He wears a chef’s coat now, but not long ago Mike Bruner was on the outside of the kitchen looking in.
Originally from the Charleston, South Carolina area, the 32-year-old Kalispell cook said that in the years before the pandemic he was taking on food-delivery jobs and, amid the steady stream of order pickups, kept catching interesting glimpses of the inner-workings of restaurant kitchens.
Then his wife started travel nursing, and every few months the couple was en route to a new city. Bruner eventually dropped the delivery jobs and stepped into the kitchen himself, taking on a variety of roles, and growing his skills as they moved from Atlanta to New York City to Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. With each job he grew more and more to understand that in cooking he had a passion that could sustain him on a personal and professional level.
The couple eventually wound up in Kalispell, and in the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic, decided to put an end to their migratory lifestyle. With all his experience working in different kitchens cooking, Bruner said he wanted to learn more about the business side of the industry. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of Montana at Flathead Valley Community College, a program that teaches both cooking and related business skills.
Students in the two-year program participate every year in a pop-up restaurant as part of a capstone exercise, allowing them to try on different defined roles both in the kitchen as well as administratively. They track the successes and failures of the operation, and ultimately deliver a presentation in front of local business owners in which students assess their venture. It just so happens that Bruner and his classmates settled on a barbecue concept, something that felt familiar for Bruner as a Southern transplant in Montana.
“For me, it just touches something in my roots, like an ancestral something. I know that my relatives in lives past have done it. It just kind of strikes something in me. As soon as you light that fire, it just kicks in,” he said.
Called Smolder, the pop-up will be serving food in the FVCC Arts & Technology building culinary kitchen and fulfilling takeout orders Wednesday through Friday through April 28. Smolder had a soft opening in late March and opened its doors to the public for the first time on April 12.
Standing at the front of the line were Kalispell residents Andy and Gwyn Palchak. The married couple said they come out every year to experience the different FVCC pop-ups. For them, it’s a chance to try some good, new food while supporting what they see as a worthwhile educational program.
“We like the enthusiasm,” Andy Palchak said. “They work so hard, and they love it.”
At its core, Smolder is built around barbecue plates with entrees and sides representing barbecue flavors and methods from across the world that utilize different combinations of live flame, smoke, saucing and marinades. A single entrée, two sides, plus a choice of cornbread or rice, and a handful of house-made pickles, sells for $18, with a double-entrée with two sides version of the same combo going for $24. The pop-up also offers sandwiches with either pulled pork, brisket, or pulled portobello mushrooms, gumbo, and a Greek salad with the option to add falafel or lamb sausage for an added fee.
There are nine different entrees and seven different sides to choose from, as well as five different side sauces, with dine-in customers given the chance to try as many sauces as they’d like.
The entrée menu begins with spicy lamb sausage (ground and cased in-house) and ends with falafel. In between, diners can choose between Korean bulgogi beef, Caribbean jerk chicken, pulled pork, coffee and chili-crusted brisket, and honey-ginger pork ribs. There’s also house-made jalapeno cheddar sausage, and pulled portobello mushrooms.
Alexa Wood, a senior at FVCC working as the marketing manager and the service supervisor for Smolder, said that although the operation remains in its nascent stages, they’ve been surprised by the pulled portobello mushroom’s appeal to customers. During Smolder’s soft opening, the mushrooms didn’t garner quite as much interest, but along the way as they developed the restaurant concept, students kept hearing people wanted to have vegetarian or vegan options.
“So, we really had to explore that, and figure out if this works for us, and what is the best flavor,” Wood said.
The pulled portobello recipe they developed involves smoking the mushrooms, slicing and searing them in a cast iron skillet, tossing them with seasoning and a sweet and smokey Memphis barbecue sauce, and then caramelizing them.
“It’s fabulous,” Wood said.
Bruner, who is the kitchen manager for Smolder, said that for people who don’t want to go on too much of an international adventure with their experience at Smolder, the pulled pork will hit the spot. It’s a barbecue staple that will satisfy those looking for something familiar, and it’s the kind of barbecue that he’s more familiar with. He noted that South Carolinians don’t have access to beef like pit masters in a state like Texas do, meaning the South Carolina barbecue tradition has hogs at its heart. As far as his preference, Bruner has found himself drawn toward the coffee and chili crusted brisket. It’s what he reaches for every time he has his employee meal.
The brisket, he said, is still a work in progress, but it’s reached a point where Bruner’s happy with how it’s turned out even as he keeps refining it. If he had his preference, Bruner would want to smoke the brisket for 16 hours, but in this particular restaurant environment, so time-consuming a method isn’t an option. Instead, he’s using a method that combines smoking the brisket for a shorter time period, and separately cooking it sous vide, meaning vacuum-sealed in a water bath at a low, steady temperature. The effect is one that still imparts the smokiness that barbecue-eaters are looking for, while also allowing the fat to appropriately render.
As far as the sides, Bruner likes the green chile hominy, calling it not too spicy, but definitely smoky. “For some people here, it would be a little more adventurous, but it’s very good.”
The rich, dense mac and cheese is also a favorite. It’s a family recipe that he and his wife make for their own barbecues and gatherings, and occasionally as a treat.
Other sides include kimchi potato salad, hoisin baked beans, a Mediterranean couscous salad, Caribbean pilaf with okra, and smoked collard greens.
The sauces include Memphis barbecue, Carolina gold, Carolina vinegar, jerk barbecue, and Korean sweet and spicy. Desserts include bao buns filled with vanilla pastry cream and dusted with matcha green tea powder. Smolder is also offering cookies, and a huckleberry bread pudding. The drink menu includes Thai iced tea, ginger lemongrass tea, peach sweet tea, and a New Orleans cold brew.
Chef Manda Hudak, the program director for FVCC’s culinary arts program, said there’s a real possibility the menu will continue to change over the course of Smolder’s run. Students are tasked with evaluating not only the profitability of the pop-up, but will also keep tracking what’s selling and what isn’t. Specials will also come on and off the menu.
“Most of all, that’s the thing I love, is how are they analyzing what’s happening every day,” Hudak said.
Part of what makes the food business so difficult for entrepreneurs is that they are working with perishable products that are produced in a labor intensive environment, Hudak said. Further, the food business involves a subjective, intangible experience that revolves around not only the menu, but how a guest feels. Learning what it takes to succeed under those conditions is part of what makes program graduates appealing in the job market, according to Hudak.
“We’re not just teaching them how to cook,” she said. “If you look at our curriculum, there’s a lot of time spent learning about the front of house, learning about hospitality supervision, learning about product costing, learning how to receive food and store food, learning how to communicate both in a written way, as well as a verbal way in a professional environment. Those are all business competencies, right?”
Smolder is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. through April 28 in the FVCC Arts and Technology building in the culinary kitchen on the lower floor. Pickup orders can be placed by calling (406) 309-0259.
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