With a calm, collected and often playful attitude, Northern Hotel Executive Chef Tim Freeman took on celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a culinary showdown and came out the victor.
The Food Network show, “Beat Bobby Flay,” aired Thursday evening, and the Northern held a special screening party to celebrate Freeman’s victory. As Freeman was declared the victor on national television, the audience belted out cries of enthusiasm and congratulations.
Before the show began, however, Freeman delivered the news of the night, announcing his resignation from the Northern Hotel. He has accepted the job of executive chef for a new Hyatt being built in Aurora, Colo., and departs Saturday.
Mike Nelson, general manager of the Northern Hotel, has been working with executive chefs for more than 30 years and said he’s never seen one stay much longer than two years , which is just about how long Freeman was employed at the Northern.
“It’s natural,” Nelson said, “and when you’re on a national stage like Tim, they are going to give you a call right away. We are sorry to see him go.” Nelson also said that the Northern would continue a program begun by Freeman, of providing culinary lessons for battered women in partnership with the Center for Children and Families.
Freeman said his decision was based on what is best for his family, and the offer in Colorado was too good to pass up. He will have the opportunity to work as a corporate chef and to work with an international company, something he’s wanted to pursue.
The news came as a surprise to many audience members who gathered in the Northern’s ballroom to watch Freeman’s network television debut Thursday night, in which Freeman’s culinary skills were put to the test.
For the chance to cook against Bobby Flay, Freeman was first pitted against Nookie Postal, former chef for the Boston Red Sox and owner of Boston’s Commonwealth. The two chefs were presented with a surprise ingredient selected by Flay, which they had to incorporate into a dish that was judged for presentation and taste. The top chef advanced to challenge Flay to cook a dish of their choosing.
Flay chose peanuts as the first ingredient. In an almost comical first round, Freeman’s Korean chili paste grilled shrimp rose to the top. Postal scrambled in the kitchen while Freeman remained calm and focused. When asked how they were doing, Freeman replied, “Doing well. Very confident,” while Postal replied, “Going to throw up, but I’m good.
When he advanced to challenge Flay, the dish Freeman chose was pad Thai. He selected it knowing that Asian food isn’t Flay’s forte, and is something Freeman has spent his culinary career studying and preparing.
Freeman flew to New York last June to film the show. “I didn’t sleep,” Freeman said of the night before the show, “because I didn’t want to let anyone down. I knew if I made it to the second round, I’d have a slight advantage. I knew if I got a chance to face Bobby, I could beat him.”
Cooking professionally can sometimes be a dog-eat-dog competition where people are out for themselves, Freeman said. This could be one reason why cooking competition shows are so popular, giving rise to the celebrity chef. People love a good battle, and chefs have become as famous in their own trade as rock stars.
Freeman knows this life all too well. He was head chef at the glamorous Soho Room in Moscow, a glittering three-story space with a vast dining room, bar and club.
“I became a monster there,” Freeman said. “I would have burnt out quickly. I would have died young.”
Freeman left Russia for the Philippines, a place where he had previously gone on vacations. He began work at the Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa, where he met his wife, Ailleen, who was working at the resort as well. They soon resigned to start their own restaurant.
In the Philippines, Freeman found much to inspire his passion for Asian cooking. Being immersed in the cultural identity of such cuisine for four years was invigorating. Freeman had an itch to travel, however, and started looking for a new job.
“I wanted to visit new places, learn about new things, new cultures, new food,” he said. He found a position in Nairobi, and he and his wife moved to Kenya.
Freeman lived in Kenya, where his son was born, for two years before. Around the same time, though, Freeman’s family was dealing with traumatic loss. Both Freeman’s mother and stepfather died in separate car accidents.
“I felt guilty. I felt like I let my brothers down,” Freeman said of his two brothers living in Texas, where they grew up.
That consideration, and the fact that he had a young son, helped Freeman decide it was time to be closer to family. “It was the right time for me to come back,” he said. How did he end up in Montana? Freeman said living here was something he always wanted to do.
“Westerns were my diet of TV shows growing up,” he said. “I viewed Montana as this rugged place with horses running everywhere and people walking down the streets with six-shooters on their sides.”
When he was researching Montana, Billings came up as one of the best places to raise a family, and when the Northern job popped up, he jumped at it. He had lived outside the United States for 10 years before bringing his family to Montana to take on the role of executive chef at the Northern.
Freeman got into the food business as a high school student in Ohio. A chef named Craig O’Brien came to his high school to talk about the culinary profession, and Freeman felt an immediate connection. Before long he was hanging around outside the chef’s door, asking for a job.
“He either took pity on me or got tired of seeing me and gave me a job as a dishwasher,” Freeman said.
Under O’Brien, he worked in a private banquet facility in Columbus, Ohio, for a wealthy family. There were 50-plus parties a year serving anywhere from two to 1,500 people, with foods from all over the world brought in to create elaborate dishes. Here Freeman learned about flavor profiles, food textures, colors and presentation—the building blocks of his career.
O’Brien, now a chef in Colorado, described the environment as a place where excellence was demanded and nurtured.
“We had tremendous freedom,” he said. “That made our kitchen into a pressure cooker, from our own passion and our own seeking out of excellent results.”
In O’Brien’s kitchen, Freeman learned a major lesson: It doesn’t matter what the chef thinks about the food; it matters what the guests think about the food.
“So many of the lessons of the kitchen are not about food, they are about patience and looking for things to come to fruition and flower,” O’Brien said. “It’s about preparing for and doing the work ahead of time. It’s about being patient with each other, knowing things will go wrong, but celebrating the good that happens.”
O’Brian became a mentor and father figure to Freeman. “I learned a lot of cooking skills from (O’Brien), but by watching him and being around him, I learned what it is to be a man and a leader of people,” Freeman said.
Freeman went on to work with Wolfgang Puck at Spago, was chef de partie (a station chef) at the White House during the Clinton administration, and worked for the governor of Ohio before moving overseas.
Freeman was honored for his culinary skills and inducted into the World Gourmet Society in 2012—the only chef in Nairobi at that time to receive the honor. While cooking in Kenya, Freeman was named the most innovative chef in Africa, biggest trendsetter, and honored for having the best fine-dining restaurant.
Last year, Freeman attended the World Gourmet Society’s festival, bringing international recognition to the Northern Hotel. Following the festival, Freeman was contacted by the Food Network to appear on “Beat Bobby Flay.”
Freeman has considered quitting the cooking profession. When he first entered the business, he worked Christmas parties, on Thanksgiving, through weekends. “I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
Packed with stress and tension, cooking professionally is a high-energy, high-stakes occupation. Freeman often forgets to eat. His stress levels have caused headaches and nosebleeds.
When asked what keeps him cooking, Freeman replied, “The best job I ever had wasn’t being a chef. But cooking gets in your blood. Once you get it in your blood, it’s hard to get out.”
This embedded love of food is expressed in Freeman’s menus. Each dish is designed to creating a distinct feeling when viewed and eaten.
This merger of food and a particular feeling is gaining traction in Billings. A handful of establishments are shifting away from the traditional Montana dining experience focused on lengthy menus featuring giant meat-based dishes to meals that are visually appealing, focused on ingredients, creative composition and stimulating palates.
When Freeman works with food, he thinks about where it came from and what influenced the dish.
“Our brain thinks in patterns based on past experiences,” he said. “When you think about food, there is always a reason why a person chooses to make this or eat this.”
Watch for Chef Tim Freeman’s Bobby-Flay-beating pad Thai on the Northern’s upcoming spring menu, and if you didn’t get a chance to catch him on the Food Network, visit the network’s website and watch for the show to be posted online.
Freeman will appear on “Beat Bobby Flay” again in the summer, since previous winners are brought back for a rematch. Freeman is also going to be a guest this spring on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” in which contestants outwit and, at times, sabotage opponents in order to win.