At the end of a paved road in Pray just outside Livingston is the iconic Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa. On this day as fall was edging into winter, my husband and I drove a hundred miles as in the Montana way to dine in the recently opened Tasting Room. As we stepped out of our car under the watch of Emigrant Peak, we thought of times past at Chico with each other, friends and family. The clapboard Victorian lodge with green framed windows welcomed us as it did twenty years ago when we first visited.
After taking a deep breath, my husband said, “It’s like nothing has changed.”
Since the 1900s the hotel has embraced visitors who arrive to celebrate, recreate or to just soak in the hot springs. Behind the scenes change happened two years ago as Colin and Seabring Davis took ownership of Chico from Mike and Eve Art. After a couple dozen years as General Manager, Colin continues to preserve the soul of the historic resort. Seabring, too, with her experience as a waitress from years ago, now works as the Director of Marketing.
The capture and collection of Chico’s spirit and flavor come in Seabring’s new cookbook, The Western Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Montana’s Chico Hot Springs Resort. Along with recipes the book packaged with photographs taken by Lynn Donaldson-Vermilllion honor not only the food, but of guests in celebration and play. The book is a family album of sorts completed with stories of the resort’s past and present.
The book pays homage to recipes from yesteryear such as the “Beef Wellington” and “Fennel Breadsticks” from the 1970s when Chef Larry Edwards was at the helm of the kitchen. With current Chef Dave Wells’ recipes such as “Chilled Beet, Ginger, and Coconut Milk Soup” respect is extended to harvested bounty from the onsite geothermal greenhouses and hot springs fed gardens and global flavors. “Duck Grand Marnier Two Ways,” gives a nod to Chef Edward’s Duck L’Orange but is an interpretation of Chef Wells’ way of cooking.
After we checked in, we drove up to our cabin above the resort to a vista of the valley. Edged with snow dusted peaks and speckles of pine trees the landscape lit up in golden light befitting its name of Paradise Valley. This view was picture postcard perfect.
With my cowboy boots now on, I felt more a part of the Western vibe here at the resort as I stepped into the wood paneled dining room with support columns reminiscent of sentries. The room is a mix of Western and Victorian. Russell Chatham paintings and old photographs grace the walls over grainy wood chairs, and tables topped with sparkling goblets and neatly folded white napkins. After making our way to the back bar, we were immediately greeted by Shane Kehoe and Lindsey Stone, our servers for the night.
Our attention was diverted to the lighted room edged with racks of wine with a high soapstone table brimming with glittering wine glasses. Tall blue velvet ring back chairs surrounded the table set for six people. Colin busied himself making last minute reviews of the wine he had chosen for dinner.
The room was kept cool to insure the integrity of the treasures in this room. Throws hung outside the door in case guests needed warmth. I was too excited to be cold in this room of wonder. Then meeting our dining companions Michael and Jane Wilson from Bozeman furthered my anticipation. Also, it was a privilege to be with Colin and Seabring who realized this vision of the Tasting Room.
Colin built the diverse Wine Spectator Award winning wine list. From picks for the local rancher to the esoteric business man from abroad, Colin said, “It’s fun to have something for everyone. It’s fun to have that balance.” As I sat in this room, I was surrounded by wines that I have tasted, offering nostalgia, to wines I have always wanted to taste providing mystery, to wines I may never experience being too expensive. From avant garde to classic and popular to collectible, the Wine Spectator Award wine list was diverse.
This 12-course tasting menu presented by Chef Dave Wells with wine coordinated by Colin offered bites of Montana anchored ingredients accompanied with flavors and foods from around the world. The Tasting Room can be reserved for two people up to six allowing for an intimate experience. The menu focused on seasonal items and intended to incorporate local bounty expanded with world flavors.
The room, the size of a large kitchen, only caters up to six people for a 7-course or 12-course menu with a choice two levels of wine pairings. Colin did not want a larger setup because when the table is expanded, intimacy is lost with guest conversing with only those right next to them versus with interacting with the entire table.
“Being able to easily talk and engage with everyone at the table made the experience for me,” Jane shared.
Our menu on this night started with a toast of bubbly Egly-Ouriet Brut Rose Grand Cru moving to a viognier Cuilleron Condrieu La Petite Cote centered with a Chateau Rieussec Sauterne crowned with a 2005 Cos d’Estrounel.
The meal with the menu entitled “Chico Hot Springs Autumn Tasting Room Menu” began with Maclay Ranch lamb heart Tartare with shallots, capers, fresh herbs dolloped atop a spread of smoked egg yolk on a ceramic plate simulating stone. Then lobster arrived on a crispy steelhead skin with the next course of scallops served with mountain rose apple and adorned with yellow colored ginger flavored spheres reminiscent of roe. Cauliflower mushroom with sliced black truffle honored the season’s harvest from near and far.
Foie gras French toast with port Flathead cherries with a modern twist accompanied with a honeyed 2001 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes once again combined local with French tradition. With hunting season upon us, MacFarlane farms pheasant breast with farro, chard, pistachio and jus brought the tasting experience back to Big Sky country. Then the piece de resistance came with “Takamori ‘Drunken’ Waygu Strip Loin – Chanterelle Mushrooms, Potato Puree, White Alba Truffle, Baby Kale, Whiskey Barrel Aged Shoyu.” This Grade A5 beef from Japan melted the moment it hit my tongue. Of course, all great meals end with dessert and Chef Wells did not disappoint ending with Matsutake mushroom and white chocolate mousse with huckleberry coulis and the chef’s rendition of S’mores with chunks of devil’s food cake.
Jane said of the dessert, “I enjoyed the Chef’s deconstructed take on s’mores. A lovely ending to the experience with its intermingled bits of sweetness and those bites of bitter dark chocolatey goodness.”
As for Chef Wells, I think he is brilliant. Every dish was meticulously crafted to produce elegantly balanced flavors and textures only to be heightened by the wine pairings of each course.
“The food, the wines paired with each course, the intimate cellar-type setting, and the enthusiastic/knowledgeable servers made for the perfect evening. I felt like I was in a Michelin starred restaurant somewhere in the French countryside,” Michael shared.
Chef Wells’s first experience at Chico Hot Springs came in 2004 when he visited with his grandfather. On this visit he remembered eating the Beef Wellington though he never considered one day cooking here. His love of food came from his mother and to this day he loves her biscuits and gravy. It was Wells’ love of hunting and fly fishing that brought him to Colorado and then Montana. While he was working as a fly-fishing guide in Big Sky country, he received a phone call from a friend. In trying to help this friend out who needed someone to wash dishes at the Naked Noodle in Bozeman, Wells took on what he had thought would be a short-term job, turned into prepping in the kitchen to finally working as a cook on the line.
From there he worked at The Papoose Creek Lodge and he shared, “I guess I got kind of lucky there to where I was able to jump into something that I wasn’t necessarily prepare for or qualified to do.” A stint at the Rattlesnake Market in Missoula working with some who was “very adamant about everything being from scratch and everything being seasonal as possible.” Then his time at the Triple Creek Ranch in the Bitterroot Valley, “I got most of my education working with the chefs there. We had a menu that changed every day and was all seasonal with all very fine ingredients so I was able to learn a lot while I was there.”
At Chico Hot Springs, he is working with gardener Jeannie Duran to coordinate bounty to be incorporated into his menu for the Tasting Room and the dining room. Wells suggests ideas of what he wants and Duran lets him know if she can grow his requests.
With the Colin and Seabring at the helm of Chico Hot Springs, hiring Chef Wells indicated their progressive intentions rooted with the want to still preserve the integrity and spirit of the resort. Colin expressed his desire with the statement, “The focus of Chico is always to make it more Chico to honor the legacy the Art family really put into place and just move it forward.”
He continued, “I think it was really Seabring that really identified but what is the heart and soul of Chico. What did it look like what did it feel like and then go back to those roots and really enhance the flavor from the very beginning but as you are making your improvements use the highest quality of things you can find instead of cutting corners whether its carpets or draperies and find those period pieces and replace your furniture with really elegant pieces that really atone to the architectural language that has been established.”
New additions along with the Tasting Room include “glamping” options in Calistoga wagons and in a refashioned caboose. New mountain bike trails are being established in the newly acquired adjacent 600 acres. There is hope to make Chico more self-sustainable expanding their gardens and embarking on raising livestock such as pigs.
The want to grow and yet keep the integrity of Chico heritage and history resounds over and over. The sentiments are clear and captured in Seabring’s cookbook.
Here is Seabring’s story told by her, “It is an emotional experience to be part owner of this place because I think that we’re the keeper of people’s memories and family experiences and one of things I learned while I was a waitress at Chico back 1995 is the tradition that so many of our guests carry on and during our time. I met people who were coming to Chico Christmas for the last 30 years and that was their tradition. Christmas Eve at Chico Hot Springs was how they wanted to spend their time and wake up first thing in the morning and have the hot springs waiting for them. The snow storm on this particular year delivered like no one else could have prescribed it and it was a long time ago and we’re at the end of the road and the access to the valley was a little more limited so this snow storm came out of nowhere. All the old timers said it was the hundred years storm. They have not seen anything like it and on this particular night it must have been three feet of snow that fell and so the plows were not out and there ended up with snow that they couldn’t actually plow the roads in time to access this end of the road place and so the dining room was full and we were all serving up food and having a great time. The hotel was full so all the rooms were reserved and it turned out as the night got later that there was not any way for anyone to leave the property, and so the snow just kept coming down. In some situations, in our modern-day world, people would have been upset or irritated in some way, but in this case, it was just a gift. We rolled out extra cots and blankets and flashlights and finished dinner by candle light. We loaded up the lobby with as many sleeping options as we could, and took some of our rooms that were our most basic rooms, and outfitted them for more guests. We put out coffee and hot chocolate and we just turned it into a big Christmas party.”
During this holiday season, may we find time to savor the special moments especially with those near and dear to us even with the challenges and tests. With some coffee and hot chocolate, everyday could be a big Christmas party.