At Home on the Range
Chef Ben Jones elevates Montana cuisine with refined ranch menus at the Paws Up resort, where guests choose from fine dining to chuck wagon dinners.
Ben Jones waited nearly 10 years for his dream job to come around. Now, as executive chef of The Resort at Paws Up in Montana, he’s gone from cosmopolitan city chef to cooking chuck wagon dinners and managing the exclusive fine-dining outlet Pomp.
The 250-room luxury resort in Greenough—about 30 miles east of Missoula—is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This month, Jones will head up the resort’s signature event, Montana Master Chefs, which brings acclaimed chefs from around the country for a food festival. This year’s festival is a roundup of chefs from Chicago, the city where Jones spent much of his cooking career.
Chef Jones grew up in Florida, where he started working in restaurants at the age of 14. During high school, he had the option of moving to Montana with his parents, but instead he opted to enroll in The Culinary Institute of New Zealand. After graduating, he moved to Cincinnati and cooked under the tutelage of the former Arboreta’s Anita Hirsch Cunningham in the late ’90s, and later under master chef Hartmut Handke in Columbus. Along the way he spent summers in Montana, falling in love with the scenic landscapes and peaceful lifestyle.
Now, his workday might be anything but peaceful at this multi-million-dollar resort, where Chef Jones oversees a culinary team of 45 people, eight dining venues, a 180-seat dining room, five campsites, nightly chuck wagon dinners, and a boatload of private events during the summer. Occasionally he even conducts private cooking demos and dinners in the cabins on the resort.
“I [traveled] back and forth visiting Montana for the last 21 years, trying to find a way to make it my home, but making it out here as a chef is not easy,” Jones says.
The availability of chef jobs in Montana pales in comparison to the opportunities Chef Jones found working in Chicago, where he clocked time at the fine-dining institution Tru, and at the luxury Peninsula Hotel.
When Montana resort jobs do open up, they are highly coveted and highly competitive. That’s why—when a position at a Montana resort opened up while he was working at The Peninsula Hotel—Jones jumped at the opportunity. Turns out, that job wasn’t as perfect as he had anticipated, so he returned to Chicago, where he spent five years working for Levy Restaurants. All the while, he kept tabs on the Paws Up Resort, which had opened when he was in Montana.
“That was eight years ago,” Chef Jones says, adding, “I’ve been waiting ever since for that executive chef job to open up.”
Worth the Wait
“I truly embrace every day because it’s such a challenge,” he says. “We can have up to 250 guests at a time, and our nearest competitor has room for 150. You have to have the energy and a little insanity to deal with it.”
The resort welcomes a diverse customer base, from international travelers to visitors from both coasts, and locals who come in for dinner.
“Working with guests and focusing on impacting the business from the sustainable side of things is the epitome of who I am as a chef,” he says.
Jones has made a name for himself and the resort as a proponent of local foods and as a leader in growing the Montana food scene. He sources wild game, lamb, and bison from local ranchers to create an elevated and nuanced menu—like the popular bison tenderloin dish he serves with a brandied summer cherry gastrique. In spring he buys morels and other mushrooms from a local forager; in summer, when Montana sees the bulk of its harvest, he finds local produce from greens to tomatoes to radishes and zucchini. In the fall, he relies on local carrots and potatoes as well as more greens from local hoop-house greenhouses. Last year he got lucky with late-harvest strawberries—a rarity in the cold-weather, meat-and-potatoes-centric region.
“In just the last two years, I’ve tried to transform the school of thought at Paws Up as far as how we identify what we want to use locally and how we can get it,” Jones explains. While he regularly shops at the Missoula farmers’ market, he finds it’s more efficient to connect with farmers ahead of the growing season to plan for different crops and meat, especially given the high volumes his menus require.
“We’ve been actively planning ahead with the ranchers instead of just calling a local broadliner to get 50 pounds of lamb,” he says. Working with and buying direct from the farmers and ranchers guarantee better access to these foods, and it also helps the local economy. “It’s one of those things every chef wants: Our bison rancher will call us and say, ‘I just processed 30 head of bison and set aside two for you because it’s the quality I know you like.’ ”
Chef Jones has also tried to help his guests gain access to local Montana foods as well. “A guest asked where I got the lamb for the rack of lamb dish,” he says. “I gave them Harv’s name and number, and now he even ships direct.”
Though Jones concludes most evenings wrapping up at the fine-dining centerpiece Pomp, he never misses doing the rounds at the nightly chuck wagon dinners. “That’s something I’m really passionate about,” he says.
Jones and his team work from an authentic 1880s-era, canvas-topped chuck wagon with cubby holes for equipment and coolers for the food, cooking tomahawk steaks, baked beans, grilled corn, and even elk porterhouse over an open fire pit set with grates. “It’s so authentic and reminiscent of the Lewis and Clark experience,” Jones enthuses.
And then there are the resort’s events that are held throughout the year—like the Paws Up Montana Long Table, a three-course, communal al fresco dinner that celebrates local food and is held three times during the summer.
Outside of the kitchen, Jones keeps busy working other fires. The son of a fire chief, Jones is a certified wildland firefighter and a medical first responder who volunteers with the local fire department. “The sense of community I feel working for the fire department makes it so rewarding I don’t think I’ll ever leave,” he admits.