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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."
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
*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.
Mix ingredients together and put a dollop of mixture on soup.