mid the simmering lure of liquescent shallots and caramelizing pork belly, the kitchen staff at Café Kandahar labors at a frenetic pace, a tribe of gourmands plying its expertise in the trenches of what is arguably the finest restaurant in Montana.
The grill-man, forearms festooned with culinary-themed tattoos — one bears the sectioned pig of a pork chart, the other a chef’s blade — delicately balances a poached quail egg atop a diadem of house-cured bacon layered over truffled focaccia, applying the steady-handed precision that a bomb-disposal technician might employ to render an explosive ineffective.
As he performs the fastidious task, the other stations bustle around him, each member of the brigade de cuisine negotiating a flurry of saucepans, pots and plates, ducking the blur of servers whisking dishes away.
At the fore of the kitchen, positioned closest to the plush dining room, which is highlighted by bay windows that overlook Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Café Kandahar’s executive chef and owner, Andy Blanton, surveys his crew while coiffing rows of gleaming white saucers with poached halibut cakes, shrimp gratin and beef tartar, while the waitstaff deftly dispatches the plates to the seated patrons, working clockwise around the expansive tables.
Despite the operation’s fever-pitch metabolism, there’s no discord among the Kandahar staff, each position part of an intricate interplay of moving pieces, and Blanton’s motto — to consistently create “thoughtfully constructed cuisine” — is on full display.
“We’re always trying to integrate new dishes that fluctuate with the season, but I also like to keep it simple,” Blanton said.
Last year, the quality of Blanton’s work was recognized for the third time in four years by the James Beard Foundation, whose accolades are regarded as the Oscars of the culinary world. In 2010, 2011 and 2013, the foundation named Blanton a Best Chef Northwest semifinalist and, although the coveted title has eluded him, he hopes to again be named one of 20 semifinalists in the regional category for the 2014 awards, to be announced next month.
Although Blanton was not nominated in 2012, he and his staff had the even greater honor of preparing a seven-course meal at the auspicious James Beard House in New York City’s Greenwich Village, an invitation-only performance space for visiting chefs to showcase their creations and draw broad recognition from critics, peers and foodies from the most renowned corners of the culinary world.
Also in 2013, he was named one of the Best Chefs of America through a peer-review competition that rates and ranks chefs.
As he goes up against other chefs from culinary epicenters like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Blanton, acknowledging that Montana is an unlikely foodie mecca, said the exposure from his evening at the James Beard House helped brighten the spotlight over Café Kandahar.
The European-style Inn is tucked into the quarter-century-old Kandahar Lodge at the village of Whitefish Mountain Resort, where Blanton has been creating some of the finest and most pioneering food in Montana and the Pacific Northwest.
On a recent evening at Kandahar, another past James Beard-nominated chef, Nathan Lockwood, executive chef and owner of Seattle’s Altura, dined with his family in a cozy enclave of the dining room.
“As chefs, a lot of our inspiration comes from other dining experiences and the work of other chefs,” Blanton said. “We went skiing together earlier today. He’s a really nice guy and we hit it off.”
Before Blanton came to Montana, he worked for two award-winning restaurants in New Orleans. Commanders Palace in the Garden District won a James Beard Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant in 1996. While working at Brigtsen’s two years later, executive chef Frank Brigtsen won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast.
In 1999, at the age of 23, Blanton arrived in Whitefish in search of a lifestyle change, one in which his passion for skiing and the outdoors could temper the intrinsic stress of working in a kitchen. Soon, his cooking talents were recognized and in 2000 he became executive chef of Café Kandahar. Six years later, he purchased the restaurant.
Inspired by French and Creole traditions, Blanton also is a deft experimenter. Local produce and meats dominate the menu, a la the farm-to-table philosophy, and favorite creations include seared elk roulade with forest mushrooms. Patrons can choose off two menus, one that changes nightly and another that is seasonal.
The Kandahar staff also sends more traditional pub fare down the hall to the nearby Snug Bar. Visiting from Atlanta, Leigh Barnett and Mark “Switch” Swiecichowski had just finished sharing an elk burger and a Montana mule — an effervescent mixture of ginger beer, bourbon and lime.
“This is our first stop and it’s promising,” Switch said. “You think of a small town and you don’t expect this kind of food.”