A week from Saturday, some of the best chefs in Billings will be serving some of their favorite appetizers—more than 20,000 of them.
The occasion will be the Taste of Summer fundraiser at the Billings Depot, an outdoor, all-you-can-eat-and-drink event featuring 15 restaurants, nearly 20 Montana breweries, all kinds of wine and live music.
Some chefs serve up appetizers from their menu, dishes their diners have already voted for with their wallets. Some create appetizers specially for Taste of Summer, with plans to add them to the menu afterward.
Stephen Hindman, co-owner and chef at Stacked, 106 N. Broadway, is in the latter camp. He opened at the end of June last year and a month later, at Taste of Summer, his dish won the “Taster’s Choice” gold medal.
He called the event, which attracts up to 1,500 people, an “amazing marketing opportunity.”
“You not only get your food in their hands and in their mouths, you get to interact with them,” Hindman said. “I like my dining experience to go well beyond the food.”
Though of course it helps to have good food. Hindman’s winning dish last year was a crotini with smoked flank steak, a creamy blue cheese and poblano bacon jam. There was food leftover when the diners were done, so he offered the rest of his appetizers to other vendors, volunteers and the musicians playing the event. It’s the whole marketing thing again.
“This is a really big commitment on the part of the restaurants,” said Jennifer Mercer, director of the nonprofit Billings Depot.
The Taste of Billings, a winter event held inside the depot for the past two years, runs over two nights, with several hundred people each night. That’s still a lot of work for the participating restaurants, but nothing like having to prepare 1,500 appetizers to serve in one evening, while still keeping up with the daily restaurant business.
This is the second year of the Taste of Summer, though it actually started four years ago under the name Trailhead Brew and Chew. Mercer said the name was changed so it didn’t sound like a beer-and-chewing-tobacco party.
The Taste of Summer will be held under awnings (with heat-beating water misters) running the length of the depot parking lot, from the end of the depot complex west to Carter’s Brewing. Restaurants, breweries and wine vendors will have their serving stations set up on either side of the awning.
Among the participating restaurants this year is one that hasn’t even opened yet—Last Chance Cider Mill and Pub, the Red Lodge Ales expansion project opening this fall just down Montana Avenue from the depot.
Other restaurants, besides Stacked, are TEN at the Northern, Lilac, the Rex, Commons 1882, the Burger Dive, Wild Ginger, Don Luis, Cafe Zydecco, Oktoberfest, Dickey’s BBQ, Uberbrew, Cajun Phatties and Cafe Italia.
There are three ticketing options this year: a $59 VIP ticket that includes early admission and unlimited beer and wine; a $39 general admission ticket, good for unlimited beer with an extra charge for wine by the glass; and a $35 non-alcoholic ticket, which gives unlimited access to gourmet coffee drinks and other no-booze beverages.
The Taste of Summer is the depot’s biggest fundraiser of the year. The depot is a publicly owned nonprofit, a complex that includes four buildings and two parking lots extending along 4½ blocks of Montana Avenue.
Thirty-some years ago, the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway Depot was on the brink of being demolished when a large group of community-minded volunteers undertook its restoration, raising millions of dollars over many years.
Money raised at the Taste of Summer will help pay for continuing maintenance at the depot as well as the depot’s portion of some upcoming projects that will benefit all businesses on Montana Avenue. Those include the “Montana Avenue Magic” tree lighting campaign and a 15-passenger “bike bus.”
Mercer’s personal goal for this year’s Taste of Summer is to slow down and sample some of the appetizers.
“I created food events because I love food, but I’m always too busy to eat,” she said.
This year, to make sure all the restaurants bring enough food to serve up to 1,500 diners, vendors that run out of food before the end of the event won’t be eligible for any of the Taster’s Choice awards.
So, what’s Hindman planning to make this year? Well, in honor of the Summer Olympics in Brazil, he’s making a churrasco skewer, consisting of Brazilian cheese bread, a mixture of lamb and chorizo, roasted pepper and a cucumber to cool things down, all on a skewer, with a roasted poblano chimichurri cream sauce.
For more information and tickets, go to the Billings Depot’s website.