Food Republic: Montana Master Grillers

By Jenny Miller

Take note of this name: The Resort at Paws Up. It could soon be well-known in culinary circles, if the team at this luxury ranch in Greenough, Montana gets its way. Montana? A gastro-tourist destination? It might just happen.

Last year they brought on chef Adam Cooke, a five-year veteran of highly acclaimed Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Applying the same attention to locavore detail that he did heading up Blackberry’s fine dining restaurant, Cooke, a Montana native, wants to help “figure out where [the state’s cooking] is going to be in the future,” he says. In other words: He wants to put Montana cuisine on the map.

Frank Ostini

Paws Up also hosts several food-focused events designed to draw culinary-minded attention. The resort hosted me for the Montana Master Grillers festival this past weekend, a four-day event during which Cooke turned over his kitchens to guest chefs Tiffani Faison (of Top Chef Season 1 and Sweet Cheeks Q in Boston) and Edward Lee (Top Chef Season 9 and 610 Magnolia in Louisville), along with Giuseppe Tentori of Chicago’s Boka and GT Fish & Oyster and Frank Ostini of the Hitching Post in Casmalia, California. (The resort will also bring back their annual Montana Masters Chefs event in the fall, featuring a number of Top Chef contestants.)

To participate in the weekend events, guests, chefs and press had to get to Greenough, Montana, situated serenely beneath some mountains, on a river. (If you’ve ever seen A River Runs Through It, you’ll have a sense of the soul-wrenching gorgeousness of the scenery.) Luckily, it’s just 30 minutes outside of Missoula, which has a small, charming airport with a cabin-in-woods vibe and non-ironic taxidermy.

The resort itself is a former working cattle ranch where black steers can still be seen grazing in some of the fields that make up the 37,000-acre property, and a number of the original buildings from that enterprise remain, made over into the “reception barn” or other facilities. Guests stay in separate houses complete with porches, hot tubs and barbecue grills — or go “glamping®” in riverside camps fixed with luxury canvas tents, plus a chef and a butler for each tent cluster. One hundred percent rustic Paws Up is not, but activities like mountain biking, rafting and even driving cattle ensure everyone works up an appetite.

On Friday night, after an afternoon tasting of meaty bites from Double R Ranch Co. and beer from Chicago’s 3 Floyds, everyone staying for the weekend convened at upscale restaurant Pomp for dinner prepared by Cooke. The four-course meal started with a crowd-favorite duck prosciutto salad and also set the tone for a couple of running themes for the weekend: there was steak to eat and plenty to drink, courtesy Pinot Noir and Merlot pairings from Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Wines. After dinner everyone repaired to the bar for live bluegrass, more drinks and cigar-smoking by the campfire. Welcome to living it up in Montana.

Having skipped breakfast (I might’ve roused myself if the resort’s plans to cook it over a campfire and serve alfresco hadn’t been foiled by cold, rainy weather), I showed up at the equestrian center around noon the next day to see Faison break down some serious steaks and prepare a few sides. As those who’ve seen her on TV know, Faison is a small woman who’s not afraid of a big piece of meat. Along the way, she imparted meaty wisdom: salt the heck out of your meat when grilling; don’t mess with it too much and “let the grill do the work,” she advised. We ate Faison’s lunch seated at picnic tables smack in the middle of the horse corral, digging into grilled peach and farro salad, watermelon with yogurt and mint, cotija-rubbed corn on the cob, and sliced steak in flatbread. With Blue Mountain cider from Oregon to drink, the meal made for a jaunty picnic of sorts.

Following a rather chilly rafting outing (the weather was unseasonably cool all weekend), I was ready to eat again. That night was Tentori’s dinner, with a tasting of 3 Floyds beers. Out of the mind-boggling lineup of family style dishes, the crunchy fennel salad with Manchego, sweet shrimp-studded corn succotash and creamy lobster mac-and-cheese with firm edamame swapped in for peas made me reach for seconds. By the time the cheese course and excellent rhubarb-strawberry pie arrived, I was stuffed.

Ed Lee Tiffani Faison photo

After dinner came “Cowbody Karaoke,” and let’s just say neither Faison nor Lee is a shy performer. Memorably, during “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Faison wound up tackled on the floor beneath a certain Paws Up staffer I won’t name. I decided to hold off on Tweeting the photo, along with the one where Lee swept a calfskin rug up from the floor and straddled it, pretending to go for a ride. Party!

Possibly my favorite meal happened at Sunday lunch, following a barbecue demonstration by chef Frank Ostini, who grilled everything from beef to shrimp to quesadillas to locally foraged morels, and veggies and bacon produced nearby, all of which we then tucked into. Ostini’s Hitching Post is a local favorite for barbecue in Central California’s wine country, memorably featured in the movie Sideways. His simple food had a smoky char that a Montana ranch hand would’ve approved of, and even the shortbread dessert was lightly grilled.

It had snowed (!!) lightly that morning, but that didn’t stand in the way of the first annual Bad-Ass Burger Dash, sponsored by Double R. Ranch and held in Trough restaurant’s backyard. Faison and Lee had each been tasked with putting together the perfect burger, assisted by sous-chefs plucked from the crowd. After 30 minutes of action and saucy commentary from Paws Up’s marketing director (“Chef Lee, we saw you lick that sauce spoon and put it back,”), the timer buzzed. Faison rushed to finish plating her chorizo-laced patty with secret sauce, crazily delicious bacon and Cheddar on an English muffin bun while Lee offered his soy-sauce-spiked beef with chipotle-fish-sauce ketchup and bacon jam. Ultimately, the judges pronounced Lee’s dripping, umami-rich version the winner.

Lee was in charge of the last dinner, where he showcased his signature style, which he dubs “one part Southern, one part Asian, one part New York.” It’s Southern fare with help from “the Asian pantry,” as he told me. Think chilled spring pea soup with salmon belly, pork rinds and pickled shallots. The meal was paired once again with Blue Mountain cider, which is lower in alcohol content than wine, and not all that boozy in general. It was definitely a good thing for my liver, which needed a break after three days of fun.