I took off from work early and burned down 93 straight through Kalispell. I barely took in those winding, rolling miles across Flathead Lake from cherry orchard country, so otherworldly beautiful that they look more like the set for a Porsche commercial than some road a short drive from my house. I sped past the snowcapped Mission Range and all the beef cattle and feed operations on its western side toward the final descent into Missoula, the Garden City of the Northwest, where microbrewed beer and delicious food flow freely through the streets, and where, that night, the James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour would make its Montana debut at the historic Florence Hotel downtown.
Needless to say, we arrived early; you can’t go to the Florence without paying a visit to the Red Bird, that wonderfully darkened modern cave that features one of Missoula’s most intriguing beer and wine lists. As a pre-game drink, we sampled a small batch dry cider from Montana Ciderworks. Cider, certainly in the midst of a widespread and well-publicized comeback, has all the potential for flavor and diversity that beer does. With the right ciders and some good publicity, it could extricate itself spectacularly from that super-sweet “adult apple juice” box into which public perception and a few high-profile national brands have placed it. But we had precious little time to linger.
Soon, we climbed the old stairway to the second floor onto the reception balcony just outside the Governor’s Room. There, every James Beard ticket holder crowded into lines for the bar, two drink tickets a piece in hand. Waiters and waitresses pushed skillfully through the quagmire offering small bites: andouille gougeres, elk carpaccio, duck liver mousse toasts, smoked salmon, and a lamb/feta combo in phyllo. But as gloriously as each of these bites massaged our appetites, a clear winner emerged: Chef Brooke Williamson’s marinated anchovy, white bean and braised fennel crostini. It had nothing of that brine-laden, slimy pizza topping to which we’re accustomed–this tender anchovy melted on your tongue without bathing you in salt. It made you want to look into the eyes of the person who could make an anchovy taste like that. And we did, just not for this picture. That would have been creepy.
Inside the Governor’s Room, everyone spread out to their respective tables and stretched into the space necessary to do things like, at least at our table, taking pictures of other people’s plates. Each chef took a moment to explain his or her dish and perhaps to offer some manner of anecdote about the trip to Missoula, the venue, or the remarkable skill and wherewithal of the other chefs in attendance. This kind of format seems to honor the James Beard Foundation’s stated mission: to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. The chefs present, from a variety of locations and traditions, prepared together a multi-course meal of extraordinary variety in its ingredients and in the techniques employed to prepare them. Dinners like this also remind us, as the James Beard Foundation says, that “food is economics, politics, entertainment, culture, fashion, family, passion, and nourishment.” Each of the chefs’ stories cover a number of these elements.
One might cite my hometown bias for Andy Blanton, the only Montana chef cooking that night, but his was the main course winner: Thompson River Ranch waygu short ribs, matsutakes, pickled sea beans, truffled parsnips, and dry-aged ribeye tartare with yuzu (pictured). A bite from that dish is like a master class on the balance between savory, sweet, and salty. But again, we had to put Brooke Williamson in the conversation for her marinated octopus with fermented red chili coconut sauce, pickled and roasted mushrooms, and confit peewee potatoes (also pictured). A fairly reverent “yum” was the universal reaction elicited by that octopus. A restaurateur from California, Williamson rose to national prominence in part through a runner-up performance on Top Chef. But what’s encouraging about her, and indeed about the whole enterprise of being able to hear from these chefs and meet each one as you taste a representative dish, is the obvious passion she and the others have for making a life through food, for showing others how fluently food can speak, and for giving us a feel for the endless possibilities of what food can mean for us. The best Chefs try to be a first step in reconnecting diners with those cherry orchards and cattle ranches, with how and why particular food ends up on our plates the way it does. If nothing else, a dinner like this one is a good way to reminds us that we can’t eat a meal in a vacuum, that every bite has context.