|FOLLOW YOUR PASSIONS
2010 Montana Master Chefs:
This year’s event takes place
from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, 2010.
As an avid fly fisherman, the chance to visit Montana’s Blackfoot River conjured one clear image in my head: a thousand crystalline droplets of water scattering as a trout fights the invisible line pulling it steadily toward shore. That image comes courtesy of A River Runs Through It, which is set on the Blackfoot and has long been a part of the fly fisherman’s starter kit. Over the past 10 years, I have gone fly fishing at least a hundred times and never once have I gone without pausing to consider Norman Maclean, the book’s author, and his brother, Paul, wading over rocks worn smooth by the current, casting in a four-count rhythm and hoping for a fish to rise.
In the spirit of Paul Maclean, who Norman paints as endlessly unpredictable, my first trip to Montana came together on a whim. I’d rushed to cancel other plans and shuffle flights the second the offer to join the Montana Master Chefs at Paws Up had come along. The opportunity to fish on the Blackfoot was the main reason I signed on but the quality of food implied by the phrase "Master Chefs” ran a close second. This annual four-day event, held at the beginning of October, has gained increasing notoriety over the past seven years. There’s plenty of reason for the buzz – The Resort at Paws Up, which hosts the event, has done a great job attracting top-tier chefs from across the country to come and share their skills. These chefs are each paired with a vineyard and together they present a meal course by succulent course. When I booked my ticket I still didn’t have any details beyond “fishing and food” – but those alone were enough to send my anticipation skyrocketing.
After an easy flight and a 40-minute ride from the Missoula airport to the resort, I was delivered to one of Paws Up’s standalone “wilderness estates.” Put simply: It was wonderful. The cabin was well-appointed and incredibly spacious with no detail left unattended. It was a seamless blend of five-star luxury and pastoral living (at its heart it was still just a cabin in the woods, which is precisely what I loved about it). That first afternoon, I brought out my father’s worn copy of A River Runs Through It and began to read by the fire. Every few pages, I’d step out on the sprawling front porch to admire the Blackfoot Valley and breathe the wilderness air. I saw birds lighting up from the trees and an elk stomping the frozen ground. What I didn’t see was another cabin; they’re positioned so that you can’t spot one while on the grounds of another. More than just a break from the pace of Southern California, my porch and fireside were a break from reality completely. A few chapters deeper into the book, with the light starting to fall, I noticed that it was time for dinner. I went to my bedroom for a shower, which, at the sight of the massive tub, was instantly upgraded to a bath. There are places you can go which give you no choice but to slow down, relax and breathe. Paws Up is one of them.
I arrived to dinner in time for Champagne, wine and cheese, all part of the weekend package. This was no quickly thrown together spread either; it took up three tables with cheese regally presented amidst a cascade of nuts and dried berries. After an hour of mingling, a triangle clanged out to announce that the party was moving to the dining room. Like the cabins, this room also made reference to rustic living while possessing all the fine touches of an elite resort. As the first round of wine was poured, the opening night chef, Paws Up’s own Wes Coffel, came out to introduce his first dish, while the vintner from Frog’s Leap Winery spoke about the wine and why it fit “just so” with the food. Even in these luxurious trappings, nothing about the weekend was even the least bit pretentious. Especially the people. This can be evidenced by the fact that I didn’t feel judged at all for not having a clue what “squab” was when it was served. It’s a young roast pigeon and also very delicious in case you’re similarly unenlightened. Conversations at the table were lively – as meals tend to be when you put people who love food, wine and the outdoors in a situation that highlights their passions so strongly. After dinner I wandered back to the bar where country band members were already plucking at their guitars. Everyone danced, raved about dinner and drank more wine. “These,” I decided, “are my kind of folks.”
Like summer camp for adults, Montana Master Chefs is laid out in blocks of activities. By looking at the schedule I saw that I’d have to wait for my turn to fly fish on the Blackfoot until the second morning. I quickly reasoned that it would be better this way, giving me the chance to build anticipation. Instead, my first foray out onto the ranch’s endless acreage was on horseback. The horses never went faster than a trot, but the pace was fine with me. The silence – broken only by the unhurried clopping of hooves – carved out time for reflection amongst the endless expanses. The land that the ranchers cleared for what would eventually become Paws Up is nestled right in the Blackfoot Valley. This leaves guests the feeling of being hemmed in by the surrounding hills, which provide one more wall of separation from whatever business may be waiting back home. For the ride’s final stretch, we followed the river as it wound its way westward, hiding what I hoped were hungry trout in its riffles and currents.
On Saturday afternoon, I went to shoot sporting clays with a couple visiting from Mexico City. The fact that they had come so far for a four-day culinary event shows the reach of Montana Master Chefs. Over the course of my stay, I also met couples from Texas and New York. Many of the guests were returnees; one large group had been there every single year. As we collected our shotguns, the Mexican couple told me that they’d been shooting a few times before. I, on the other hand, had never shot anything more powerful than a BB gun. Shooting sporting clays helps answer the question that every man secretly asks himself: “Is it possible that I’m actually a dead-eye?” It turns out that I am not actually a dead-eye, not even close. But I still had a fantastic time. We kept up the shooting for about two hours, enough that by the end of the session, I looked like I sort of knew what I was doing. The major success of the afternoon was that this excursion, along with another hour spent beside the fire with A River Runs Through It, was enough to get me hungry for dinner. I would need it… That night, two past winners from the Bravo TV series "Top Chef," Stephanie Izard and Hosea Rosenberg, took turns making dishes for the guests. Their meal lasted through 11 courses, all but two of which were paired with wine from Stag’s Leap winery. After the marathon-meal, one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed, it was back to the bar where Stag’s Leap continued to pour wine. It was an extremely late night that would be followed by an extremely early morning. Call time for fly fishing was 6 a.m.
My favorite line from A River Runs Through It has always been when Paul Maclean declares, “In Montana, there are three things we’re never late for: church, work and fishing.” I like that motto and wouldn’t have been late for my first Montana fishing trip for anything in the world. My promptness came as at least a slight surprise to the Paws Up guide. Over the course of the weekend, he had seen more cancellations than eager fishermen. Most years the beginning of October is favorable in Montana, with summer putting up a good fight before giving way to fall. Unfortunately, a week before my visit, the temperatures had plummeted. By the time I hit the river, it had bottomed out to around six degrees. The result was that with every few casts, the eyelets that ran up my fly rod would ice over. To de-ice them, I had to turn the rod around and suck on each eyelet until the ice melted and the line was free again. It was not quite the romantic image I had of fishing on the Blackfoot with the sun warming my back. Still, there was plenty of beauty to be appreciated amidst all the shivering. The water was clear and the ponderosa pines loomed mightily above the banks of the river. Once in a while a trout would dart out into the current, deftly angling its body, hunting for food. Those daring few trout provided all the reassurance I needed: the knowledge that “they’re out there.” I kept up a steady routine of casting, melting the ice on my rod and cursing about the cold for nearly two hours. Finally, a fish rose to the surface to take my fly. I was overjoyed. I set the hook and began to reel my adversary in.
I wish I could report that it was a tremendous battle of epic proportions. But it wasn’t. From the second he clamped down on the fly, my fish was resigned to his fate. More than that, he seemed overjoyed about the idea of getting to the frying pan – just for the chance to warm up. I truly think he was disappointed when I threw him back. My own joy hadn’t lost much steam though. I had done it! I had gone to the Blackfoot and caught a fish on a fly. Having proven that I could catch one, my desire to continue enduring the biting cold dropped lower than the thermostat. Before another hour had passed, I was back in the bathtub at my cabin.
Later that day, with the cold driving most guests inside, I attended a lecture on cooking with mushrooms by Larry Evans. It was the weekend’s most unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Evans is a famed mycologist (a botanist specializing in fungi) who looked exactly like I might suppose a mushroom expert would look, right down to his sheep’s wool vest and the twin braids streaming down his back. Appearances aside, I will say that never have I seen someone so fired up about fungus. His presentation was absolutely spectacular, full of fascinating information and highlighted by his springy excitement. The fact that it ended with a sampling of mushrooms fried in garlic didn’t hurt matters. That night, as I enjoyed yet another expertly prepared and shockingly delicious meal, I couldn’t help but mention to my tablemates the wild flair that Evans had. Although there may have been a few laughs about his website name (fungaljungal.org), everyone at the table agreed that the passion with which he approached his life was to be greatly admired. We toasted to the hope that we should all be lucky enough to dedicate our time to things that we are so passionate about.
Weeks later it dawned on me that exploring passions (and maybe finding a few new ones) is really what the Montana Master Chefs event is all about too. Over the span of four days, I’d gotten the chance to savor unbelievable food, relax by the fire with a good book, taste wine well outside my pay grade, and learn how to properly prepare a lobster mushroom. I had even caught a fish in the Blackfoot River – a highlight that hung above all the rest. It was dedication to his passions that kept Norman Maclean fishing on the Blackfoot River deep into his old age. I may never be the fisherman he was, but I value my own passions just as strongly… which is why I find myself wistfully dreaming of returning to the Montana Master Chefs again as it rapidly approaches this year.