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Flavors: Grand Cooking from Amy Smith in Big Timber

Chef Amy Smith.jpg
Stella Fong
Executive Chef Amy Smith has been cooking at the Grand Hotel in Big Timber for 32 years.

In Big Timber, at the Grand Hotel, Executive Chef Amy Smith is still commanding the kitchen after 32 years. In the fire engine red painted building with green awnings at the corner of McLeod and East 2nd Avenue, Smith cooks up delicious memories. History reigns in the building opened in 1890, built with the $20,000 funds from sheep farmer Jacob Halverson. The two-story building housed those who arrived by train as the Northern Pacific Railroad extended west, and Big Timber was becoming a center of business.

Smith, originally from Toledo, Ohio, came to Big Timber in the late eighties after an older sister working at the hotel told her of a job opening for a cook. She asked if Smith would consider the opportunity. Smith said with a laugh, “I would try it for a year, and here I am.”

Front of the Grand Hotel.JPG
Stella Fong
The two-story, 14 room hotel opened in 1890 is the centerpiece of Big Timber.

Smith entered the kitchen in 1989 after being “a scuba instructor and dive master down in Grand Cayman.” “I just fell in love with the cuisine down there,” Smith said. The seafood was plentiful with a bounty of tuna and mahi mahi. “We would have fresh conch that we would catch, and an hour later, we would have it on the grill or in a stew.”

Smith’s culinary career began in high school, working at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and Restaurant, first as a dishwasher, and later as a manager in college. Her mother was a basic cook, but she said, “We watched Graham Kerr on TV and the Galloping Gourmet, and he just made everything so fun. It (cooking) just stuck in the back of my mind as a job that would be fun to do.”
Instead of formal culinary training, she said, “The school of hard knocks” gave her the education to succeed in the kitchen. These days she has cooked for the famous and infamous with a list including senators and governors, and celebrities such as Robert Redford, Michael Keaton and Tom Brokaw along with NFL football players and golfer Jack Nicholas. “Michael Keaton, who is so hot now, he is hotter than my grill,” she said. Smith and her team made lunch for the crew that filmed Keaton for the 60 Minutes episode he was recently on. Smith shared, “You never know who is going to walk through the door at the Grand Hotel.”

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Stella Fong
Executive Chef Amy Smith adds brandy to sauteed shrimp with gorgonzola and cream on spinach that is a popular special.

During the thick of the COVID Pandemic, creativity and innovation allowed business at another level continue at the hotel. “We were extremely fortunate. Number one, the community in Big Timber supported our restaurant like crazy and we really appreciated that. Chris Dern, the owner at that time was smart enough to diversify so we ended up making family dinners to go that were already cook. We had literally had about 12 different choices you could order,” Smith said. “In the lobby here, we even created a general store where toilet paper, sanitizer, groceries, produce, bottles of booze went out the door. Literally people would come in and order anything.

“It has been a challenge, but it has been a real community togetherness that we have had here,” Smith said gratefully.

For Smith, her philosophy on food is, “It doesn’t have to be exciting all the time, but definitely good quality. There’s now excuse now not to have good quality food,” Smith said. However, she is dismayed at how high prices are. “I have never seen beef this high in all my years and that scares me. I know that the local rancher is not making it, as far as in their pockets.”

These days, Smith has a “staff of two that works during the day, and then we have a staff of three to four at night especially on the weekends. We will definitely be gearing down for the wintertime, because we will be slowing down.”

Shrimp Gorgonzola.jpg
Stella Fong
Sautéed shrimp with gorgonzola and cream on spinach is often run as a special and very popular with guests eating in the main dining room for dinner.

Smith has had difficulty getting help and the rising cost of housing has not helped. “For us to try to get new employees to move here, it’s difficult. There’s no place for them to live. There’s no place in Livingston and that’s half an hour away.”
Smith takes Sunday nights and Mondays off. She tries to play golf when she can, and enjoys being with friends. “We definitely have a good cache of friends here, and I am able to hang out with them, and some of them have fabulous homes up the Boulder River or in the Crazy Mountains or on the Yellowstone.”

As for cooking for herself, she admitted, “The oven does not get used much, and generally, I hate to say it, but I will throw a steak on and have a salad, steak and salad. That’s what I eat when I have a night off.”

Smith is content with her life in Big Timber. She loves, “the people from all backgrounds” and feels “lucky that we live here, for the beauty if unsurpassed.” She finds life simpler and safer. This is home for Smith and she is not going anywhere soon, fully committed to continuing to feed those who come through the door of the Grand Hotel.

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.