own vegetables because this was before the local movement had started.”
A year later, they headed up Montana Jack’s in Dean to work for Jack and Ann Mowell who had just purchased the property. As they were thinking about leaving town three years later, Alexia and David Leuschen gave them the opportunity to launch Ox Pasture. “Their plan is to promote up-and-coming chefs,” Burghoff continued, “They offered us a building, free of utilities, free of rent. Basically giving us a chance to succeed and to showcase Chris’ talents.”
Chris Lockhart originally worked the front of the house as a server or bartender, but he always kept his eye on the kitchens. “We moved to Montana eight years ago. The only job I could get was in the kitchen and I found I have a passion for cooking.”
Lockhart gained a lot of confidence in cooking while working at the Regis Cafe. Cooking for a full house and positive feedback brought the belief that he could excel in the kitchen. “I’ve had no one teaching me, just my reading, and I have always watched my chefs and have learned so much from them, and it seemed natural.”
During their winter season off, they drove their fifth wheel south with their dog and baby, traveling 10,000 miles across the country, eating their way to the warmth, gaining the most inspiration from southern cooking and seafood. Traveling has always been at Lockhart and Burghoff’s core. Growing up in the U.K. allowed Lockhart access to countries in Europe while providing a jumping-off point to Asia.
Lockhart has derived innovation from food made in Copenhagen where he traveled to recently. He found Scandinavian food “mind blowing.” Chefs such as René Redzepi of Noma and Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken are leaders in gastronomy. “Scandinavian cuisine is very farm-to-table, about using local seasonal ingredients. I find it interesting that their growing season is very similar to Montana’s,” Lockhart shared.
The menu at Ox Pasture changes every two weeks. Lockhart sits down with his Sous Chef and plans the menu. The menu is “produce driven first and then the protein is picked to go along with the produce.” Leslyn Johnson of Laurel Farmer’s Market communicates with Lockhart to let him know what she and her husband Greg are harvesting at their farm through text messaging.
Over a six-year relationship, Johnson has sat down with Lockhart to plan what he might want for the next season. Johnson brings catalogs and provides suggestions as to what are good possibilities. Last year, Johnson had the restaurant staff plant some of their own tomatoes in the farm wind tunnel – their greenhouse with sides that roll up or down.
Lockhart and Burghoff discovered Laurel Farmers Market when they first opened Local Yokel. We gave them bags and Johnson’s husband said, “‘Have at it.’ They went out in the field and picked asparagus, and that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.”
The storefront on Main Street is unassuming with the windows partly shaded with sheer white curtains under a gray and white striped awning. Entering the restaurant, the diner is immediately transformed to another place. The white decor dominates with overlapping wainscot paneling providing a palette for kinship, conversation and naturally, food. A pair of counters on both walls lead the diner into the room. One counter serves as a bar while the other functions as the welcome station. Open shelving holds neatly arranged wine and water glasses. The focus of the room is in the back where the open kitchen frames the work at hand.
The décor of the restaurant is co-owner Alexia Leuschen’s creation, where she mixes European nostalgia with a tinge of kitsch to garner just enough interest without being disruptive. A pair of white chandeliers dangle high over hardwood floors with replicas of paintings such as Boy and Rabbit by Henry Raeburn. The blue and white woven chairs are reminiscent of a Paris bistro or a breezy cafe in the Mediterranean.
According to Lockhart, the open kitchen “… is like a performance. So people can see us working and see it is a working kitchen.” Lockhart designed a kitchen where all needed equipment is within easy reach. In this cook area, chefs do not take a specific station but do all cooking. Everyone works where needed in preparing a dish. The prep kitchen is in a space behind the front kitchen. Here the freezer and refrigerator hold the ingredients that require cooling. Writing on the freezer door keeps track of what ingredients remain. Overstock is made into staff meals as Lockhart believes it is best, “We have “full bellies” for the service.” When a new menu goes out, the staff tastes what is being served to their customers.
Lockhart is a pioneer, setting the “locavore” pace in Red Lodge. With the ingredients grown nearby, the diners at Ox Pasture will learn from him what bounty is available locally under the Big Sky.
6 egg yolks
4 cloves of garlic
2 cups of canola oil
3 tablespoons white truffle oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Juice of 1 lemon
In a food processor combine garlic, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, lemon juice and egg yolks. Turn processor on and process until garlic is minced. Turn off processor, scrape down the sides. Return lid to the top. Add the truffle oil to the canola oil. Turn on processor and slowly pour in the oil until mixture emulsifies. You may not need all of the oil. Aioli should be smooth but somewhat thick. If too thin turn food processor back on and pour in remaining oil.