Distinctly Montana GAL
TOP OF HER GAME
Missoula Restaurateurby Jim Gray
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“Many Oysters – Only One Pearl”
In 2015 Pearl Cash will mark her 40th year in the restaurant business.
She grew up on a farm in the Bitterroot where the family had to grow or raise just about everything they ate. Pickled and preserved vegetables and fruits were a mainstay of the family’s wintertime diet.
Professional cooking didn’t figure into her career plans until shortly after graduating from high school when she worked at a restaurant in Hamilton and the owner invited her to cook with him. She says she identifies that moment as the time when she got hooked on the restaurant business.
Her eponymous restaurant, Pearl Café and Bakery in Missoula, is one of the city’s premier dining establishments. Her fondness for French cuisine, along with nods to classic American foods and an approachable wine list make for an extraordinary evening out.
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What inspires you?
I can’t think of anything more inspiring or satisfying than going to a farmers market and seeing beautiful ingredients because that always challenges me to be creative. You have to work with whatever you have on hand—what’s freshest or in season or even working with what I call a limited palate.
Now I’d like to know who inspires you?
I love the honesty and straightforward approach to food and fine dining from Patrick O’Connell (The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA). He and I are about the same vintage and we share an approach that doesn’t pay much attention to what’s “hot” or trendy. He doesn’t chase fame—like being a “celebrity chef” on television.
I also admire the work of Francis Mallmann (author of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way). I really appreciated the way it appealed to my Montana roots and since I enjoy outdoor activities, cooking over a fire—in a number of different ways really resonated. In fact, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking in my fireplace at home.
And let me give a shout-out to my staff in the kitchen—a bunch of young guys I really enjoy cooking with—they keep me on my toes and thinking currently. They do some cutting-edge stuff without going for all of the methods-of-the-moment like molecular gastronomy. On the other hand, they’ve opened my eyes to how good techniques like pickling and fermenting can be. That takes me back to my childhood. We used to do that because it’s mostly what our food supply was in the winter, and it never would have crossed my mind to apply that in the context of a restaurant.
There seem to be a lot of influences from your previous restaurant, the Alley Cat.
Yes, in fact I’ve incorporated many of the same sauces, and a number of entrees will make an appearance on our menus at Pearl Café.
Tell me more about the Alley Cat.
The essential thing you have to know is that it was tiny. It was a very narrow space and I don’t think we could accommodate more than a dozen people at a time. The kitchen was so small, only two of us could fit in there—plus the person who washed dishes.
Where do you see your restaurant going over the foreseeable future?
First of all, I read many of the (culinary) trade magazines and blogs and I don’t think what the “ingredient of the moment” or what’s happening in the dining scene in larger cities will have much effect (in our restaurant). I see the dining world going toward a more casual approach with more options for customizing one’s dinner.
And even though I’ve edited my menu, I still think we may need to make it smaller—perhaps go prix fixe or maybe just some limited choices.
I know for certain that this will be my last restaurant. After 40 years of cooking commercially, I’ve done what I can. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking about A Table in the Tarn, that chronicled a British writer’s labor of love, turning an old French inn into a world-class dining destination. But that’s just me daydreaming.
Do you have an overriding philosophy on food?
From day one, I’ve stood by and behind the food I love. I want eggs from chickens, milk from cows, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats. I’ve stayed the course and I intend to keep it that way.
Pearl Café and Bakery is located at 231 East Front Street, Missoula, MT 59802;
Open Monday to Saturday from 5 p.m.
Phone (406) 541-0231 for reservations.
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About the Author: Chef Jim Gray is a Missoula-based culinary instructor and restaurant consultant. He was the 2005 American Culinary Federation Montana Chef of the Year. He now operates the Kitchen Guy Cooking School in Missoula. As a restaurant consultant he creates, remakes, and reimagines menus for food and beverage establishments.