I do. But then, I am already privy to Missoula’s best-kept dining secret. The University of Montana’s College of Technology (CoT) has a culinary arts department, and its students run a restaurant that, because it’s funded by the state, is not allowed to advertise (so as to not be competition for the private sector). I only know that it exists because I’ve taken a few classes there myself.
Sandwiched in a corner between the grill counter and the student dining tables in the CoT’s main building on South Avenue, the Hunter isn’t much to look at. Its institutional carpeting and high ceilings are softened by a canopy of rustic wooden poles and slats, but the AV equipment cart (for morning lectures) at one end quashes any pretense that you’re in a restaurant. Each day the short-order students serve up breakfast from 8 to 10 and lunch from 11 to 1 (including french fries and potato chips they peel and cut themselves), while the Hunter does a full lunch menu (appetizers, soups, entrees and dessert) of international cuisine that changes every week—on the recent Tuesday that I dined there, chopsticks were set on the table for the Thai/Vietnamese dishes; one week later, all the offerings would be Mexican.
At 12:30 in the afternoon, there are only a few customers—me, an elderly couple, a pair of teenagers (possibly from Sentinel High next door, rather than the CoT) and two UM employees—with but a single server, 21-year-old Nicole Taranto, who is a student in the five-week “Dining Room Procedures” class (she doesn’t get to keep her tips). A kohl-eyed native of New Jersey who grew up in Bozeman, Taranto is a transfer from the main campus, having spent two years as a journalism major before deciding to embrace her love of food.
I order Thai iced coffee (sweetened with condensed milk and steeped with star anise and cinnamon, $3) and check out the menu, knowing that Taranto can discuss what’s on it with unusual authority. Not only has she probably tasted all the dishes (is there anything worse than a waiter who hasn’t?), she’s also cooked at least a portion of them, depending on which other five-week classes she’s already taken. In addition to “Dining Room Procedures,” the program’s “station” classes are “Meat and Vegetable Cookery,” “Soups, Stocks and Sauces,” short-order (officially called “American Cookery”), “Garde-Manger” (cold items) and “Baking.”
“My favorite things we make all year,” she says of what I order, a $5 mixed appetizer plate (“Taste it all!” the menu suggests) with beef satay and peanut sauce, a salad spring roll, a shrimp quenelle on sugar cane and a steamed “lotus bun” with char sui pork.
Many students struggle with the program when they first enroll, but Taranto wasn’t one of them.
“What surprised me was how many people do think it’s too hard,” she says. “But I knew cooking wasn’t as glamorous as the Food Network makes it seem.”
Taranto wants to open her own restaurant, but probably not for seven to 10 years. After finishing the program she hopes to spend three months in Europe, and is applying for a five-month job in Antarctica (to pay her student loans), as well as a prestigious internship at Disney World.
The knock on eating at a culinary school establishment, of course, is that the kitchen is still learning. Mistakes are bound to happen (including on the menu, which on this day offers something called a “croque monsure”). But I know firsthand what it’s like to have Thomas Campbell, Tom Siegel and Aimee Ault, the school’s three chef-instructors, chide you for not spot-cleaning a plate with vinegar, or describe the color of your too-cooked green beans as “military,” or dismiss a dish you spent two hours on as “diner food.” And I was only in the introductory class, where no one but the teachers and your fellow students eat your cooking. No one in the station classes—which, together, make a single working kitchen—wants to send out average food or shoddily presented plates, probably even more so than in many local restaurants.
“The types of kitchens you have [in Missoula], it’s about getting things out in a timely manner,” says Oliver Fresquez, a student in my intro class with 14 years professional experience (most recently at the Montana Club). “Here it’s about the perfection.”
Of course, both the teachers and the students also know I’m in the dining room (sorry, no Ruth Reichlesque disguise). They would want to nail it for a former classmate even if I wasn’t also writing for the Independent. And sure enough, the mixed appetizer plate, which also includes a fiery-sweet delicious nuoc cham dipping sauce, is great. The beef satay is tender, and the shrimp quenelle, which has been mixed up in a Robot Coupe (food processor) and steamed, then grilled, has really balanced flavor. The only thing I don’t enjoy about the meal is that I’m not one of the people making it.