PAWS UP: Montana Master Chefs

PAWS UP: Montana Master Chefs
Words and Photos by Christiana Roussel

When the Southern chefs come to Montana, they pack heavy:

Hot sauce.
Smoked onion jam.
Homemade mustards.

Recently, The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, MT hosted their 15th annual Montana Master Chefs event where several Southern chefs took center stage. Over the course of three nights at the mountain-luxe getaway, guests dined on catfish from the Mississippi Delta, buffalo from Lawton, OK, biscuits made with Georgia butter and grits from South Carolina.

Nestled on 37,000 acres of Big Sky Country (translation: twice the size of the island of Manhattan), Paws Up is a covetable destination for guests and visiting chefs alike and several of these chefs are repeat attendees. As Chef Kevin Gillespie of Cold Beer, Gunshow and Revival in Atlanta notes, “I look forward to every chance I get to cook at Paws Up. Very few places in this country are as inspiring for me as the mountains and rivers of Montana. To know that there is a place where great food and wine come hand in hand with wonderful surroundings makes cooking at Paws Up a real treat for me.”

The Resort has two phenomenally-accomplished chefs of their own—Sunny Jin and Brandon Cunningham—who worked with the visiting chefs to ensure they had everything they needed and could execute with aplomb. Athens, GA-based wine director, Steven Grubb of Five & Ten, was the featured sommelier for the weekend while Lyle Railsback of Kermit Lynch Wines painstakingly paired varietals to every course, with effortless ease.

To maintain social-distancing—and a desired air of intimacy—guests formed cohorts, dining with the same small group each night, in different locations. Our group started in the Bull Barn where Cleveland, MS-based Delta Meat Market Chef Cole Ellis wooed the crowd with his Delacata catfish. Ellis sourced this special cut from Simmons Catfish in Yazoo City, MS. Baby turnips, sweet potatoes ad okra rounded out the dish served family-style. Atlanta-based chef/cookbook author Virginia Willis served up a show-stopping dessert. Willis riffed on the traditional biscuits she is known for, creating an autumnal version with a red winter wheat shortcake. Served with an apple-ginger compote, buttermilk, crème Anglaise, warm bourbon caramel and praline pecans – the dish was teeming with Southern pride in every bite: apples from Ellijay, GA, Sparkman’s Creamery buttermilk, Anson Mills colonial cloth-bolted pastry flour, White Lily all-purpose flour, Banner butter and real Kentucky bourbon.

Dallas, TX-based Chef Dean Fearing, the Father of Southwestern Cuisine, commanded night two of the weekend with is maple and black peppercorn-soaked buffalo tenderloin, jalapeño grits and butternut squash taquito. Fearing sources his buffalo from a farmer in Lawton, OK who paid the chef a visit to his restaurant kitchen more than a decade ago. Diners were just as wowed by the tenderness of the meat as chef was all those years ago. Suffices to say, no knives were needed to enjoy this dish.

Chefs David Bancroft of ACRE and Bow & Arrow in Auburn, AL and Kevin Gillespie teamed up for the third and final night of Southern fare in Big Sky country. Homemade pickles, frijoles borrachos, braised collards, pork belly and brisket put plenty of South in the mouth for this dining cohort. This dinner was served in the resort’s stunning Equestrian Center where guests could try their hand at roping and ax-throwing prior to sitting down to the feast.

As if the setting, cuisine, impeccable service and fine wines were not enough, each dinner featured local Missoula musicians whose bluegrass, ramshackle soul and acoustic guitar stylings provided the backdrop of a truly spectacular event. Their only competition may have been the finale fireworks show in the meadow behind Tank, the resort’s gathering spot for all attendees. Communing around several firepits, guests bundled up in early fall coats and the requisite cowboy hats, channeling the current Kevin Costner-led television series, Yellowstone. And if there was room for any more indulgence, Paws Up staff ushered in the late-night crowd with platters of the s’mores fixin's they are known for.
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