Bold and Blu

From Vail to Montana, Chef Blu Funk has established a reputation for his own brand of creative American cuisine

By Clare Menzel
Blu Funk shows salmon with a roasted root vegetable sauce and a side of spinach from Showthyme in Bigfork on Feb. 3, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

It started with a mushroom soup at the Sun Valley Lodge in Idaho, where a young Blu Funk had a new breakfast gig.

“Part of my job was to make the lunch soup,” he said. “And I had never made lunch soup.”

So the Washington native, who had worked as a busboy and dishwasher since high school, just tried to prepare something he thought would taste good.

“The next day, the chef called me into the office,” Funk said. “He was asking how I’d made the mushroom soup. He was beside himself. He said we’d never gotten so many compliments on the soup. But we’d never made a mushroom soup like that.”

This was in the late 1960s, and Funk doesn’t remember what he stirred into the pot that morning. But the soup marked a pivotal moment.

“That was eye opening,” he said, as he sat at a table in his own restaurant, Showthyme, in downtown Bigfork, which he and his wife Rose have run for the last 26 years. “Like, ‘I can do this…’ [Dishwashing and busing] were just jobs to start, and once I got into the kitchen, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I like the intensity. It gave me a creative outlet.”

He wanted to learn more. When he moved from Sun Valley back to Vail, Colorado, where he lived in the winter to ski, he sought out an apprenticeship under Markus Gatter, a young Swiss chef who ran a small restaurant called La Cave.

“For the time,” Funk said, “it was very European. We had an old French maître d’, tableside service, live fish tanks. So if somebody ordered trout you went and got the trout.”

Funk was supposed to wash the dishes at La Cave, but when he took the job it was with “the understanding that I didn’t want to be a dishwasher. But I would be a dishwasher to get the opportunity to train with Markus… He was extremely talented.”

For two years, Funk followed Gatter around, peering over his shoulder every evening to learn the craft. He shadowed other prominent Vail chefs, Gatter’s friends, to get a taste of different classic food traditions. He also helped in the kitchen—his first responsibility was to prepare the daily La Cave staff meal.

“I got to play,” Funk said. “Some days, it was fantastic. Some days it wasn’t.”

He was promoted through the ranks until he became Gatter’s sous chef. He worked in Vail for four more years, until he felt drawn back to his home state, Washington. He moved to Seattle, securing another job in the industry.

“That was a big change,” he said. “All of a sudden, you have incredible produce, fresh fish, seasonal ingredients like wild mushrooms. It was a cornucopia of fresh flavors. I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with that… In 1969 [in Vail] you’d be lucky to find a decent head of iceberg lettuce… I expanded my palate and became much more creative.”

But Funk still had a life in Colorado. Before long, he returned to Vail and fell back in step working with Gatter. All the while, though, Funk and a friend, TJ Armstrong, dreamt of opening a restaurant of their own.

“We’d talked about what we’d do if we had a restaurant. A little something for everyone. Definitely not Swiss,” Funk said.

Though Funk’s training is rooted in European traditions, the freedom of creative American, at the time a new and unprecedented cuisine, appealed to him. He admits that creative American is still “kind of impossible [to define.] But if I say French, you have a specific French technique, or Swiss, or German, and so on.”

That brand of traditional European cuisine—delicious but rigid in its formality—dominated the Vail restaurant scene in the 1970s. With no established rules, creative American offered the chance to experiment.

“How he describes his early years as a chef was that in Vail nobody used a fresh mushroom or a fresh herb,” Rose said. “I think of him as sort of a rebel when he comes to that. He has the classic foundation and he just went his own way, he made things however he felt like.”

In 1983, Funk and Armstrong opened up Blu’s, a restaurant without ties to any specific culinary tradition. It slowly established a reputation for “Blu food,” a term Funk didn’t coin but came to embrace. His cooking style was so different that it needed a name of its own.

“I’m a big believer in it’s right in front of you—if I tell you there’s an ingredient, you’ll know it’s in that dish,” he said. “There’s no hint of this or kiss of that. It’s straightforward, it’s bold, it smacks you in the mouth. I wouldn’t say my style is subtle. Some people like subtle undertones you have to search for. I get that, everybody’s palate is different. But I use a lot of bold flavors.”

Funk presided over Blu’s as the chef for seven years, playing with culinary expression and refining Blu food along the way. But he wanted to marry Rose.

“We knew we would never own a home in Vail,” he said. “No matter how well Blu’s did, we were being priced out. And that was important to us.”

So Funk and Rose moved to Montana, where Funk had first visited in 1982 as a consultant to help open the Bigfork Inn. He’d returned yearly for vacation, and it seemed like the perfect place to build a new life.

“Everything we liked to do is here,” Funk said. He and Rose moved to Woods Bay in 1990 and got married. They found an open storefront on Electric Avenue in Bigfork, opened a restaurant, and called it Showthyme.

Twenty-six years later, the restaurant enjoys a dedicated local following both in the summer and winter. The location is also a can’t-miss destination for any foodie visiting the Flathead Valley. One particular patron has traveled to Showthyme every year for the past 25 years to celebrate her birthday on the day after Christmas.

Funk’s most popular dish is a Patagonia toothfish with a mild red thai curry. A current favorite is the lamb shank, which is slowly braised and finished with roasted garlic, fresh rosemary, and a red wine demi-glaze. Funk also makes all of his own breads and desserts, which is atypical for any restaurant, especially one as small as Showthyme, which serves up just 120 meals a day.

The menu is always changing, but Rose says that Funk “could take any of that stuff from the first menu and put it on our menu now, and it would be just as timely. When we first started, he came up with this filet with blueberries… if he put it on the menu now, people would be intrigued just like they were 20 years ago.”

And though Funk remodeled and downsized last winter—with age, he’s slowing down, becoming more careful and diligent—Showthyme and its signature cuisine won’t leave Bigfork anytime soon.

“This is a living, breathing entity,” Funk said. “If you don’t treat it well and feed it, it will die. That’s why we’re here. We still have passion. I still love cooking. I still love creating.”

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