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Flavor Moments: Two Montanans Named Semifinalists for James Beard Foundation Best Chef Award

Nick Sheen standing outside of Walker's Grill in downtown Billings.
Stella Fong
Yellowstone Public Radio
Nick Steen of Walkers Grill pictured here along with Dave Wells of Chico Hot Springs made this year's list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Bests Chef in the Mountain Region.

In this Flavor Moments, we find out who in Montana holds the honor of semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Mountain region.

Chefs Dave Wells of Chico Hot Springs in Pray and Nick Steen of Walkers Grill in downtown Billings made this year’s list. This is Chef Wells' second nomination. Back in January, we talked to him in Flavors Under the Big Sky, along with past honorees Michael Muirhead of Mas Taco in Red Lodge, and from Billings, Jeremy Engebretson of Lilac and James Honaker of Bistro Enzo.

So for Chef Nick Steen, how is he reacting to the news of being a semifinalist?

"Excited, honored and overall just so proud of everybody that I have worked with and the staff that’s here that’s helped us get to where we are, and this is pretty incredible," Steen said.

Steen stepped into the executive chef position after working at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky and the Northern Hotel in Billings. He joined the team at Walkers Grill at an important chapter in time.

"We did a remodel about two, two and half years ago. The biggest thing we wanted to do was really become the modern restaurant of Montana and really showcase what’s so amazing, the bounty that Montana has in front of us all the time. We’ve changed things as we are constantly looking at what’s the next new thing and how are we going to manipulate this ingredient to really showcase it, to make it the best thing. And then moving forward, obviously we have a big task in front of us to continue to be successful, to continue to push the envelope, to be that space that people go to. This is just one more ticket to amp it up and keep us going. I think it’s the most exciting thing that has really ever happened for Walkers in quite a long time," Steen said.

Chef Steen, a Montana native, knows the Big Sky palate.

"Well, what’s fun is being in Montana our whole life and born and raised here and having the opportunity to cook with some amazing chefs from around the world. What I have learned is that the palates around the world are the same. Everyone wants something that tastes good. Everybody wants something they feel they are getting their value for," Steen said. 

"We just like good things. We don’t feel like it has to be over the top. It doesn’t have to be anything extremely fancy. It just has to taste good, to be cooked right whether it is in food or cocktails or wine. We just want quality and I think people of Billings and Montana especially. Sometimes we get overlooked because we have a million people within the entire state. I joke we are always outnumbered by cattle four to one and we’re constantly trying to compete with places like the Denvers and the Portlands and the Seattles."

So what makes the food at Walkers Grill so special?

"We feature all of our beef here is actually from the Craft Ranch outside of Laurel. We do all local beef. We’re buying pork from right outside of Whitehall, Montana. Our chickens can be Hutterite from time to time. We get local eggs and vegetables, we are starting with work with a local farm, Clark Kent Farms, and they’re actually growing vegetables just for Walkers so we have a direct farmer relationship where they’re growing us vegetables. Nobody else can really touch that which is really fun for us. As they grow and get bigger, they’ll put it out there, but nobody understands how amazing the state is quite like Montanans do," Steen said.

This Montanan understands the great bounty we have in the Treasure State. Many congratulations to Chefs Nick Steen and Dave Wells for being recognized as this year’s semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Mountain region. 

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.