Helen Keller once said, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Certainly, when it comes to great food, her words hit home.
At times, a dish’s smell can have an almost otherworldly effect, sparking emotions, memories and images from afar. For the area’s top local culinary artists, this phenomenon weaves into daily life. For them, the power of smell serves as a swift communicator, a welcome sign and even, as Keller once hinted, a chance to transport customers to other times and places.
At Billings’ The Fieldhouse Restaurant, owner and chef Ben Harman spends his days teaching his staff to prepare dishes that light off all of the senses. For Harman, food’s scent can be part of a fuller dining experience.
“It’s always fun creating an experience for people,” Harman says. “It’s about feeding and sharing with people.”
This very personal experience is drawn out through chef Harman’s home life and it influences the dishes he focuses on perfecting in his restaurant. When it comes to uncovering the laid-back comforts of home, he turns to the scent of a local specialty: beef.
“Seared beef, to me, is very particular and it hits very close to home for a lot of people,” he says.
At The Fieldhouse, Harman takes this classic flavor a step further with his uniquely crafted bison oxtail dish. Working with the essential waft of seared, caramelizing beef, he likes to take his time when braising the meat, allowing flavor to rise out of the depths of bones and muscle. He then adds parsley, thyme, garlic, bay leaf, peppercorns and tomato paste to open up what he considers a magical aromatic quality that lives naturally in herbs.
“Fresh herbs are another thing people don’t necessarily know how much they enjoy,” Harman says. “We all love smelling herbs, just like we smell flowers. They have such a natural aromatic quality, and to eat them is just such another element.”
Beyond beef, he uses herbs to build an experience when crafting other dishes, especially soups. A food long associated with inviting people in, Harman focuses on creating welcoming aromas when creating soup. He likes to start many of his recipes with a consistent mix: a roasted mirepoix of onions, garlic, shallots and ginger. He sweats vegetables, consolidates flavors and lets the scent build. This aromatic base serves as the cornerstone of the broader experience he feels is essential in dining.
“It’s all about developing flavor,” he says. “A lot of really classic food is great because it is well-thought-out and well-conceptualized.”
Not far from The Fieldhouse, another local culinary expert, Jeremy Engebretson, chef and owner of Lilac Jeremy, is well aware of the influence great smells have on the body.
“Aroma is supposedly the strongest sensory trigger we have in our bodies,” Engebretson says. “It’s very conscious in everything that we do.”
For Engebretson, the smells of homestyle cooking influence the dishes and messages he tries to create for customers.
“Long cooking times, the smell of beef shoulder and this warm, simple homey feeling drives me back all the time,” Engebretson says. “That nurturing level that we had when we were younger finds its way into what we do.”
Like Harman, Engebretson has a special connection with the nostalgic smell of beef. However, he likes to present it in a unique dish that is an unchanging staple on his Lilac menu: the braised short rib with gnocchi.
“The gnocchi hits home with the Montana farm scene,” Engebretson says. “Just get the gnocchi. You’ll feel it. It never fails.”
The braised short rib and gnocchi dish takes several hours to put together. After making signature potato dumplings, Engebretson prepares the meat with a demi-glaze, letting a mixture of carrots, onions, celery and peppercorn set into the meat. After a braising process that takes upward of eight hours, the dish is finished with Italian parmesan and lemon juice.
“There’s nothing that matches that smell of when you have a tough cut of meat like a short rib and it hits that hot oil and starts to sear and braise off,” Engebretson says. “That is instant youth and warmth and comfort just all wrapped up in a pan.”
Both Harman and Engebretson hold a list of favorite food scents. However, regardless of technique or personal preferences, these local experts in cuisine agree there is a pleasant power in the aroma of great food.