This Luxe Montana Restaurant Celebrates Live-Fire Cooking in the Middle of the Forest
The first bite of Brandon Cunningham's seven-course tasting menu confused me. I recognized the raw, rectangular slice of Wagyu beef, sitting starkly on a black plate next to a crisp leaf of lettuce. But there was another plate topped with a thick, smooth black rock the size of my palm. It looked hot.
"Don't lick it," joked the chef. The rock had been plucked from the Blackfoot River and thrown into the fire, making it a de facto skillet to sear the beef before I cloaked it with the cold leaf and took it down in one bite.
I was sitting in the Social Haus, Montana's unexpected new dining destination in the middle of a forest. It's the only restaurant at the newly-opened green o, an enclave of 12 modern accommodations tucked into the trees, part of the 37,000-acre Resort at Paws Up. The luxury resort and ranch puts on regular chuck wagon dinners, serving Angus prime rib and fresh corn grilled over a campfire while tapping into the region's history. A century and a half ago, these wagons were roving food carts, used to carry provisions and equipment for cowboys to cook while traveling and driving cattle on the range. When it came time to eat, they'd build a fire and feast next to the wagon.
Inside the green o, though, the resort-inside-a-resort features more subtle elements of fire evident in Cunningham's small, refined dishes. The applewood smoke-filled terrarium that uncovers layers of kohlrabi custard, sorrel purée, and petite vegetables, for example, and the Wagyu amuse bouche accompanied by that blazing black rock.
The chef hails from Portland, where he worked at restaurants like Castagna and Ned Ludd. At the latter he developed his appreciation for cooking over live fire, and solidified his goal to merge it with fine dining.
The Social Haus dishes draw on ingredients like ranch-raised meats, Montana huckleberries and foraged foods, including spruce tips that add woodsy notes to the house made mint chocolate chip ice cream. Guests are seated on a circular, dark green leather banquet that occupies the center of the dining room, surrounding a round fireplace. From this position, there's a front row seat to watch fellow diners react to dishes like pastry chef Krystle Swenson's yuzu parfait with blackberries and shiso, or Cunningham's puff pastry-wrapped venison and chanterelle mushrooms, accompanied by a bordelaise sauce the chef whips up tableside. He pours fat from the beef tallow candle I didn't realize was actually an ingredient, during the first three courses while it sat burning on my tabletop.
"There are always ways to intertwine live fire into what we're already doing, and add a different sort of charm to each dish," said Cunningham. The green o's glowing, fiery charms are elegant and subtle, but you can channel the same live fire cooking at home to add a depth of flavor along with a bit of spectacle.
Below, Cunningham shares some of his favorite things to make at home over live fire.
"Ditch the grill grate," said Cunningham, who recommends putting a variety of protein and produce directly on the fire. "Use red hot logs or even hot lump charcoal to prepare your meal." The chef has cooked ribeyes, tuna loins, vegetables, and even the ingredients for romesco—including tomatoes and garlic—directly on the hot coals. "It produces an unmatched sear and intense flavor on my meats and vegetables."
Biscuits & Gravy
Whenever the chef goes camping, he always brings along fresh biscuit dough, a dutch oven, sausage, and all the fixings for gravy. "By placing the Dutch oven on top of a small bed of coals and covering with a few more on top, you are able to turn your Dutch oven into just that—an oven," said the chef. "While the biscuits are baking, I proceed to make a campfire gravy and enjoy fresh baked biscuits and gravy right outside my tent."
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Don't forget the dessert! Baking sweets over a live fire isn't a stretch. Using a Weber or a wood-fired oven, if available, the chef recommends preparing your favorite cookie dough and placing it in a small cast iron pan. "Bake just until the top starts to get a bit of char—trust me, you will wish the whole thing was charred—and enjoy it hot from the oven with a generous sprinkle of sea salt and cold milk," he said.