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Flavors: COLLAB - Collaborating for Deliciousness and Profit

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Stella Fong
Executive Chef Dirk Frickel and Front of the House Manager Trevan Sparbo of the Hilands Golf Club are in the YPR studio talking about the Billings Social Club or COLLAB.

In Billings, the COVID Pandemic led Dirk Frickel to notice the want and need of collaboration in the culinary community. The Executive Chef of the Hilands Golf Club started the Billings Social Collaborative or COLLAB in February of 2021 with the mission: “This is a community organization of like-minded individuals who are interested in coming together to plan various events and share ideas.” The group welcomes all to join, “especially those in the service industry, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, sales professionals and anyone who wants to add their piece of culture to our city.”  

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Stella fong
Veronnaka Evenson, co-owner of Swanky Roots with her mother Ronna Klamert, joined the COLLAB to share her aquaponics business and to meet chefs who use her lettuce and micro greens in their cooking.

After a beer tasting dinner at Hilands Golf Club one night, Frickel said, “My mind started working in the way of thinking that we were going to need to gather ourselves as a community. This is brewers, chefs, restaurant owners, anybody in the industry; also, adjacent industry like the arts and musicians, farmers, ranchers, growers.” He sensed the importance of building networks so everyone could support each other during the COVID Pandemic and afterwards. Also, “With the growth that Billings is going to be experiencing, it’s important for people in this industry to be organized and ready for it. And to be able to capitalize on it,” Frickel continues.

In 1982, Carl Kurokawa, Jack Hemsing, Jimmy DeVerniero and Rob Pounding started the Chefs and Cooks of Montana to bring those who cook and run restaurants together. Over the years, the group donated their efforts to many events while strong friendships formed, but in the last years, membership waned and the group disbanded. Frickel was a member of this group for nearly a decade, joining when he was a line cook. “I would like to think of the Collaborative as just a reboot of the Chefs and Cooks, but in today’s age.” Frickel uses social media to connect members and inform them of happenings of the COLLAB.
The first meeting that took place at the golf club was well received followed with another well attended meeting at the Petroleum club. “Another big mission I had with the COLLAB was to provide some further education,” Frickel shared. Tours of Kate’s Garden , the Miller Ranch and Swanky Roots imparted knowledge of where the food they cook are coming from and acquaintance with who was producing this food. Visits to Beyond the Box, a kitchen design and cabinet dealership, and the Red Oxx Events venue provided insight into possibilities of available event spaces for collaboration.

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Stella Fong
Jeremy Evans, founder of the Kitchen Man, credits members of the COLLAB in providing him advice on starting his chef and catering business six months ago.

Trevan Sparbo, Front of House Manager at the Hilands Golf Club, shared, “We don’t get to go to the new restaurants as much to see what’s new and exciting.” With a meeting at Marble Table, the group had the chance to see and taste what Executive Chef Jason Marble and his wife Jen were doing at the restaurant that opened the weekend after Thanksgiving during the thick of the COVID Pandemic last year.

With knowledge of potential venues and understanding where products come from, another important goal is to profit financially from these collaborations. Often times, chefs and restaurants are asked to donate and contribute to fund raisers. Sparbo commented, “I think it is wonderful to share your skills,” but he continued, “You are closing your restaurant, you are taking your employees away from making your restaurant function, taking product away, you are doing all these things that cost money and to the average cook or chef or somebody that wants to do these things on their own, they can’t afford to do that.”  
Veronnaka Evenson, co-owner of Swanky Roots with her mother Ronna Klamert, attended the second COLLAB meeting after an invitation from Frickel. Her aquaponics business grows micro greens and lettuce utilizing a gravity fed system nourished from the waste of blue gill fish. Evenson said of the chefs, “They are role models. They are doing great things, doing great things with food.”

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Stella Fong
Jim Markel, CEO of Red Oxx, recently added a event space next to his production and retail space of handcrafted travel luggage and fitness gear.

For the chefs, she added the importance of seeing what is involved in growing her product, “We are here every single day, trying to make a great product, and so when they can see that passion, and in turn relay that to their customers, and the different things they do with the products, it’s really fascinating to see.”

Jeremy Evans started his business, Kitchen Man, six months ago after attending COLLAB meetings from its inception. Kitchen Man is “a freelance chef/caterer/dinner party guy that do a little of everything. The main idea behind it was with all these places having staffing issues and that, I, as a trained chef, can go into pretty much any restaurant and just fill in the gaps until they get come people hired, and I scoot on over to the next place.”
Eventually Evans wants to have his own catering business but for now, he has “a knife bag, some spoons and a Sharpie. Now I am getting hot plates and catering equipment, adding a piece a couple of weeks where I need it, and when I have an event that requires something I don’t have, I’ll just purchase that or borrow it from someone.”

The COLLAB has given Evans access to chefs with the equipment he may need, and the refrigeration space to hold the ingredients and prepared dishes for his jobs. Mostly, Evans said of the group, “The courage to go out and do this Kitchen Man thing came from the COLLAB and talking with other small business owners around town.”

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Stella Fong
Recently, Red Oxx added an event venue with outdoor seating and a small stage right off of 4th Avenue North. The venue allows for collaboration between musicians and food.

Finally, Jim Markel, CEO of Red Oxx, a local company that produces handcrafted soft-sided travel gear, bags, packing cubes and accessories, refashioned the area next to his retail store into an event space. After building a fence around the venue located east of downtown Billings off of 4th Avenue N, he brought dirt in to build up terrain that slanted towards a stage where he can bring in musicians and other entertainers.
“We use to have a food truck festival once a year down there, and we would get a dozen trucks, and it became quite a logistical challenge.” Markel believes the collaboration with several chefs will simplify providing food for those attending his concerts. “Food, art, all these things make a community and we are part of that.”

For the Billings Social Club or COLLAB, Jeremy Evans may have said it best of the COLLAB: “It’s important people are trying to work together to bring the culture back that we might have lost.”

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.