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Flavors: Juliano’s Restaurant – A Family Affair

Stella Fong
Executive Chefs Carl Kurokawa and Seth Carlson pose in front of the Juliano’s restaurant sign after lunch service.

Juliano’s Restaurant is located in the hospital corridor, tucked into a tiny neighborhood at the northern edge of downtown. Since 1995, Executive Chef Carl Kurokawa has served up fusion food combining his Hawaiian roots with European culinary training. Housed in the former stable building of the historic Austin North house, better known as “The Castle”, the intimate 40-seat restaurant has an outdoor eating area popular for summer dining and now, ideal for social distancing during this COVID-19 challenge.
Juliano’s Restaurant is a family affair. These days, Kurokawa’s son-in-law Executive Chef Seth Carlson is moving into the helm in the kitchen. Carlson was literally thrown into the fire at an early age. His father Jim Carlson, currently Executive Chef at Morning Star Senior Living, was active in the Montana Chefs and Cooks Association with Kurokawa. The younger Carlson recalled helping them out during benefit dinners.

Stella Fong
The Crispy Battered Chicken and Grapefruit Salad is made with a chicken breast dipped in rice flour and then dipped in an egg battered for a crispy coating. On top of fresh greens, the salad is finished with a citrus vinaigrette and honeyed pecans.

Carlson started at Juliano’s when he was 19 years old, after a stint at Shooter’s Casino. With encouragement from his father, he took the job at Juliano’s. He credited Kurokawa with teaching him the practical on-the-job skills required of a chef. Sixteen years later, he is heading up the cooking in Juliano’s kitchen.

Kurokawa came to know Montana through Kurt Johnson and Dave Creekmore after they visited Hawaii. In the mid ‘70s Kurokawa came to Big Sky country for the first time as a tourist, which set the attraction and attention for him to this land locked part of the world.

After completing the culinary program at Hawaii Community College in Hilo, Kurokawa worked a couple of years in the islands. Feeling as though he had gone as far as he could working at hotels and resorts in Hawaii, such as the Kona Surf Hotel and apprenticing at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, he came to Montana. “Bottom line is that after my apprenticeship I felt qualified to work anywhere in the world. I could figure it out even if I didn't know the language.” Kurokawa arrived on the mainland, “with a couple of suitcases and a box of books.”

Kurokawa found work at the Riverside Country Club in Bozeman, later transitioning to the Twin Lakes Village in Coeur d’Alene, and working with Paul DeVerniero at his epinominous Ristorante. “Just my brashness got me the jobs.” He spent another year at the Northern, and then moved on to the Sheraton where he found his wife: “ I married the salad girl.”

“My wife is very supportive. We met in the business so she understands. We have been married for almost 40 years. My cooking instructor once told me, “’You have a wife and you have a mistress. Your restaurant is your mistress.’”

Executive Chef Seth Carlson shows off Juliano’s most popular salad: Crispy Battered Chicken and Grapefruit Salad on fresh greens with citrus vinaigrette and honey roasted pecans.
Stella Fong
Executive Chef Seth Carlson shows off Juliano’s most popular salad: Crispy Battered Chicken and Grapefruit Salad on fresh greens with citrus vinaigrette and honey roasted pecans.

When the Montana governor allowed restaurants to reopen in May, the patio at Juliano’s was the first place I ventured to meet up with girlfriends for lunch. At first, I was hesitant to go but I felt comfortable sitting outside, to be with friends who also had been self-isolating. Doing something that used to be so routine was an unfamiliar feeling.

My dining companions ordered the two most popular items - the Crispy Battered Chicken and Grapefruit Salad on fresh greens with citrus vinaigrette and honey roasted pecans, and one the Seared Peppered Ahi Tuna Salad with a tuna steak rolled in cracked peppercorns with lemon caper dressing. I opted for the Sweet and Sour Pork special which reminded me of my childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Carlson said the chicken salad that has been on the menu for 26 years, “Here in Montana everybody loves fried chicken. You can’t go wrong with it.” He continued, “You feel better about eating greens and grapefruit with your fried chicken. You are getting it all in one bite!”

Though the chicken salad and the Seared Peppered Ahi Tuna Salad are the most requested items, the lunch menu offers up a diverse selection with seven salads and soups, nine sandwiches and pastas, seven starters and nine entrées.

Carlson said, “We do like to raise the bar a little more than some of the other places and that’s another thing that has gotten us as far as we have, and we are still in business today. We’re not afraid to put something new on the menu. It might not sell today, but in two months, or two years that might be a hot-selling item.”

Stella Fong
The baguettes and buns are house-made by Kurokawa with the recipe for the buns coming from his aunt.

Over the years, the offerings at Juliano’s Restaurant have been ahead of the leading edge. Kurokawa recalled promoting the “local”l concept early on, utilizing ingredients procured nearby. Greens from Kate’s Garden and Swanky Roots, and lamb from Erik Lehfeldt in Lavina are some of the locally-sourced products found on the menu.

His rule of thumb for successful dishes is to use no more than eight ingredients including seasonings. He shared, “If you put more than eight and you have chicken that is not going to taste like chicken. If you are serving a nice piece of fresh fish, you want the piece of fish to taste like fish.”

As he transitions to head chef, Carlson expressed a wish that Juliano’s, “moves up a step. We have a great foundation right here but I think we can go up a little farther, and take it to the next level and put Billings, Montana on the food mecca map. That’s because we have a lot of great local talent around here.”

Kurokawa hopes to share Juliano’s food with the small cafes in Montana as he cruises in his Winnebago.

In the meantime, the father-in-law and son-in-law team will continue to cook new food out of a well-seasoned and established kitchen.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.