Flavors: Brandon Cunningham – Culinary Wizard at Social Haus
In Greenough at The Resort at Paws Up is a culinary wizard, Executive Chef Brandon Cunningham. For the last two years, he has dusted magic on food in the Social Haus kitchen found in the Green O enclave at the ultra-luxury resort. Green O is the adults only compound located on the 37,000-acre property found along the banks of the Blackfoot River and near the Bob Marshal Wilderness, about a 35-minute drive northeast from Missoula.
The resort accommodates up to 275 guests in luxury homes and glamping tents. Green O is for adults only and can host a maximum of 24 guests. In the twelve modern rustic buildings constructed of wood, metal, and glass, guests easily become a part of the pine forest surrounding with all the accoutrements for creature comfort.
Activities abound on the 100 miles of hiking, mountain biking, horse, and ATV trails. Adventures include fly fishing, cattle driving, rappelling, whitewater rafting, bird and wildlife watching and sporting clay shooting with winter fun of skiing, dogsledding, and snowmobiling.
Social Haus is the space where guests gather for meals or relax with a spirited beverage. The building is designed in line with the logo for Green O, a tree trunk with concentric lines. To approach the building, one walks up a path that mimics the route one might take while hopping over rocks in a river. Once through the large wood front door, the diner steps into a space with floor to ceiling glass windows bringing the outside forest of pine trees in. The room is centered with a round fireplace surrounded by banquette seating with the backdrop with the most important area of the room, the kitchen. The kitchen is the amphitheater where guests can watch Chef Cunningham and his team create culinary magic.
The intent of the menu at Social Haus “is a little bit more kitschy or inspired by McDonalds, bar food, what have you, frozen TV dinners things like that. So, for me that kind of sets the tone for the meal and again shows the guests that they can sit back and relax. We don’t take ourselves too seriously here and just have fun.” Cunningham says. “Our menu is approachable, but I think just to have food in a different way than they have before.”
Cunningham was born in Auburn, Washington to grow up in Washington and later live and cook in Portland where bounty abounded. He shares, “I grew up with a mother, god bless her soul, who was an absolutely awful cook.” To this day he cannot eat mushrooms because canned mushrooms “were in everything we ate.” His first memory of cooking was “making spaghetti sauce and cooking for the family.”
“I didn’t have anyone who I looked up to until I started cooking professionally,” he says. “It just came naturally when I got a little bit older.”
At Southern Oregon University in Ashland, he studied psychology and history, but soon discovered that the academic life was not for him. Instead, he sought employment. At the time he was living in a garage with a roommate who was delivering pizzas and washing dishes at a restaurant. “I gave him $250 for either of his two jobs,” Cunningham tells. “He of course, gave me the dishwashing job.”
“I would say that within about six months I was working the hot line and then, fast forward to probably about two or three years after, that I returned to that same place and became the chef of the restaurant.”
Cunningham’s fire for cooking was lit. Learning as much as he could to perfect his skills became his goal. “I spent some time in Ashland. With Portland being the mecca for the culinary field, that’s where I was headed to next. I had plans of going to culinary school up there because I felt that I needed that but once I got there, I had had enough experience to ultimately where I would be wasting money.” He found mentors and cooked at restaurants where he had the opportunity to learn. Soon, he discovered that with cooking, “I was pretty darn good at it along the way, thankfully and turned it into a pretty viable career.”
The learning of new techniques and honing of his skills came from the tutelage of Jason French of Ned Ludd, Justin Woodward of Castagna and Matt Sigler of Renata. Cunningham fondly called these motivators and teachers as his “Mount Rushmore of mentors and idols.”
He relocated to Montana to be closer to his wife’s family. “She was raised in Hamilton and lived in Helena for a while. We met in Portland at a restaurant we were both working at and hit it off pretty quickly and got married and had a kid, needed to get to her side of the family for support obviously and Paws Up was hiring for a sous chef and took the job knowing that Green O was in the works at the time but I was a little nervous coming out here, growing up in Seattle, living in Portland for so long and being in the middle of nowhere was a little concerning for me but I fell in love with it many times over already.”
He took a job as the sous chef at the Resort at Paws Up before directing the magic in the Social Haus kitchen. Here Cunningham has come a long way from the dishes made with canned mushrooms from his childhood. At Social Haus, he is the creator of a nine-course dinner tasting menu.
The printed menu for the multi course journey is not complicated with paragraphs of descriptions. Each course has two words connected with an ampersand. On this night, the menu begins with the introduction or amuse course with the words fish and chips. The first course is beet and huckleberry followed with sockeye and cucumber to salmon and fennel. The fifth course is duck and carrot with an interlude of ground cherry and champagne finished with a sixth course of Pluot and yuzu and a final course of chocolate and sesame.
The two words conjure up images and anticipation of familiar dishes, but Cunningham and his team carry the dishes to another level, presenting elements of surprise. The two ingredients also allow the kitchen flexibility in working with what is available in the house along with what’s in season. There is room for ingenuity, creativity, and plenty of wizardry.
The menu item that has become one of Cunningham’s signature dishes is showcased in the third course of wagyu and special sauce. A hot river rock with stones hand selected by chef along the Blackfoot River is brought to the table along with a plate with slices of A5 Hokkaido Wagyu and all the fixings for a hamburger including slices of truffle cheese and a rendition of the Big Mac secret sauce. For this Japanese Ishiyaki style of cooking, the rock has been brushed with beef fat and mustard oil while radiating tremendous heat.
“I am not the first one ever to have guests cook on a hot rock but it’s very unexpected. It’s not something you will go and see anywhere so the rocks were the sparkplugs for the idea. The hot rock is the centerpiece of that I’ve done multiple iterations of it. Right now, we’re in summertime so a cheeseburger makes sense and what’s a better cheeseburger than a Big Mac especially when you’ve got house made black truffle American cheese and A5 Wagyu on there so it’s a small level of gluttony but it’s like a three bite Big Mac and you feel good cause it’s some of the best beef on the planet.”
The guest is instructed to cook the meat on the hot rock for 40 seconds on each side. Once cooked the meat is assembled between the mini homemade buns to be garnished with chopped lettuce and pickles along with house made truffle cheese.
This night’s meal begins with fish and chips. The two words may conjure up images of battered fried fish served wrapped in newspaper or childhood remembrances of Mrs. Wright’s fish sticks. Instead, the dish arrives at the table with fried rice flour battered cod fish on a stick with pickled ramps on the side crowned with a cod skin chicharron dusted with dill and onion powder reigning.
The beet and huckleberry dish plays on the traditional beef tartar with a vegan twist. Its appearance and the plate presentation mimic the meat version. The salmon and fennel are anchored by a sous vided portion of salmon, but it was the fennel that is the star with a puree at the base of the dish highlighted with fronds of fennel shaped to looked like blossoms and roasted fennel bulbs on the side. The duck and carrot course with slowed cooked duck and the jus of smoked pheasant come dusted with a carrot sea buckhorn powder. The meal concludes with chocolate and sesame, a chocolate taco of an almond and sesame seed shell encasing a Viennese cake finished with chocolate coffee crumbles and salt crystals.
Diners not staying at Green O are invited to join for dinner at Social Haus, making reservations online at https://www.thegreeno.com/dinner-reservations-request/.
The menu at breakfast and lunch offers diversity with choices at breakfast including chicken fried steak, cereal-milk donuts, chamomile-yogurt panna cotta and konomiyaki. Smash burger, crispy turmeric crepes, chilled Thai corn bisque and celery root Reuben make for options at lunch. At dinner time, the guest may choose items from the nine-course tasting dinner menu or order pizza to be delivered to the guests’ “haus”.
Here, under the Big Sky, at Social Haus, Executive Chef Brandon Cunningham brings his culinary wizardry, dusting his food with magical powders while uniting local flavors and ingredients with those from around the world and beyond.