Nick Steen has been summoned back to Billings. He has returned to his hometown to command the kitchens at the Northern Hotel.
With the four-letter word—CHEF—emblazoned on the fingers of his right hand, his intentions are obvious. Soon Steen will interweave his style of fire and ice through the hotel’s food offerings for events, meetings and the restaurants TEN and Bernie’s Diner.
Having grown up in Billings, graduating from Senior High School in 2003, Steen knows the Billings palate. He is accomplished in traditional cooking methods, yet he also used liquid nitrogen in a recent Montana State University Billings chef competition, part of the “What’s Cooking?” lecture series. Steen, with sous chef Wally Bone, won the competition.
Steen left Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Ranch, after finishing most of the winter season, to don the executive chef jacket on March 19 in the Northern Hotel kitchen. Accompanied by his wife, Ashley, and 4-year-old son, they left behind “a small town, snow and mud” for the biggest city in Montana.
Steen admitted “pestering” general manager and owner Mike Nelson for the job.
The former executive chief, Tim Freeman, publicly announced on Jan. 21 that he was moving on to a new job in Colorado. That was the night he and a crowd of supporters sat in the Northern ballroom and watched the show “Beat Bobby Flay”—the highlight of which was that Freeman beat Bobby Flay.
“I saw the job opening in January, but I was not ready to leave Lone Mountain Ranch then,” Steen said. He says he had wanted to work at the Northern since its reopening.
“Nick had to compete for the job,” Nelson said. “We had resumes from all over the U.S.”
Nelson’s standards are tough; he expects employees to be entrepreneurial and yet fit in as part of the team. A worker’s priorities should be “customer, fellow employees, and ‘I’ come third,” Nelson said. With Steen, Nelson is confident he has made the right choice.
“For 30 years, I have hired a lot of chefs,” he pointed out. He worked in hospitality management in Las Vegas and other places before purchasing the hotel with his brother Chris in 2009.
Steen credits Chuck Schommer, owner of Buck’s T-4 in Big Sky, with spurring confidence in his culinary capabilities as he “planted a seed that I could do it.” Steen worked for Schommer at the Yellowstone Club about 10 years ago. Schommer set an example of being a “happy chef with a family and kids,” Steen said, adding, “Chuck instilled in me that one could be a good leader and a good chef.”
Steen’s path included exploring careers in medicine and law. He jokingly places “scalpels and chef knives” on the same level. After spending three winters at the Yellowstone Club, he worked at Johnny Carino’s and Weebees in Bozeman. He even sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and worked as a “lunch lady” at Monforton School.
“I got to work with kids teaching cooking classes,” he said, beaming. Then, as a firefighter for a short stint, he managed to feed the crew on occasion.
Most of Steen’s skills have been learned on the job and from the Internet, specifically YouTube videos.
“I was really inspired by watching TV and started teaching myself to cook,” he said. “When I watch someone do it, I can do it too.”
“There is no book on how to use liquid nitrogen,” he continued. “I had to try it and experiment.”
Steen surrounds himself with talented chefs and cooks, and consults seasoned professionals. Celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, and Sean Brock of McCrady’s Restaurant and Husk in North Carolina provide inspiration. Locally, Steen is within shouting distance of Executive Chef Marlo Spreng at Walkers American Grill and Tapas Bar.
When traveling, Steen seeks out eateries frequented by locals. On a recent trip to Wichita, Kan., he researched fried chicken in “hole in the wall” restaurants. In Detroit, he researched ham from hocks to shanks. Yet Steen acknowledged that his favorite food is tuna casserole. He confessed to surviving on Top Ramen and Hot Pockets in the lean years as he was starting out.
Heather Hale, food and beverage manager at the Northern Hotel, works closely with Steen. Hale’s main responsibility is to “communicate the company’s mission from location to location.” Hale, with a civil engineering degree, is analytical, making sure the kitchen and bar staffs have the ingredients to serve customers.
The menu will remain the same until the end of May, according to Steen and Hale. Steen wants to work with the menu and evaluate what steps need to be taken next.
“We do not need an entire new inventory, or totally new recipes. I would rather be in the kitchen and make changes one at a time. I want to do this intelligently.”
Steen’s food philosophy is: “fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable.” “Local” to Steen extends to the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Washington as well as Idaho.
“I love shellfish and seafood, and the beef is amazing here in Montana,” he said.
Fun has come into the kitchen with Steen’s arrival.
“Every time I step into the kitchen I learn something new,” he said. “It is a team effort in the kitchen. You should be passionate about cooking. It is important everyone has a voice in what we do.”
On the flip side, he said, “I take everything in the kitchen seriously, but it is in a lighthearted way. You should be the best you can be. You should give the best you can.”
Hale added, “I have not seen this kind of excitement in the kitchen. Every single cook was in the kitchen at the first meeting. The energy is incredible.”
Mike Nelson said that the last few years for him have been mixed emotionally.
“We wanted a path for TEN, a five-year plan. I want TEN to be a staple, a restaurant guests can depend on. Right now, we are exactly where we need to be.”
Steen has similar feelings.
“I am so unbelievably happy to be here,” he said.