Raising the Bar at Rainbow Ranch Lodge in Big Sky, Montana
Just one-hour southwest of Bozeman lays the town of Big Sky, Montana. The area is famous for its Rocky Mountains and ski resorts. Nestled along the Gallatin River is the western-contemporary Rainbow Ranch Resort. The first thing you notice pulling into the driveway is how small the resort appears from the road. But that is pure deception because behind the main lodge is the quaintest log cabin rooms.
The first thought that entered my head when I saw the ranch and Gallatin River: “A River Runs Through It,” the movie directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt. Having just arrived in the state, it’s my first night in Montana and what a welcome. Checking into our rooms, I Instantly fell in love with my room and the rustic setting of this luxury boutique lodge (See property review). An hour later, heading to dinner in the main lodge, I was captivated by the choices of entrees available on the menu at The Restaurant, I expected quality, but not haute-cuisine.
Ordering a huckleberry martini to start the evening meal, we selected appetizers to begin. Tasting the Bacon Wrapped Mesquite Grilled Prawns appetizer – I’m overwhelmed with a heat and taste explosion in my mouth. The grilled prawns are delicious. The next appetizer of Rosemary Lamb Sirloin Skewers melts in my mouth with a combination of sweet and savoury flavours. The main entrees of Montana Wagyu Beef and local trout dishes were exceptional as well. The wine list is extensive, with solid representation from California, Europe and some new-world wines from Chile and Argentina.
Impressed by the dishes Executive Chef Jake Irwin had created, I decided to learn more about his inspirations and how he landed at the Rainbow Ranch Lodge.
Chef Irwin Answers a Few Questions:
Q: Tell us about your background and what inspired you to become a chef.
JI: I grew up in San Luis Obispo, California, where my culinary adventure began. I quickly discovered my passion for food after finding myself glued to the Food Network channel 24/7 and looking forward to cooking for family and friends.
Q: Who inspires you in the food world?
Q: When did you start working in a restaurant?
JI: My first job was as a dishwasher at the age of 15 at the San Luis Obispo Country Club, where I was able to excel very quickly. I worked at numerous restaurants on the Central Coast, including McClintock’s Steak House, Alex’s BBQ, and Cugini’s Italian. These hands-on experiences and working side-by-side with multiple chefs helped to develop my culinary skills. I also learned the importance of researching and developing new recipes and menus and why a strong work ethic is a vital asset in a kitchen setting.
Q: Tell us about your culinary journey.
JI: I wanted a change from California, so I moved to Prescott, Arizona, in 2004. My first cooking job was at the Palace, Arizona’s oldest historic restaurant and saloon. My first big promotion came as a Sous Chef at the Talking Rock Golf & Country Club.
I was ready for another adventure which took me to the Marie & Clear Lake Water Lodge in Alaska for the summer of 2007. I was given another promotion as the lodge’s Private Chef, where I was able to forage for my wild berries, mushrooms, and herbs and fulfil guests’ requests of the freshest salmon. After the summer of 2007 came to an end, I ventured back to Scottsdale, Arizona, where I landed a Sous Chef position at Sierra Pointe and worked alongside Executive Chef Jesse Sarres.
The next opportunity took me to Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club working with Executive Chef Eric Emlet from 2009 to 2014. Finally, I was a private chef for Albert Belle, a well-known MLB All-Star in the 90’s.
Q: Why did you settle down in Montana?
JI: After spending ten years in Arizona, I was ready for another adventure. Of the six states I spent time in, I decided I wanted to return to my favourite: Montana. This beautiful state introduced me to fishing, hunting, and outdoor living as a young boy in Stevensville.
I spent many summers fishing the Wise River at Billy Stockton’s Ranch with my father and sister. These factors, including the beauty of Montana, influenced my decision to set down roots in Big Sky. I was also motivated to continue the development of my culinary skills and resumé and land my dream job.
As the season was coming to an end at Superstition, I saw the Executive Chef position for Rainbow Ranch Lodge. As I continued researching the property and surrounding area, I knew it was the perfect fit for me.
Q: How do you source your ingredients for Rainbow Ranch?
JI: The Rainbow Ranch Lodge has a reputation for fine dining, excellent guest service, and as one of the top wedding venues in the state. The lodge attracts many visitors throughout the year.
The lodge’s proximity to an area rich in farm-to-table purveyors allows me to source all my food through local vendors. Many travels to the site to experience Montana produce, beef, and wild game.
When I first moved to Montana, I was surprised by the depth and scope of the produce and speciality meats I was able to get my hands on. Natural grass-fed beef is the best I have ever tasted.
Q: Foraging in the wild is one of your favourite sources of produce. Where do you go to find wild produce?
JI: Montana has endless hidden gems. I have found wild mushrooms, herbs, wild berries, and game. Each day throughout the summer, I would go hiking, fishing, and foraging for wild morels, chanterelles, oysters, and porcini mushrooms.
For the morels, I go to the higher elevations, generally, new growing areas where forest fires have burned. Chanterelles like more moisture and the cover of trees, I was just able to go in my backyard of Old Hell Roaring Trail and along the Gallatin River for oysters and porcini.
Q: Do you worry about close encounters with Wild Life, like bears?
JI: When I go out, I always have protection from bears and keep a survival pack. I go out with my two dogs, Wiley, German Short Hair & Capone, and Jack Russell. Bears are generally scared of dogs, so they keep their distance and I have never had any issues. In any encounters from Alaska or here in Montana, the dogs just run them off.
Q: Who are your primary customers — regulars, locals, and tourists?
JI: The Rainbow Ranch Lodge sees a varied group of guests. Most of our visitors travel during the summer and holiday months. They are looking to explore everything the area offers: fishing, horseback riding, Yellowstone National Park, hiking, skiing, and much more. The ranch allows guests to experience Montana’s awe-inspiring nature and then return to the lodge and have a fine dining experience at the end of each day. A perfect mix!
Q: What are some of the popular items on your menu?
JI: The most popular items on our menu are local game and fish: elk, bison, trout and salmon. I am developing a local charcuterie program, Beer Fest events, a Champagne Breakfast Menu and Summer BBQs to add to our Fine Dining program.
So what’s next for the Big Sky Chef?
Montana is where my heart belongs and a place I can see opening my own restaurant based on Montana’s natural, local and fresh food!
We can’t wait to explore Chef Irwin’s new menu on our return visit!
For information about Rainbow Ranch Lodge:Rainbow Ranch Lodge 42950 Gallatin Rd, Big Sky, Montana Telephone: (406) 995-4132
NOTE: Visit Montana Tourism arranged my visit to Rainbow Ranch Lodge. All opinions expressed in this article are from the Interview with Chef Jake Irwin.