Andy Blanton is one of the most acclaimed chefs in Montana, and the Pacific Northwest for that matter. Blanton, the executive chef and owner of Café Kandahar, is a four-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s best chef in the Northwest region, and his Big Mountain restaurant has carved out a widely praised culinary reputation for excellence.
Blanton moved to Whitefish in the fall of 1999 from New Orleans, where he worked at two prestigious institutions: Commanders Palace and Brigtsen’s. But like many in the industry, he worked his way up from the bottom, starting as a dishwasher in Virginia Beach during high school, which he called “a little window into that world,” before moving up to prep cook, cook and culinary school.
Blanton sat down with Flathead Living to discuss his career arc and culinary philosophies, while offering pointers for home cooks. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
What drew you to the industry?
What attracted me most was that it wasn’t 9 to 5 and it seemed exciting and adventurous. I think I was attracted to the lifestyle before the career. At some point I realized I had a pretty good palate. I think that put me on the path to success. I would certainly credit some of the early mentors for shaping how I approached the position and the industry. I had some really great mentors and peers.
How would you describe the cuisine at Café Kandahar?
We describe it as thoughtfully constructed cuisine that essentially incorporates a variety of styles and techniques, both classic and modern. It doesn’t really categorize us into a specific cuisine. We certainly adhere to the farm-to-table approach and cooking with local ingredients as much as possible. We like to think of each dish as specific to its composition by its ingredients. We don’t have a lot of similarities on the menu, meaning each dish has its own composed features.
We like for the cuisine to tell a story, and we never want that to be limited by someone’s interpretation. People are quick to assume or judge and say, “Oh, I don’t like French food,” or, “I’ve had a lot of Italian food before.” There’s more of an emphasis on how it makes the guests feel.
What is one piece of advice or word of wisdom all home cooks should know?
The best tool in any cook’s arsenal is intuition, because the palate is so unique and individual to ourselves, much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, except your palate will never lie to you. You’ll always know if something is too salty, or too spicy, or too bitter. It’s a very discerning quality that we all have, which is our palate.
I would say to trust your intuition and your palate and know that nobody is going to master a dish the first time. It takes repeated preparation and assessment to really cultivate a dish. The first time you do something, it’s not going to be as good as the tenth time, or the hundredth or the thousandth. I would encourage people to make a dish they will enjoy and want to try to create again, and again, and again.
Even if it’s the same recipe and dish, intuitively you learn as you go and know what you like. Most people add more garlic than the recipe calls for. Some people might add more spice or acid because it appeals to their palate. You’re following a guide or a recipe, but ultimately you’re looking to put your mark on it, and it comes from that intuitive approach and your palate. To me it’s such an honest part of ourselves that’s also deeply personal: What I think is the greatest dish in the world, the rest of the world may not agree.