Becoming a Chef
Updated: Apr 30, 2018
When I was a little girl, I never thought "I'm going to be a chef!” I dreamed of being a musician, an artist, or a photographer who lived in a city, somewhere sophisticated, far, far away from Poplar, Montana, and the boundaries of the Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux Reservation.
I didn't grow up in a food-sophisticated household. My parents raised eleven kids, and feeding that many mouths meant “quantity” over “quality”. Mom wasn't much of a cook, as she will attest, but Dad did have a large garden in the back yard with fruit trees and berry bushes. I remember picking fresh strawberries, corn, and green beans, and digging up potatoes, carrots, and onions to eat. My favorites were sweet onions, peeled potatoes with a little salt, and berries cleaned under the water hose. My dad never limited how many strawberries I picked and ate, as long as I would help pick weeds in the garden. Our typical weekly meals consisted of Sunday roasts with mashed potatoes and gravy, well done steaks, grilled cheese sandwiches with Campbell’s tomato soup (we were sad if it was made with water), milk shakes with Nesquik powdered chocolate, creamed peas on toast, Chef Boyardee Spaghetti in a can mixed with hamburger and chunks of cheddar cheese with sides of white buttered bread, TV dinners, Shake ‘n Bake pork chops, or macaroni and cheese. Lunches were usually bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sometimes leftover pulled chicken or roast with salt/pepper and mayonnaise, or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Our breakfast choices included oatmeal, cereal, and toast, although on Sundays after church, we got a special treat: little sausage piggies with scrambled eggs, and Karo syrup to dip the piggies in. Once in a while, someone would pull out the old waffle maker and make waffles. My favorite breakfast was buttered cinnamon-sugar toast dipped in hot chocolate. Occasionally our parents did splurge, though, and take us out to eat. At the Legion Club, I would always get shrimp scampi, along with processed cheese and ham toothpick appetizers with an olive on top. At the Tastee Freez, I ordered a “hambooger” and a chocolate-covered banana or at the Dairy Queen a cherry dilly bar.
My dad and a few of my brothers would sometimes go hunting and fishing. Most of my wild game meals growing up were eaten at Native American friends’ houses and included pheasant, quail, deer, deer liver, gaboo boo bread (another type of bread Native Americans would make with the commodities they received from the government), elk chili, and the like. Dad would take us to the Poplar Arbor, a massive round wooden structure next to the Poplar River that houses several local Native American Pow Wows and family summer functions. There I got my first tastes of Native American foods, such as tripe or dried meat soup, Indian tacos, and hominy. My pharmacist father would take us on walks, sometimes around the river bottoms and the Badlands and tell us about the birds, geology, and medicinal or wild plants in the area.
In junior high home economics class I learned to make different Native American foods, like fry bread (a fried bread using government commodities of flour, powdered milk, baking powder, and lard) and wojapi (a soup made with freshly picked chokecherries that grow wild along the banks of the Poplar and Missouri Rivers).
My most memorable meals were our many trips to my Laughing Grandma’s, Vivian (O'Toole), in Plentywood, Montana. She made this delicious chicken baked in an old refrigerator drawer served with mashed potatoes with amazing gravy with slices of onions in it, and always had a cake for dessert. The memory and smells of her kitchen still permeate my mind. She always had home-made pickled green and red beets and cocktail pickles served in glass dishes. Over breakfast, she'd let me drink coffee with her, taught me how to play solitaire, and had fresh butter and homemade jam to slather on toast. When we would stay the night at Laughing Grandma’s, the next day we would drive the eighty miles home and we would always stop in Reserve, MT, for broasted chicken for lunch and then make our way to the Mint Bar and Cafe in Froid, MT to visit my dad’s cousin, Jim O’Toole, for one of Cousin Lois’s pies before making the rest of the way home.
I started waitressing at the Buck Horn Bar and Cafe when I was
thirteen, and moved up to salad bar prep before I left for college. Owner Mert Marottek, alongside my parents, instilled in me an incredible work ethic for which I am thankful. While there, I learned to make homemade soups, cinnamon rolls, fry bread, salads, and the basic kitchen cooking skills.
Throughout my teen years I didn't eat much; my main diet consisted of Slim Jims from Boulds Drugstore, our family store of 56 years; dill pickle chips, Mountain Dew, Marlboro Light 100s, and Buck Horn Bar and Cafe pizzas, jojos, pacos, and gems. Fast forwarding to my college years, I lived off Ramen noodles. I ran with a group of hockey players who asked me to make them "Indian Tacos" since I was from the reservation. I did and pretty soon, I was asked to make spaghetti dinners for the local and opposing out-of-town hockey teams. I started reading cookbooks instead of doing my homework. I changed my major a few times from arts and humanity, to music, to accounting, to English, and finally settled on business. One could say I was a professional student during those years, but all the while, my appetite and love for cooking grew. I catered a friend’s wedding and all I could think about was cooking for a living and saw how happy I could make people through food.
Upon graduation, I opened up "The Bagel & Espresso Company" in Williston, ND. It was the first of its kind in the area. I made homemade soups, sandwiches, baked goods, and continued to cater to the college, local banks, businesses, government offices, and donated my time cooking for the dinner theatre. I threw “themed” dinner parties with friends, honed my cooking abilities, and read every food book and magazine I could get my hands on. Sadly, while a good idea in theory, the whole coffee house concept was not ready to be fully embraced in western Dakota, and I closed up shop within four years of opening.
I decided to move back to Montana and work for a childhood friend, Aaron, at his very successful West Yellowstone establishment, Wild West Pizzeria. I wanted to learn the ropes of the restaurant industry in a fast-paced tourist town. While helping Aaron, I also worked at Bullwinkle’s Saloon, the busiest restaurant in town. In the meantime, I met some pretty great people who opened my eyes to the incredible Big Sky fine dining scene.
During my fourth year of living in West Yellowstone a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant came up for sale. It was a mess, and even Aaron had passed up the space for another restaurant he had in mind. An initial asking price of $179,000 included the lease, equipment, furniture, and the cabaret beer and wine license, but it was the best location in town. It had six booths and four tables. All equipment needed to be replaced, the building was in disrepair, and everything was covered in an inch of grease and another inch of dust. The financial report noted during the peak tourist season, they grossed $80K, which was extremely low and a strong negotiating point in my mind on the selling price. After crunching the numbers, I felt it was a gold mine for a fine dining restaurant because there weren’t any in town. I offered them $30K and they literally told me to shove my offer up my arse. Unbelievably, within two days, I had a call back from their real estate broker and they accepted the offer. This was in May. I knew if I was going to make a go of it, I had to open in thirty days to catch the window of tourism, as the season only ran May to October and coincided with the opening and closing of Yellowstone National Park. With the help of a cheap Santa Claus-look-a-like carpenter who just wanted to pass his days doing anything productive, my then Park Ranger boyfriend Tim, my friend and chef at the bistro Robert, and my first waitress Luwana, we ripped out walls, carpet, and flooring; cleaned; remodeled and repainted. We opened Sydney's Mountain Bistro, and within three years had grossed a million in sales. SMB was an open slate for me, and I honed my skills and felt I had moved up to the ranks as a chef. After two years of opening, I was featured in Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and the next year, Travel and Leisure called for a winter feature. SMB was featured in many articles and our reputation became well known throughout the West. SMB was a favorite place for Dr. Stephen Covey, the philanthropist and author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, actor Robert Mitcham, and my staff served two groups of Obama’s secret service when former President Obama toured the park. More importantly, though, I would do wine tastings in the off-season for the locals and bring in guests chefs, so I could learn new techniques.
In 2011 I sold SMB to my long-time manager because of health and personal reasons. I'm happy to say the bistro is going into its thirteenth year with pretty much the same menu and business practices that made it so successful.
I have now entered into another phase in my professional life: Sydney’s Bistro Dressings, a salad dressing company, named after my former bistro and my daughter, which will be relaunched in a few months. I've tried a few businesses here and there, but keep coming back to private catering. I love to cook and have been blessed to cook for some of the most interesting people, from Hollywood stars and hedge fund tycoons, to just amazing local friends.
In May 2017, I found out the root of my fifteen-year-long medical struggles and had a grapefruit-sized tumor removed. I feel better than I have in years and am ready for my life’s next chapter. I'm not done growing and learning as a chef. I've just finished my first co-authored cookbook, The Big Sky Bounty Cookbook – Local Ingredients and Rustic Recipes*, with all my recipes from childhood until today. It's been a huge soul-searching process and I can’t wait to spread my food love with everyone who picks up a copy.
When I look back at my cooking career, I was blessed with a father who taught me about gardening and medicinal and wild plants, a mother who cooked and put food on the table for her family every single night and made loving traditions that carried on to my own family, and a Laughing Grandma who made me cherish the memories of what food can do for people. I love the communality of Native American feeds, and their culture stays with me today. I want to create meals that are not only unforgettable, but evoke feelings that can bring you back to a special place where you can remember who you were with, what you ate, and how magical that moment was.
All of this has made me become the chef that I am today.
*The Big Sky Bounty Cookbook – Local Ingredients and Rustic Recipes published by Arcadia Publishing and the History Press will be available nationwide in July 2018.
“It may be that there is no place for any of us. Except we know there is somewhere; and if we found it, but lived there only a moment, we could count ourselves blessed.” – Truman Capote, The Grass Harp