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Big Sky Gumption: Words from a Chef

Food, resiliency, community and a ski bum-town up to the challenge

By Scott Mechura

I’ll never forget when I moved to Big Sky in 2000 from Mahtomedi, Minnesota. I knew exactly two people. One was a friend of a friend. And the other, someone I had met just once before. Luckily, I’m a chef.

When I drove past the flourishing Gallatin Gateway Inn after a “reverse commute” into Bozeman to pick up some small wares for the grand opening of The Timbers in Moonlight Lodge, my first gig in the mountains, I decided to stop in and introduce myself to the resident chef.

It’s not like I had any acquaintances waiting up for me in Big Sky at that point, anyway.

So I found the back door to the kitchen, as is instinctual for my kind, and cautiously made my way in and around a couple corners. I asked if the chef had a minute, and a young line cook whisked (no pun) away. A few moments later, a man walked around the corner in whites and a blood-soiled (not his) apron, the hallmark trappings of a maker of good meals. At least in my opinion.

I politely told him who I was and the details of my upcoming opening at Moonlight. He knew it: without coming out and asking, I was looking for guidance, someone to show me the ropes in my new home. Anything for some grounding, and he happily obliged.

After some time, I let him get back to his kitchen; twenty years later and Eric Stenberg is one of my closest friends. I ended up meeting many chefs and cooks that first year who were equally open book—all without being asked, mind you.

Photo courtesy of Lotus Pad

You see, outside of our common ground, they understood there was a common goal: to enhance guest experience in any way they could possible, as we all depend on that collective effort.

Along the way, I have met hundreds of men and women in Big Sky’s hospitality industry, and there is a comradery here that is like nothing I have experienced in my 35 years in the business. It comes in the form of willingness to help each other, to at times share staff, business ideas, intel from the ski hill and the park, or even news of a blizzard on its way, threatening foot traffic as much as commutes home.

It’s a quality that is microcosmic of the Big Sky community.

The recent pandemic scare that gripped our nation and ground commerce to a screeching halt came, ironically, at a time somewhat synchronous to when Big Sky would be starting to wind down for the “shoulder season” anyway.

Big Sky businesses, and those in destination communities like it throughout the Rockies and beyond, routinely grapple with a regular jolting sensation, where, just like that, the town flips from “dead” to “alive” and vice-versa. In a sense, we were well-prepared for downturn, a natural part of life in Big Sky, whereas Bozeman—our valley neighbors to the north—were far less equipped for a shutdown in the middle of a period previously marked by blistering economic growth.

Big Sky is accustomed to such hurdles and it always has been. That’s why were so close, we need each other. Brick and mortar business owners know and expect this as they set up shop in town, an ultimate commitment to the community they love and serve, an ethos paramount for success.

Such has been the case throughout history, like in the winter of 1978 where older locals recall what sounded like shotguns blasting off in the middle of the night, only to learn it was the splitting of trees succumbing to bitter colds; the next morning, you can be certain Big Sky was open for a bite to eat as people shuffled in, red-eyed, from the chill.

Photo courtesy of Michaelangelo’s Big Sky

A decade later, in 88, the largest forest fires in Yellowstone’s recorded history closed roads and shut down one of the nation’s greatest tourist attractions to the south; yet again, Big Sky was ready for business.

And I remember the morning of 9/11, and what those terrible and fateful moments did to our people, from coast-to-coast. But my kitchen opened that night, as did everyone else throughout the community, ready to console the people and community we’ve all come to cherish through tender, warm meals.

Anyone who has opened a restaurant or bar in town knows the innumerable challenges of busy moments, as well as those experienced when things slow down and most locals breathe in their newfound, temporary calm and space.

For many eateries in Big Sky, though not opening from the ground up every season, the staffing, menu creation and sourcing of local purveyors is a restart that occurs biannually. Year after year, decade after decade. The bottom line: Big Sky’s restaurants, chefs and owners endure a healthy share of knocks. But we endure both periods, and the moments in between, for you: the customer, the community, our friends and family.

Big Sky is built on a series of ideals: relaxation, skiing, outdoor recreation, escape from hustle and bustle, and so on. But bigger than that, perhaps the greatest reason it always flourishes is because Big Sky was built on happy friendships. And it’s simply in the blood of a Big Sky resident to be hospitable.

Photo courtesy of Blue Buddha Sushi Lounge

Since that humble beginning, I have made countless friends here, and not only in hospitality. In response to “Why Big Sky?” they all say things like “just look around, where else would you want to be?”

Though, chefs inherently spot silver linings. I think of Olive B’s Big Sky Bistro chef Ian Troxler, who puts it best: “the challenges of being a chef are universal, so why not here where I can look up at Lone Peak every day?”

Big Sky is good at many things, not the least of which is perseverance. This may be a tough time for much of the nation. But to Big Sky, this is old hat, and we love that because we’re never alone.