At Montana's Paws Up Ranch, Playing with Your Food Is Encouraged

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The Modern Travel Agency


    a sleek dining room with a central cylindrical fire place

    The Social Haus at the green o

    At Paws Up, a 37,000-acre cattle ranch in western Montana, travelers have space to breathe. The wide-open expanse mainly consists of pristine wilderness: lush forests, miles of river. It was this idyllic setting that ultimately attracted three ultra-talented chefs — Brandon Cunningham, Krystle Swenson and Sunny Jin — to settle down here and join Paws Up’s culinary team. 

    The sprawling ranch is home to two luxury getaways: The Resort at Paws Up as well as its sister property, the green o. Perhaps surprisingly, guests dine on Big Macs and creamsicles at these luxury destinations. But don’t let the semantics fool you: The Big Mac is a slab of Wagyu beef cooked on a rock sourced from the nearby Blackfoot River. And the creamsicles are homemade vanilla semifreddo encased in mandarin and showered with angel-food-cake croutons. (Chef Krystal, the Executive Pastry Chef of Paws Up, is a veritable dessert genius.) 

    “My inspiration comes from TV dinners and bar food and some pretty lowbrow crap like that,” said Chef Brandon, the green o’s Executive Chef.

    Chef Brandon and the entire Paws Up team have the execution, technique and locally sourced ingredients to elevate TV dinners, fast-food riffs and nostalgic reinventions into gourmet, delicious meals. In fact, this year the James Beard Foundation nominated Chef Brandon for Best Chef in the United State’s mountain region. 

    Although he’s humbled and honored by the nomination, his approach, and his food, is blissfully devoid of pretension, which he thinks too often accompanies elevated gastronomy. 

    “It's a strip-down of the ego and a really approachable, fun experience,” he said of the green o’s restaurant, Social Haus. “It's not about anybody in the kitchen trying to flex to the guests. It's not taking ourselves too seriously in the process.”

    Paws Up isn’t concerned with fleeting trends and trying to impress (although they always inevitably — and effortlessly — do.) Instead, their ethos is rooted in delight. It’s all about what the guest wants, according to Chef Sunny Jin, the General Manager of Food and Beverage at Paws Up, who is also a James-Beard-Award-nominated chef.

    “How can we be stewards in that relationship, where guests are coming to create these memories?” Chef Krystle, herself a two-time James Beard Award Semi-Finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, said. “[We’re] coming from a place of true service and hospitality.”

    Cooking as creativity

    aerial view of a circular plate filled with an artful curation of colorful vegetables

    a dish at Social Haus, and Chef Brandon at work

    The chef’s infuse their work with their varied histories, which adds a unique vibrancy and camaraderie to their jovial team dynamic.

    Chef Brandon got into cooking by accident. He started as a dish washer in college, and eventually rose through the ranks. The creative aspect of cooking hooked him. (He admits that, as a kid, he was a terrible artist. He wrote books instead.) 

    “There is no good cook in my family whatsoever,” he said. “My mother, God bless her soul, was awful.”

    Luckily, Brandon was not an awful cook. He loved experimenting with food — spaghetti sauce was a particularly effective blank canvas. When he was 12, his pineapple upside-down cake won first prize for his age group at the county fair. 

    “That's where I peaked,” he joked. 

    Chef Krystle, who grew up in Hawaiʻi, comes from a large family. Her home was the designated locale for big gatherings. The first thing guests were asked was, “Have you eaten?”

    In high school, she naturally gravitated toward art classes, but was distracted by the aromas from the cooking class next door. The next year, she opted for the latter, and everything clicked. She loved how cooking felt like a team sport, how it allowed you to do something with your hands, how it involved color, texture and creativity. 

    Chef Sunny, meanwhile, was raised in a traditional Korean household. His mom made everything from scratch, and still sends him an absurd amount of homemade kimchi each month. 

    Despite their varied culinary backgrounds, the chefs work exceptionally well together, and their differences only enrich their work.

    “It's really about the people that you surround yourself with,” Chef Sunny said, “because you're only limited by your own experiences and thoughts. So the more collaboration you experience, the better of a person you become no matter what you choose to do.”

    The great outdoors

    a woman with long black hair wears a pink shirt and smiles

    Chef Krystle & Paws Up's take on s'mores

    Montana and its seasonal bounty are the main characters in the food at Paws Up. The expansive, idyllic grounds played a big role in all of the chefs’ decisions to accept their positions at the ranch.

    Everything is locally sourced — the chefs are serious about supporting the local community and environment. But the ethos is also borne of necessity. Montana’s short growing season, in a way, forces creativity and collaboration. The chefs partner with the Western Montana Growers Cooperative and its cheesemakers, honeymakers, farmers and ranchers. Chef Krystle often incorporates into her desserts the sustainable loose-leaf teas from the Lake Missoula Tea Company. Edible flowers from the local florist adorn much of her creations. The chefs regularly forage for wild ingredients, and the ranch also hosts its own bison and cattle operations.

    “You really have to understand your environment and the community around you,” Chef Sunny said. 

    You have to give credit to the surroundings, Chef Krystle added. It’s about “harnessing your own personal experience of being captivated by the landscape and outdoors.”

    She was inspired by the whimsy and playfulness of eating snow off a pine branch, for instance. So she created a dessert of ice cream infused with fresh mint leaves and topped with shaved matcha ice. S’mores are reimagined in a dish of smoked white chocolate cream and chocolate ganache surrounded by pillowy meringue. 

    “I can't imagine how many times I'm in her bubble and on her workstation trying to get a free bite of something,” Chef Sunny admitted.

    Do play with your food

    aerial view of a slab of salmon with a bowl of black rice and thinly sliced pink radishes

    Chef Sunny and one of Paws Up's hyper-local meals

    At Social Haus, guests are treated to a nine-course meal every night. There are no repeats. On the menu, each dish is characterized by two descriptors — black cod and onion, beef and morel, lardo and uni — which adds a fun element of mystery. 

    Meals begin with the amuse, a palette stimulator, Chef Brandon said. For this initial course, he likes to play with the lowbrow-highbrow dichotomy. This is when guests will sample chicken nuggets, fish sticks, corn dogs and other reimagined comfort classics.

    “I don't want there to be this harsh juxtaposition of stuffiness and ego,” Chef Brandon explained. “Starting off with the corndog is the best way to be like, ‘Yeah, we're right there with you.’”

    The food is playful and exquisite, refined and unstuffy. Everything comes back to a sense of play — both among the chefs and guests. If guests want to put ketchup on their steak, it’s more than allowed — it’s encouraged. Again, everything comes back to delight.

    “That's just taking the ego out of the whole thing,” Chef Brandon said. “That's what it comes down to.”

    Play is pervasive, and so is hard work. Every dish and recipe is painstakingly studied, dissected and perfected, Chef Sunny said. Culinary creations are shared among peers for feedback. The team looks at it together, and enhances it until it sparks pride. Often, elegant simplicity reigns. (Chef Brandon is partial to the “magic genius” of the humble allium.)

    “We're not here to take ourselves too seriously,” Chef Brandon stressed. “You just got off an ATV ride. You're still dirty and in cowboy boots, and you're going to sit down to a nine-course tasting meal.”

    In other words, fun, gourmet gastronomy need not be stiff or overly formal. At the green o and Paws Up, guests get to come as they are. Chefs Brandon, Krystle and Sunny still find the joy of creativity in the kitchen, but the true pay-off lies in seeing their guests enjoy their food, often with an air of delighted amusement and surprise. 

    “I also just love cooking for people,” Chef Brandon said. “That feeling of creating a meal for somebody is something you just can't really replicate in anything else.”

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    Furnished room behind open barn style doors