Bringing Montana to the Big Apple

By Beacon Staff

Last week, chef Andy Blanton brought a little bit of Montana to New York City, and it could open up the state’s culinary scene in a big way.

Blanton, the chef at Café Kandahar in Whitefish, prepared an extensive dinner for the James Beard House, a prestigious honor in the culinary world. Based in New York City, the James Beard Foundation is set up in honor of its namesake, who authored cookbooks and taught classes in the era before chefs were celebrities.

Now, the nonprofit foundation works to “educate, inspire, entertain, and foster a deeper understanding of our culinary culture,” according to its website. The James Beard Foundation also offers awards for all aspects of the culinary industry, and receiving one is akin to winning an Academy Award in the movie industry.

Blanton has been nominated twice for a James Beard award, and is the first Montana chef to have such an honor and be invited to cook at the James Beard House. A chef knows he or she has made it when that invitation comes, he said.
“It’s a rite of passage,” Blanton said.

His dinner, served on May 24, was titled “Montana Unleashed,” and included some of the state’s most famous ingredients. Among the 11 dishes Blanton served was one entree made of elk tenderloin with pink peppercorns, huckleberries, ice wine, ramps and sweet potato flan.
Since elk tenderloin is difficult to find in Montana this time of year due to calving, Blanton said he was very lucky to get in touch with Karla Levengood, who owns Scotty’s Bar in Kalispell and also raises elk.

He brought that tenderloin, butchered at Lower Valley Processing, to New York City. The goal was not only to fulfill the dream of cooking at the James Beard House, Blanton said, but also to give the Montana culinary scene more exposure.
James Beard award winners are chosen much like the winners of the Associated Press college football poll, Blanton said. Just as many AP reporters have not watched every football game of the year before selecting a No. 1 pick, most of the James Beard voters have not eaten in every restaurant nominated.

“For us in Montana, part of the challenge is we have very limited exposure, particularly on the culinary scene,” Blanton said. “As a result, no one really knows who we are and what we’re doing.”

But the culinary scene is bustling in Northwest Montana, Blanton said, especially with the availability of high-quality products from farmers and ranchers who take pride in their work.

The elk and huckleberries rank among Blanton’s most-preferred ingredients, but he also praised the state’s mushrooms, Flathead cherries and produce.

Since the foundation is a nonprofit, the Montana crew donated the food, wine, labor and transportation. To help pay for these expenses, Café Kandahar served this same meal during a trial run and fundraising dinner on March 15.

And the exposure gained from cooking at the James Beard House will benefit Café Kandahar, Blanton said, since it’s a very marketable feature for a restaurant.

The wine Blanton served with his dinner also gave his menu credence, he said. It came from the Doubleback vineyards, owned by former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe who developed his vintages with renowned winemaker Chris Figgins.

Andy Blanton, right, gets help from a local culinary student. Contributed Photo

Figgins’ wine, which included vintages from Leonetti Cellars, is very coveted, Blanton said, and added a “tremendous amount of credibility” to the dinner.

The May 24 dinner went smoothly, which Blanton said is a credit to his four-person crew, including Steen Turner and Hunter Durgan, and a couple of volunteers from a local culinary school. Dinners at the James Beard House follow a rigid schedule, Blanton said, and interrupting the flow could mean the flavors in his dishes will change slightly.

His meal, however, was a hit.

“Everybody loved it; it was great,” Blanton said. “It was very well received. I was extremely pleased.”
With that dinner successfully served and members of the national culinary media present, Blanton feels one step closer to bringing fine-dining recognition to this part of the state.

“We’re not considered a culinary destination but we like to think that we have the capability and the venues to become one,” Blanton said.

For more information on the James Beard Foundation and a full menu of Blanton’s meal, visit www.jamesbeard.org.

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