Cooking in a landlocked state, away from the coastal tides of trends, three James Beard Foundation semifinalists for Best Chef of the Northwest: Dave Wells of Chico Hot Springs Resort, Jeremy Engebretson of Lilac on Montana Avenue in Billings, and James Honaker of Bistro Enzo located in Billings’ West End stand solidly under the Big Sky.
They practice culinary skills that satisfy and inspire local palates without the distraction of constant change that often times originate in areas near the sea like New York or California, or in countries such as Denmark or Spain. On the Internet from CNN.com, Yonderbound.com and worldchefstour.co.za, Italy ranks number one with the best food in the world. Is it surprising the reigning food comes from a country that has cooked since the beginning of time?
Here in Montana these three chefs can study in the digital world or find inspiration in print on what others may be doing, but they don’t necessarily feel inclined to follow the wave. Wells, Engebretson and Honaker all agree that good cooking techniques and fresh products bring good food to the table. They see sustainable foods, Instagram-mable plates, and chef-driven fast-food building popularity.
Dave Wells of Chico Hot Springs
Executive Chef Dave Wells of Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Montana was the most recent recipient of the Best Chef of the Northwest, recognized in 2019. He oversees the food brought to the tables in the Historic Dining Room and the Tasting Room. The dining room has been offering western inspired food since the 1970s, with the Flaming Orange dessert reigning as the iconic ending to a meal. The new Tasting Room provides a venue for him to be more innovative and experimental with his cuisine. In the wine room of the restaurant, a table, accommodating up to six people, makes for a more intimate experience. The Chef’s Tasting Menu is offered with seven or twelve courses with optional wine pairing.
At Chico Hot Springs, Chef Wells’ goals are, “trying to have flavors that are representative of where we’re at, so that when you come to visit Chico your dining experience is just an extension of the whole Montana experience.” He hopes “to evoke that sense of place, so when you’re in our dining room you know you’re in Montana.”
Wells practices what he executes at Chico. As a hunter and forager, he is not shy about finding and discovering what Mother Nature is featuring in the season. To the local bounty he adds world flavors and technique, much like what he serves up in the Tasting Room. When asked what he was going to have for dinner, Wells was whipping up seared elk loin with kimchi, a traditional side dish in Korean cuisine.
On the topic of trends for 2020, Wells said, “I think right now what is trending is using foods that are sustainable, and being able to trace them back to where they came from. I think you are seeing it more and more, not necessarily in fine dining. People are looking for that no matter where they go to eat, so I think you’re going to continue to see a focus on sustainable agriculture. Local product people are starting to focus more on old school dishes. You’re seeing a lot of Beef Wellingtons come back, prime rib, maybe some of the big cuts of beef, and then, even just more technique driven dishes, simplified presentations that focus more on technique than an elaborate presentation.”
So what’s in store for Chico in 2020? Wells shared, “We’re going to continue to try to get better. Every year we just seem to pick up more talent in the kitchen so it’s just really trying to build on all the hard work that the people before us have put in making such a wonderful place to visit.
Jeremy Engebretson of Lilac and the Petroleum Club
Executive Chef Jeremy Engebretson, Beard semifinalist in 2018, is proprietor at Lilac and General Manager at the Petroleum Club. At Lilac, George Caldwell heads up the kitchen while Clayton Kukes acts as the Executive Chef at the Petroleum Club. Engebretson organizes and cooks for special events such as wine or beer tasting dinners. His latest “GIN DIN” at the Club included Hendricks Classic Gin accompanying “Smoked Beef Tartar with a Cherry and Rum Demiglace” and Botanist Gin with “Carrot Cake with Vermouth Cream Cheese Frosting, and Sugared Sage Leaf.”
Engebretson shares his thoughts on food and how he wants to cook: “I think the most important thing is to do it right, and by that I mean giving the customer something special that they can’t get at home”
Engebretson wants his dishes to be approachable, “We have a philosophy of making food using special techniques in the dish, but when the dish comes to the table it is unpretentious."Lilac’s signature dish gnocchi, a staple on the menu, requires several days of preparation, including a beef sauce reduction and hand-made dumplings. This combination of care and time results in a rich savory dish that brings ultimate comfort.
Engebretson believes there is still influence from Nordic cooking such as NOMA in Copenhagen, Denmark. “Chef driven casual is till high tide,” he said. “Super cultural focus” such as Filipino or Israeli are trending along with South and Central American as well as Middle Eastern cuisines. Vegetarian and vegan are gaining popularity.Mocktail and cocktail pairing with food is inching out wine, but chef-driven fast-food may be the fastest growing trend. That chef driven food is being brought to homes through delivery apps.
Engebretson travels several times a year to big cities to check out what others are doing, but most values time with his family, “When I have a Sunday, a slow day, I do something that takes all day long, like a roast or something everybody gets involved in. That’s a really good day for me.”
In 2020, Engebretson plans some light remodeling to change up the vibe, “We’ve been open now for 8 years, so we need a little bit of a scrub down and re-thinking.”
James Honaker of Bistro Enzo
James Honaker has been cooking at Bistro Enzo located on the West End of Billings for over 20 years. His nominations for Best Chef came in 2012, 2014 and 2017. With years of experience under his belt, Honaker takes a more practical approach to his cooking. At his restaurant, he has very loyal customers and stable wait staff. Day in and day out he cooks fresh seafood anchored with French cooking techniques. Honaker says, “Good food is based on tradition. When I started cooking there was very little tradition, not much expertise, not much training. That’s all changed There’s a great deal of training now and cooks are much better now than they were back then. It’s been positive overall.”
Honaker finds safe haven in the kitchen calling it his “own den, my own cave.” He realizes his expertise and comfort level are in his cooking and not “parading around” which means he does not ascribe to the current celebrity chef phenomenon. Though he admires chefs who “go out on a limb” to create trendy food, he said, “I like to do something well even though I have to keep doing it over and over, because hit or miss is not my style.”
He is limited by local resources for trained cooking staff to keep up with demand. “More and more we work with high school kids, and they take some training, but they can do a good job, even if they don’t go home and read cookbooks. When I first started, I went home and read a few hours a day. I went to restaurants.”
Honaker was mentored by Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. He apprenticed at Keller’s first restaurant, Rakel, in the mid-80s. Honaker saw firsthand Keller’s talents and knows that his success in the culinary field came with years of hard work. Furthermore, Honaker said, “It was obvious he (Thomas Keller) was very talented and he was a very good manager.” Keller left Rakel in 1990 to open the French Laundry four years later in Napa Valley, and then Per Se in New York in 2003. Honaker strongly believes “You definitely pay your dues in this profession.”
Honaker has put in his time at his restaurant, he admitted, “I moved into the home that I am in now 13 years ago and I bought a very nice Italian stove and I’ve never hooked it up.” Also, he has stopped going on his annual trips to Formula One races. When he does have a day off he said, “I basically like to go to sleep, ride my bike and lie around.”
Honaker has joked about his age and possibly seeking retirement one day, yet he continues to be at the helm of the kitchen in Bistro Enzo day in and day out. He talked of opening a small diner named Piglo where he can serve all things pork. Whatever he decides to do, he has made flavors under our Big Sky more delicious.