When he arrived earlier this year in the kitchen of a luxury resort in southwestern Montana, University of Wisconsin-Stout student Brent Halverson quickly assessed the landscape.
Figuratively, he had a few mountains to climb to meet the high culinary standards. And he would have to start climbing on Day One.
“I was just hoping to get out of there alive,” said Halverson, of Eau Claire.
It wasn’t just any resort — it was Triple Creek Ranch, a five-star, all-inclusive western experience in the breathtaking Bitterroot Mountains that caters to the rich and famous. It’s no place for novice chefs.
For 5½ months, from May until October, Halverson worked as a prep and line cook at Triple Creek, near Darby, Mont., while being paid and gaining academic credit via the Cooperative Education program at UW-Stout.
Challenging as it was, Halverson met the challenge head-on. When he finished the co-op recently, he was offered a full-time job at Triple Creek, an offer he’s strongly considering as he works to finish his degree in May in hotel, restaurant and tourism management.
“Having a job offer when I left was so edifying. It wasn’t easy, and that made it incredibly satisfying,” said Halverson. “Learning and being challenged everyday was irreplaceable.”
Halverson had worked for several years as a cook and chef at restaurants in Eau Claire. Triple Creek was on another level from what he’d experienced.
The quality of the food, level of service and the fact that new menu items were created daily — each part of a five-course meal — for the 55 to 65 nightly guests gave him a new appreciation for the profession.
“I had never heard of a restaurant that (has new menu items daily). Triple Creek takes the idea of hospitality very seriously. Each day I learned something new and applicable. It was like a master’s class in creating amazing dishes and using different foods every day,” Halverson said.
For example, these were the two entrees for which he was responsible one night at the restaurant: dry-rubbed elk flank steak with barbeque seasoning and house-made steak sauce, served with white cheddar polenta, an arugula and dried fig salad dressed with a Meyer lemon citronette and a garlic bread crumb garnish; also, seared king salmon with a root vegetable hash, sautéed broccolini over chevre puree topped with roasted pecans and an apple cider reduction, using fruit from the Triple Creek orchard.
Jacob Leatherman, executive chef at Triple Creek, witnessed Halverson’s progress from feeling his way around to taking charge. His techniques, flavors and plates all improved.
“From Day One to September, he exemplified some good skills and knowledge and soaked up everything like a sponge. Toward the end, he kind of took the ball and ran with it. It was cool to see,” Leatherman said.
“He’s just easy to work with, open to suggestions and really humble. The whole crew got along with him really well. We’d hire him back,” said Leatherman, who noted that the kitchen staff tops 20 people a day during the peak season.
Cooking up a new career path
Halverson’s path to a restaurant career hasn’t been a straight climb. He began cooking to support himself while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at UW-Eau Claire; coincidentally, Leatherman’s education also began with an English degree.
Halverson was considering Master of Fine Arts and Ph.D. programs when he had an epiphany. He realized after one particularly busy night in a restaurant kitchen that he much preferred the stress of preparing food to writing under pressure.
“I realized I never wanted to write another English paper in my life. In English having a deadline was almost paralyzing, but in the kitchen I could function. I feel more pushed to thrive,” he said.
That’s when he decided to return to school for another bachelor’s degree. He enrolled in UW-Stout’s hospitality management program, with an eye on being a chef but someday getting into restaurant and operations management.
“The Stout hospitality program is top-notch. That reputation brought me into the program,” he said. “I felt like my culinary education was ongoing, but I want to take the next step into management, and I couldn’t get in touch with the business side of things, management issues, without (the hospitality management program),” he said.
Learning from culinary experts on UW-Stout’s staff like professors Phil McGuirk — “an amazing chef” — and chef and wine expert Peter D’Souza helped prepare Halverson to succeed at Triple Creek. Then he learned from Triple Creek’s “top-notch” chefs.
“It was stressful to come into a kitchen and learn as you go, scrambling to get things right before guests begin ordering, but repeated successes bring confidence and repeated near misses teach valuable lessons,” Halverson said. “I found my understanding of what it means to be an executive chef at a five-star resort expanded every day.”
More students at Triple Creek
Three other UW-Stout students had co-ops this year at Triple Creek Ranch:
- Jana Miller, of Coon Rapids, Minn., hospitality management intern
- Alistair Tang, of St. Paul, ranch intern
- Ellie Weisensel, of Sun Prairie, activities coordinator
Brent Halverson works in the kitchen at Triple Creek Ranch, where he had a co-op experience from May to October.
An entrée prepared by Halverson includes pork belly with frisee, acorn squash puree and marinated huckleberries.
An entrée at Triple Creek Ranch prepared by Halverson includes seared quail breast with polenta, ricotta, roasted Brussels sprouts and herb jus.
Halverson in Montana, near Triple Creek Ranch.