Chef, Bistro Enzo
From a young age, chef James Honaker displayed a passion for cooking. He attended the New York Restaurant School (CIA) as well as Le Notre in Paris, developing a keen understanding of European cuisine. James’ repertoire of experience stretches from coast to coast, with positions at top-rated restaurants in San Francisco and New York, including Le Bernardin. In 1992, he brought his big-city expertise to the quieter setting of Billings, opening Walker’s Grill with his brother. Only six years later, he opened Bistro Enzo. Honaker is a three-time James Beard Award nominee.
“Back in the late 1980s, I sent an application (in poor French) to Giradet, a restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland,” Honaker says. “The chef, Freddy Giradet, had never allowed an American to work in his legendary restaurant. I applied as a dishwasher and mentioned that we shared a mutual love for cycling. I didn’t get the job, but he did reply with a personal letter.”
Favorite Meal to Prepare
“Pristine fish. What I like most is cooking fish,” he says. “That goes back 30 years ago when I was working in New York. Fish requires a little bit more timing, but if it’s done well, there is nothing like it.”
Travis B. Stimpson
Owner and Chef, Local Kitchen and Bar
Born and raised in the small town of Lodge Grass, Montana, Travis Stimpson had few opportunities when looking for his first job. Instead of settling for the grocery store or gas station, he decided to pursue his interests and made the commute to Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café. After eight years at the Trading Post, Stimpson applied at Walker’s Grill. He served as sous chef to four different chefs over the course of four years at Walker’s, spent a year learning the art of baking from the great John Rainey at Grains of Montana, served four years in the kitchen of Café Italia and was sous chef for Jeremy Engebretson at Lilac for three years. When the opportunity arose for Stimpson to have his own restaurant, he partnered with John Heenan to open Local Kitchen and Bar.
“My love of cooking came to me early on,” Stimpson says. “I was raised on a ranch and because that lifestyle runs by no schedule and is completely responsive to weather, crop and cattle conditions, you simply never knew what your day would entail. One day my mother would make lunch for three and the next day she’d do lunch for 30. It always astounded me, her ability to create so much from so little and to be able to make so many people happy. Seeing my grandmother and my mother always working in billowing clouds of steam, with the smell of sweet and savory filling the air, made me want to know more about this world.”
Biggest Kitchen Disaster
“I had been asked to prepare Indian tacos for a visiting basketball team,” Stimpson says.
Only 18, he found himself alone with four electric stoves each cooking two pans of oil.
“Somewhere in the middle of all that I spilled oil over the side of one of the pans,” he recalls.
Soon, the entire pan was on fire with flames growing taller by the moment. After discovering the cabinet with baking soda was locked, he melted a lid and burned some rags trying to stifle the blaze, before finally smothering it with damp towels. Somehow, he finished all 130 pieces of bread and cleaned up the mess before his guests arrived.
Owner and Executive Chef, Lilac Restaurant
The Petroleum Club
Jeremy Engebretson’s first exposure to the restaurant industry came in Glendive, Montana, where he worked for his aunt’s restaurant.
“I have always loved the industry and have planned on running a restaurant since as far back as I can remember,” he says.
While attending school for information systems and economics in Missoula, Engebretson spent days working as a programmer and nights working at restaurants. It was at Scotty’s Table in Missoula where he learned the basics of scratch sauces, homemade pasta and breaking down seafood. Through networking and hard work, Engebretson was hired at The Ranch Club, a restaurant in a private golf course near Frenchtown.
“I took a chance and quit my then salaried/faculty position at the University of Montana to be a sous chef at a restaurant,” Engebretson says.
He moved his way up to executive chef, then left to cater for about a year before moving back to Billings in 2009. The success of his own restaurant, Lilac, prompted the Petroleum Club to hire him on as general manager.
During Engebretson’s time in Missoula, he enjoyed taking trips to Oregon, relishing the food and scenery. On one of these adventures, he asked the two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Gabe Rucker if he could stage (work for free) at his home restaurant, le Pigeon, in Portland. Rucker agreed, even allowing Engebretson to work for him a few times.
“I loved the dining, the menu, the style of service and that was definitely a motivating influence on how Lilac was, especially when we opened,” Engebretson says.
Culinary Icon and Inspiration
“Like so many following America’s rebirth of fine dining in the ’90s, I grew up a huge fan of Thomas Keller,” Engbretson says. “The French Laundry Cookbook really was the first of its kind, and a lot of the style and especially the appreciation of ingredients, technique and finesse hold true today.”
Kevin Andrew Cole
Stacked, a Montana Grill
Growing up in a single-parent household, cooking became an important outlet for Kevin Cole. While his mother dedicated herself to working 16-hour days, seven days a week, Cole decided he needed to help take care of his younger sister. This involved learning to cook. He watched old episodes of Julia Child’s cooking show or Iron Chef for inspiration and often experimented with new flavors. High school was a struggle.
“Having ADHD made school tough, and without a parent in the home to focus and help me with my homework, I failed,” Cole admits.
He eventually dropped out of school and found himself at a crossroads. Yet, his love of cooking never faltered.
“To this day I believe cooking saved me,” he says.
Cole eventually enrolled in the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colorado, where he excelled. Working at restaurants in Denver, Colorado and Billings, Montana, Cole acquired a diverse range of knowledge, honing his palate and craft along the way.
“To me, my story is proof that hard work, an iron resolve and dedication to your passion will take you wherever you want in life. Never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough, or that you can’t,” Cole says. “I love what I do, and who I’ve become because of it. I am blessed to be married to my soulmate that gave me three beautiful children. I love talking about food, I love teaching people about food, and I most definitely love eating food.”
Words of Wisdom
“Food is an adventure better shared with others.”