Food is a paradox. We consume it, and increasingly, it consumes us. One of the more notable movements in food lately is built around the doctrine of locavores, who believe that the food that comes from your backyard is better than anything that comes from a supermarket, and that the food from a local market is better even than, say, the chocolate-dipped pears that are shipped to Montana from Oregon in a Harry and David gourmet gift basket.
As hard as it is for us to get past the mere idea of chocolate-dipped pears—chocolate-dipped pears!—we generally concur. And so, in that vein, we've asked five local chefs to give you a look inside their kitchens and offer recipes for a soup, salad, appetizer, entrée and dessert that capitalize on local or locally-available ingredients.
Individually, the fruits of any one of these recipes could brighten a repast. Together, they'd make an outstanding holiday meal. Bon appétit!
The Silk Road's Jacob Osborne has your appetizer
Silk Road chef Jacob Osborne likes to use all of an animal. Even the organs. It's more sustainable that way, he says—plus, the flavors in the meat and organs of an animal correspond to one another and so can tie a meal together.
"Things that are considered delicacies in other countries often arise out of necessity," Osborne observes as he works in the Silk Road's kitchen.
"People ate liver because they couldn't afford to not eat liver. It's a cheap form of protein. We've gotten away from that, but I think it's starting to come back...Chefs are focusing a lot on using whole animals."
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Jacob Osborne’s turkey liver pâté
That's why, when we asked him to help us with an appetizer, Osborne, a veteran chef who's also worked at Brooks & Browns and Sapore, chose to share with us his recipe for duck liver pâté: It can easily be adapted to use the turkey liver that most people use only in stuffing or stock, or just give to the lucky dog.
Making pâté is fairly simple, though you'll need to start it a couple of days ahead of time to prepare it properly. And that can be a good thing, as it allows you to complete most of the dish before guests arrive and clutter your kitchen.
Jacob Osborne's turkey liver pâté
1 turkey liver (or 2 duck livers)
1 cup milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 star anise
3 cloves garlic
3 sprigs fresh thyme
peel of 1 orange
3 or 4 tablespoons cream sherry
1/2 pound unsalted butter
a handful of mixed mushrooms
salt and pepper
Two days before the meal, soak the liver in milk with a touch of salt and pepper and let it sit overnight (this helps to mellow its flavor). The next day, take the liver out of the milk and pat dry with a paper towel. While it's drying, make the cream reduction: Pour two cups of heavy whipping cream into a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Wrap the garlic cloves, sprigs of thyme and orange peels in cheesecloth and tie it with a piece of butcher's twine, then drop it into the saucepan.
"I like using cream reductions as well as butter just because it gives you a chance to impart some flavors that you don't otherwise have," Osborne says.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Filling the cheesecloth
Lightly boil the cream until it's reduced from two cups to about one. While the reduction's boiling, drop the liver in a hot, oiled frying pan. Sear it on both sides; don't cook it through. Set it aside.
When the reduction's ready, take out the cheesecloth. Drop the liver into a blender or food processor and pulse a few times, then slowly pour the reduction into the blender and blend until smooth. The heat of the cream will finish cooking the liver. Don't pour so much that it gets watery; you want it to have the viscosity of a thick sauce. Next, add small pieces of cold butter, being sure to blend each piece completely before adding the next piece. Once all the butter is incorporated, taste the pâté and season with salt and pepper if needed. Then pour the mixture through a fine strainer into a pâté mold. Wrap the mold and put it in the refrigerator overnight to harden.
The next day, before your guests arrive, sauté mushrooms in olive oil. Osborne uses a mix of portabella, chanterelle, oyster, shitake, crimini and button mushrooms. While they're sautéing, add the cream sherry, which pulls out the mushrooms' flavors. Remove the pan from heat and let a tablespoon of butter melt into the sherry, making a sauce.
Now for the presentation: Take the pâté mold out of the fridge and turn it upside down on a serving plate. If it doesn't slide out of the mold, try heating the mold with a lighter. Then fill out the plate with the mushrooms. Splay pear slices on top. Garnish with another sprig of thyme. Serve with sliced baguette.
"One thing about pâtés," Osborne says, "is you can really form it into whatever you want it to be."
Indeed, molding pans come in all kinds of shapes. There are even molding pans shaped like turkeys.
Rattlesnake Gardens' Tony Underkoffler has your soup
The kitchen at Rattlesnake Gardens echoes with the squeak of a well-used sausage stuffer at 9:30 a.m., as Tony Underkoffler cranks out a tray of homemade spicy Italian sausage, a staple for tomorrow's pasta special and a potential ingredient in this weekend's soups. The air's thick with the smell of Italian seasonings. A pot on the stove emits an occasional whiff of fresh chicken soup base. It's not a bad way to start the morning.
As Underkoffler twists a final length of sausage into links, the casing breaks in a few places.
"You know," Underkoffler says, "those old Polish ladies, all they have to do is flip this stuff in the air"—he pauses to gesture as if twirling sausage in front of his face—"and they get perfect links. Never break a one."
Cook Mike O'Connell, standing near the sink, chimes in: "Well, when your first word is 'kielbasa'..."
The banter is as thick as the chili warming in the corner.
If there's one word that applies to most of the food that comes out of Underkoffler's kitchen, it's "homemade." From the soup base to the sausage, the pizza dough to the corn muffins, the cooks at Rattlesnake Gardens keep their culinary masterpieces as fresh as possible. That's probably one of the reasons they have such a loyal base, Underkoffler says, adding, "Some people eat here seven days a week...
"Right now we're doing our own corned beef," he continues. "Weekends, our breakfast is pretty much everything from scratch. We make our own breakfast sausage, we make our own biscuits and gravy."
Homemade goes for the recipes, too. It isn't just Polish women rolling sausages that the cooks chitchat about; Underkoffler says a majority of their menu ideas come from conversations in the kitchen. The restaurant's owner, Craig MacDonald, is open to pretty much every new recipe his staff dreams up, Underkoffler says. Jamaican jerk burgers with mango slaw and curried mustard? Heck yeah. Andouille sausage sandwiches sliced thin and piled high with roasted red peppers, cheddar cheese and mayo? When it's on a fresh bun from Le Petit Outre with a cup of chicken tortilla soup on the side? Absolutely.
"Coming up with new stuff is the most challenging—making it fun for people," Underkoffler says. "I think the most fun I had lately was making a southwest spicy meatloaf. It had black beans and corn in it, with a blackberry chipotle glaze."
With the temperature dropping and the holiday season already on the doorstep, Underkoffler is tailoring his specials toward more wintry fare. That means sides of smashed butternut squash, pork loin entrées slathered with cider gravy and a curried sweet potato-apple soup with a dollop of yogurt, curry powder and fresh cilantro—the kind of recipe that doesn't take a professional kitchen to prepare.
"It's a great atmosphere to work in," kitchen newbie Loni Anschuetz says from her potato-dicing station. Underkoffler, she says, has been "teaching me soups. I'll ask him, 'How do you make this?' And I'll make it. I have three kids, so they love it."
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Tony Underkoffler’s curried sweet potato-apple soup
Underkoffler grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch family and learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. He's made the rounds since he moved up the kitchen ladder from an early dishwashing stint back East. He worked in Denali National Park as a line cook for three-and-a-half years, then relocated to Utah for the skiing. The pursuit of snow took him to Big Sky, where he landed a gig as head line cook at the ski resort. He eventually followed an ex-girlfriend to Missoula.
"The first job I got was the Silvertip Casino," he says. "Not too proud of that one"—it was mostly grill work—"but it was a job. Then I ran the Waterfront Pasta House for six years before I moved up [to Rattlesnake Gardens]."
Underkoffler's been with Rattlesnake Gardens about eight years now. He couldn't live without a food processor these days, but he still swears by a cook's most important tool: "Your hands."
His wealth of cooking experience has made him something of a go-to among friends. These days he keeps holidays pretty small, just the kids and his girlfriend, but he used to do the potluck Thanksgiving thing. A few years back, a friend in Chicago called him up for tips on preparing his first Thanksgiving turkey. Underkoffler was glad to help out. Cooking's just what he does.
"I just enjoyed it growing up," he says. "I'd help my mom and my grandma cook, and it naturally progressed into a profession from there. My brothers and sisters would make ham-and-cheese sandwiches. I'd break out the pan and start cooking."
Tony Underkoffler's curried sweet potato-apple soup
3 tablespoons butter*
4 cups peeled and diced sweet potatoes (about 3 medium potatoes)
2 cups peeled and diced Granny Smith apples (about 2 medium apples)
1 small onion diced
2 tablespoons grated ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated if possible)
1 cup applesauce
4 cups chicken broth*
salt and pepper
*Can substitute oil for butter and veggie broth or water for chicken broth, if you want your soup vegan.
Melt butter in soup pot. Add onion and cook until onion turns translucent (about 3 to 4 minutes). Add ginger and cook for another minute. Add sweet potatoes, diced apples, curry powder and nutmeg. Stir well and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. Add chicken broth and applesauce and stir well. Bring to boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook until sweet potatoes are tender (about 30 minutes). Puree soup in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro
Mix ingredients together and put a dollop of mixture on soup.
The Pearl Café's Walker Hunter has your salad
On the final Saturday of the season at the Clark Fork River Market, Walker Hunter is on the prowl for Brussels sprouts. Hunter, a 33-year-old chef for the upscale Missoula restaurant Pearl Café, scours the farmers markets every Saturday for the restaurant's evening specials. Sometimes he's looking for particular ingredients, but mostly he's looking to see what's in season, in order to spark a meal's design.
Hunter is a kinetic guy with sleeve tattoos and the kind of rebelliousness that gets young, adventurous chefs onto reality TV shows or in profiles in The New Yorker—the kind that fuels tell-all memoirs of life in the kitchen trenches.
"You all out of Brussels?" he asks a vendor.
"Steven has some," the vendor says. "I didn't have any today."
Hunter knows many of these farmers by name and chats with them along the way. We finally find a few Brussels sprout stalks among the market tables, which are overflowing with mushrooms, squash, onions and carrots—a surplus from a late growing season.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Walker Hunter’s roasted-chanterelle-and-Brussels-sprout salad with cider vinaigrette
"When you're working with the seasons, you're always at that intersection of two thoughts," Hunter observes. "It's what is available and what is desirable...When we're coming up with specials, it's always, 'Is this dish making sense?'"
Hunter finds another ingredient at Charlie Hopkins's mushroom table. Hopkins just sold his last lobster mushrooms, but he has lots of chanterelles.
"Even better," says Hunter. "There's not much you can't do with chanterelles."
The fall salad Hunter is planning will be used as a topping on quail, but it can also be eaten as a salad dish.
The final, main ingredient is pea shoots, something usually found at Missoula markets in spring. This year they're available at several tables with the typical fall fare. And so this salad isn't just a tribute to fall, it's a reflection of this particular fall.
"To have pea shoots and Brussels sprouts side by side, it's a gesture to what this year's been like," Hunter says. "Everyone was bitching in June because there weren't any sun-ripened tomatoes. But now it's late and we still have pea shoots. This salad is really a way to do a fall thing but lighten and brighten it a little."
He carries his market goods into the back door of the old brick building where Pearl resides and starts preparing the salad. (I have to document the recipe; chefs like Hunter go by instinct, not a formula.)
Hunter learned the basics of line cooking when he was 16 at Steve's Restaurant, a family-style, from-scratch joint in his hometown of Rumney, N. H., in the foothills of the White Mountains. He learned efficiency and multi-tasking, but not technique. "It was short order," he says. "Flip, chop, press, microwave, plate, ship."
While he was in college at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, Hunter cooked at Red Hook Brewery, where he had more time and leeway to be creative. By the time he came to Missoula to get his MFA in Creative Writing, he says, he was beginning to learn how to approach cooking intuitively. He spent time talking about technique with fellow chefs who were seasoned at top restaurants in Missoula such as Red Bird and Scotty's. Then he learned the ropes from Pearl owner Pearl Cash and from Ryan Smith, whom he now cooks alongside.
There are restaurants that offer a broad range of familiar food to entice everyone. At Pearl, where specials often are built around seasonal and locally raised ingredients, there's what Hunter calls a contract of trust. Customers expect the chefs to take creative license.
That contract can be broken on either side. Chefs don't always read their customers correctly, as when Hunter—who says he likes trashy food because "I'm kind of trashy"—tried to do a fancy version of fish and chips: halibut with a cornmeal crust and truffle salted potato rounds. No one bought it.
"That was one of those situations where I thought I was being clever and whimsical," he says. "But it went down in flames."
And then there are the customers who want to swap ingredients rather than try what a chef has put together, or they're dismayed when, say, a chanterelle-and-Brussels-sprout salad is a topping on fish. That's fine, says Hunter—he respects that—"but ideally, what we do is present people with something they didn't know they wanted, but they trust us enough to know they will enjoy it."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hunter has voluminous opinions about salad, although they might more properly be called feelings. Still, in this recipe (see sidebar), there is ample room for choice. The chanterelles and Brussels sprouts are combined with butter and infused with sprigs from sage, rosemary and thyme. The pea shoots, celery root and apples are tossed in right before serving, to keep them crisp. But you could forego the pea shoots and just make it a vegetable side. You could replace it with wilted kale and chard to give it a hardier texture. You could sprinkle cheese over the mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, broil it and make a vegetarian entrée.
As designed by Hunter, this salad, as a piece of a larger fall meal—even a Thanksgiving meal—does what all good salads do: cleanses the palate. Holiday meals are heavy by design. A good salad is light and acidic.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Walker Hunter
"If you just sat down and tried to eat turkey and gravy, turkey and gravy," he says, and pauses. "It'd be fine, actually. I could do it...It wouldn't be very hard at all. But it's not the full experience of a meal."
And then he comes out with this pronouncement:
"Today is just a kick-ass fall day. This is the kind of day I want a pie. I want a roast. I want a casserole. And a salad that embraces what we have around here. There's only so much you want shipped over here from France when you can find something that represents what it means to cook that food here and now."
Walker Hunter's roasted-chanterelle-and-Brussels-sprout salad with cider vinaigrette
10 ounces of chanterelle mushrooms, thoroughly cleaned and cut into one-inch-thick strips
10 ounces of Brussels sprouts, halved
1 bunch (7 ounces) of pea shoots, arugula, watercress or another hearty salad green
1/2 of a smallish red onion, finely diced
1/2 pound celery root (about one small bulb), cleaned, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
1 medium-sized sweet apple, such as a Bitterroot Macintosh, cored, quartered and sliced
3 tablespoons butter
4 cloves garlic
3 sprigs each of sage, rosemary and thyme
1 ounce Pecorino Romano cheese (optional)
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup good apple cider
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 medium shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 cup good olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and add chanterelles and Brussels sprouts along with herbs and two crushed garlic cloves. Let cook on stovetop until browning begins (about 3 minutes). Transfer to oven and roast uncovered for 15 minutes or until the mushrooms and Brussels sprouts are browned and tender. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature. Discard herbs and garlic.
For the vinaigrette, reduce the apple cider by half, leaving approximately 1/4 cup. In a blender, add reduced cider, cider vinegar, shallots, garlic and mustard. Blend on high while adding oil in a slow, steady stream to emulsify. May be made up to three days in advance and refrigerated.
Immediately before serving, toss Brussels sprouts, chanterelles, greens, apples, red onion and celery root with vinaigrette. Finish with shaved Pecorino if desired.
• For vegan diners, you can omit the Pecorino, instead roasting the mushrooms and Brussels in oil.
• Add sliced bacon to the roasting pan for more meat-oriented diners.
• This salad works as a great side for roasted or grilled meats, especially duck and pork. It's also delicious with salmon or trout.
• Check your local grocery for "poultry blend" pre-packaged herb bundles, which usually contain the necessary herbs for this recipe at an affordable price. The Missoula Community Food Co-op offers a vegetable bag for $15 that contains many of the ingredients for this recipe, fresh and local; contact them for availability, 728-2369.
The Red Bird's Jim Tracey has your entrée
On a recent, brisk fall day, the Red Bird Restaurant kitchen begins to warm as staffers bustle around, preparing for dinner service. There's jazz on the radio—a sweet clarinet emits an upbeat bebop—as Red Bird co-owner and executive chef Jim Tracey points to a large, golden-brown tenderloin, two thick slabs of pâté, duxelles—made with mushrooms, shallots, butter and Madeira wine—and a flat slab of puff pastry that will, when our cooking lesson is complete, envelop our beef Wellington in a flaky crust.
People think beef Wellington is hard to make, Tracey says. "But it's not."
There's some dispute about this dish's origins, but most culinary historians agree that it's named for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who led the English Army when it helped trounce Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. In any case, the dish is exquisite.
Topped with rich and buttery Madeira sauce, beef Wellington comes across as fancy—as something you labored over all day. Yet it's an entrée that just about anyone can make. It gives even novices like us a chance to flex our culinary muscle.
Tracey says his mom used to make beef Wellington for Christmas. The man who oversees one of Missoula's most esteemed restaurants grew up surrounded by people who loved to cook. His grandparents' house in southern New Jersey's Sea Isle City was always filled with the aroma of a pie baking in the oven, he says, or of a sauce simmering on the stove. His paternal grandmother was Italian, he explains, and she carried with her a love of sharing good food. "Every time anybody would walk in the door, she'd go make them something."
Tracey says his mother further expanded his culinary horizons. She'd gladly try new dishes and then carefully replicate them at home. His mother and grandmother cooked for days to prepare for huge parties they'd have around Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. He was reared surrounded by four sisters and dozens of family members. Holidays were a time when they all came together and feasted for hours.
Tracey was just a kid when he first went to work in a kitchen, helping in his great-grandfather's restaurant in Sea Isle City. Later, when Tracey moved west, to Colorado, he worked in restaurants to pay his way through college. When he made his way to Missoula to attend the University of Montana, he met Christine Littig while working at the Old Post Pub. When Littig moved on to launch the Red Bird in 1996, Tracey went with her. (Littig now owns Bernice's Bakery with her husband, Marco.)
It was Littig's vision that drove the Red Bird, Tracey says: using locally grown food to craft upscale cuisine. "It's just kept evolving from what she started."
In 2001, Tracey and his wife, Laura Waters, were looking to start their own restaurant, eyeing Whitefish as a potential launching ground. At the same time, Littig, who had just had her second child, decided she wanted to sell the Red Bird, he says.
"She offered the place to me. I thought about it. And I was like, 'Why would I started a new place when I could just do this?'"
He and Waters jumped in. They've continued to cultivate the Red Bird's reputation as a warm and welcoming spot to enjoy locally raised food prepared with five-star flair. Five years ago, they launched the Red Bird's wine bar, which offers a separate and more casual menu from the dining room, with burgers that many say are among the best in Missoula.
The wine bar has helped sustain the enterprise as the local and national economies linger in the doldrums and people eat out less, Tracey says. "It just brings in a completely different crowd."
Tracey, 38, is something of a self-made man. He never went to a culinary school. Instead, he's enlarged his knowledge and feel for food over the years through books, colleagues and, like his mother, sampling food wherever he goes. "Everything taught me," he says.
It's also his knowledge of the Missoula community that helps sustain the Red Bird. He understands, for instance, the Garden's City's appreciation for homegrown cuisine and the people responsible for growing it.
Jim Tracey's Beef Wellington
1/2 cup butter
1 cup diced shallots
6 cups diced mushroom, button or shitake
1 tablespoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup Madeira
Remove mushroom stems and set them aside (you'll need them later). Dice mushroom tops. Sauté shallots in 1/2 cup of butter until they're translucent, not brown. Add mushroom tops. Cook mushrooms and shallots until the liquid is gone. Be patient. ("Keep stirring it and stirring it," Tracey says.) Add fresh thyme, black pepper, salt and Madeira. Cook until liquid is reduced.
1 garlic bulb
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
stems from mushrooms
1 cup Madeira wine
5 cups beef stock
Cook butter, onion and carrots on low until they're caramelized. Add one whole garlic bulb cut in half. Stir in two tablespoons of flour—a roux, "which is basically a thickener," Tracey says. Add two tablespoons of tomato paste and cook the sauce for five minutes before adding mushroom stems left over from the duxelles and one cup of Madeira. Reduce again until nearly no liquid is left. Then add five cups of beef stock. Simmer for a while, then strain, and "you're good to go with the sauce," Tracey says.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Jim Tracey and his Beef Wellington
Egg wash ingredients
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon water
Mix egg with 1 tablespoon of water and 1 tablespoon of milk. That way your egg doesn't get gunked up.
Center cut beef tenderloin
Pâté—You can skip this ingredient, or substitute with another. Tracey say prosciutto is a good option.
Puff pastry—Make it yourself, or buy the shell in the grocery store's frozen food aisle.
Putting it all together
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place pâté on the flattened puff pastry. Spread the pâté across the pastry with a spoon, then sprinkle duxelles on top of the pâté before placing the tenderloin on top. Wrap pastry around the meat and brush egg wash along the pastry edges to seal the pastry shut. Roll the wrapped tenderloin over, so the seam is at the bottom.
Cut a couple of slits in the dough on top of the uncooked Wellington—this allows steam to escape when cooking and better ensures the Wellington doesn't get soggy. Use the remaining puff pastry to cut out decorations, like a Christmas tree, if that suits you. Apply decorations on top of the Wellington.
Bake at 400 degrees. Check temperature with a meat thermometer—Tracey serves the dish when the meat is cooked to about 130 degrees. Let it sit a few minutes before serving.
Peter the Pie Guy has your dessert
Peter Clavin never expected to find himself in Missoula—living in a converted Northside church with six roommates, scrambling through the communal kitchen on a Thursday night, prepping to make four apple pies and two pumpkin pies (one of each being gluten-free) and explaining how an East Coast professional became better known as Peter the Pie Guy.
A few years ago, Peter the Pie Guy was a paralegal living in Washington, D.C, contemplating his next step in life. He imagined grad school and teaching. He imagined writing. He even imagined—and ended up going on—a year-long jaunt to Lithuania, where he taught English. But becoming a successful baker of beautifully crafted pies in Montana? No way. Clavin hardly cooked at all when he moved west.
"When it comes to baking, I'm really a one-trick pony...But now I spend almost every Thursday and Friday night doing exactly this," he says while rolling dough on a wooden kitchen table and then stirring a bowl of freshly sliced apples from the Bitterroot's Home Acres Orchard. "I lose hours in here. Some nights, it'll be 2 or 3 in the morning before I know it."
Peter the Pie Guy emerged unexpectedly and mostly out of necessity. Shortly after he moved to Missoula for graduate school in 2008, Clavin's beloved pit bull, which he adopted in Lithuania, underwent two surgeries to remove a chew toy that was lodged in her small intestine. Clavin couldn't afford the veterinary bills so he organized a pass-the-hat benefit with some roommates at the converted church. Artists donated 40 paintings for an auction and others made scores of items for a bake sale. Clavin decided to contribute five Betty Lou-Berry pies, named after his dog. The event raised $1,100. The pies were a hit.
"Partly because of the reaction from my friends that night, I decided it was worth a shot to sell them at the market," he says. "That first week, I took three of the sorriest-looking pies you've ever seen—and still sold out."
Since becoming a staple at the Clark Fork River Market in 2009, Peter the Pie Guy has steadily built a devoted following. He's gone from initially selling about five pies every Saturday—at $3 or $4 per slice, $20 or $25 per pie—to 16 a day this past season. He also takes regular orders through his website (www.peterthepieguy.com) throughout the year and often barters with other local merchants in pies; his "car guy" is fixing a busted window on his Nissan in exchange for a chicken pot pie.
His extensive menu—from sweet fruits to savory mushrooms, cheeses and meats—also offers customers a choice of traditional, gluten-free or vegan pies. His signature selling points are a "perfect pie crust" made from a secret recipe, reduced sugar in the pie filling and, now, a classic latticed presentation. "If you're going to be the Pie Guy," he says, "you may as well do everything you can with the pies."
Clavin, 33, has no formal training in a kitchen. He credits his mother and brother as "great bakers" who shared with him some early secrets, including the "perfect pie crust" recipe. He's collected other recipes here and there that he liked, all of which he keeps in a beat-up blue folder from his days studying literature in the University of Montana's graduate program. The rest, he says, came naturally.
"I realized the other day that I've made over 600 pies in the same little oven," he says. "It's amazing that it's grown the way it has, that it's become who I am."
Therein lies the tricky part of Peter the Pie Guy's success: It was never his aspiration to become known for his pies. Clavin earned his masters from UM in 2009 and is currently applying to doctorate programs. He still wants to teach. When he's not working 9 to 5 at Creative Arts Publishing or baking, he publishes a local literary journal, the name of which is the French symbol "ç" (although you may call it "cedilla").
On a certain level, the pies are nothing but a way to supplement his income. "It's tough because I find myself trying not to embrace this persona all the time, and yet more and more people only know me as 'the Pie Guy,'" he says. "It's great, but I'm hoping that's not it for me."
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Peter Clavin aka Peter the Pie Guy
Watching him at work, one would never notice any struggle with identity. In the old church's kitchen, as he continues to prepare those four apple pies and two pumpkin pies, Clavin appears entirely within his element. Roommates come and go, guests pepper him with questions, Betty Lou occasionally scurries over for attention and, at one point, half the kitchen loses power. Yet Clavin never loses his rhythm, meticulously crisscrossing strips of dough over a pile of apples speckled in cinnamon and sugar. At least for tonight, Peter the Pie Guy is thriving.
Aunt Sandy's pumpkin pie, by way of Peter the Pie Guy
6 ounces pumpkin (canned or fresh)
1 9-inch pie crust
2 eggs lightly beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 cup evaporated milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine eggs, sugar, salt and spices and beat well. Blend in pumpkin. Add milk, then beat well again. Bake pie at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes.