Michael Muirhead’s first brush with the James Beard Foundation Awards came in 1998.
It was his first day on the job at the famed Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills, and he was hoping to meet the owner-chef, Wolfgang Puck. But Puck was not there that day. He and two of his top chefs were finalists in different categories of the James Beard contest that year, and they were off attending the awards ceremony.
The second brush came last year, when it was announced that Muirhead, the owner of Más Taco in Red Lodge, was one of 20 James Beard semifinalists for the title of Best Chef in the northwest region, encompassing Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
A week ago, he found he’d done it again—the only chef in Montana to make the list of semifinalists in the Northwest region. In all 21 categories there were 420 semi-finalists—pared down from 24,000 nominees.
Last year was a good year anyway for Más Taco, Muirhead said, with business up 45 percent over the previous year. But there was definitely an uptick after news of the honor started circulating.
“We saw a lot of first-timers in that era,” he said, “people wanting to know what the hype was all about.”
The hype was all about good, fresh, authentic Mexican food, the kind of food that brings people like Red Lodge resident Willis Johnson coming in week after week. He was there Thursday, getting lunch to go for him and his wife.
“It’s the only place we really go out,” he said. “It’s my wife’s favorite place. Mine, too.”
One of the specialties is pork “al pastor”—pork roasted on a spit with Mexican spices, served with pineapple and thin slices of onion. As with the other dishes on the menu, it can be served as a taco, empanada, quesadilla or burrito. Más Taco also serves carne asada, stuffed poblano chiles, chicken and shrimp dishes and homemade soups, salads and salsa.
It also makes its own pickled carrots as a garnish. The carrots are so popular they are packaged and sold at Más Taco, as well as at Moon Lake Market and Beartooth Market, both in Red Lodge.
Muirhead opened Más Taco a little over six years ago at 304 N. Broadway, in what used to be a Conoco station directly across the street from the Red Lodge Carnegie Library. It is a cozy little place, with 13 seats in the winter and about triple that number when the patio is open.
Muirhead did a lot of traveling before settling down in Red Lodge. A native of Southern California, he began working in his uncle’s restaurant in Camarillo in 1986, as a senior in high school.
“I started working there shucking oysters—my first job,” he said. There would be many restaurants after that, but it was while working at Norbert’s in Santa Barbara in 1990 that he decided to make a career in the kitchen.
Norbert’s was small, 24 seats, but it served five- to seven-course meals every night. There were a few regular items on the menu, Muirhead said, but for everything else, “I got to come up with my own dishes every day,” often based on what was available at a nearby farmers’ market.
He was going to college then and working 60 hours a week, until it dawned on him that being a chef was all he wanted to do. He quit school and never looked back. Over the years, he said, he worked in 24 restaurants.
“I’d go where I wanted to be and find the best restaurant,” he said. Highlights included a stint in Columbia, Calif., at a “very French” restaurant, and a job in New Hampshire, where he worked as a baker and pastry chef.
After New Hampshire, he decided he needed some European experience. Torn between France and Italy, he concluded that Italian was an easier language to learn, so he moved to Florence, where he spent seven months working in two restaurants.
After returning to California, he worked in Sacramento and Los Angeles before landing the job at Spago in 1998. He started as a line cook making minimum wage and worked his way up to right-hand man to the executive sous chef.
In addition to cooking for the restaurant and its catering business, Muirhead said he was heavily involved in Spago’s biggest event of the year—catering the Governors Ball at the Academy Awards. Between the lunch and dinner crews, there would be as many as 50 people a day in the Spago kitchen.
“It was overwhelming how many people could work well together,” he said. The most important thing he learned from Puck and his restaurant, Muirhead said, was that no matter how many people were working, or how big the event was that you were working on, the smallest details were always important.
“It gave me an appreciation for the highest level of cooking,” he said.
But it was intense. He regularly worked 70 hours a week, he said, more than 100 hours a week in the lead-up to the Academy Awards. He knew that if he ever wanted to settle down and start a family, it wasn’t going to happen if he was working at a place like Spago.
So he quit, and he doesn’t think it was a coincidence that he met Jenny Boggio four months later, at a Starbuck’s in Burbank. She was a native of Red Lodge, working on a master’s degree at Claremont College.
Eventually, they went back to Camarillo together, where Muirhead’s uncle asked him to fill in for a chef who’d left his restaurant—the same place Muirhead started his career—after many years.
Muirhead worked there while making plans for his own restaurant, Safire, which he opened in 2006, also in Camarillo. He worked at Safire for six years while overseeing the kitchen at his uncle’s restaurant. In 2010, by which time he was married and Jenny was pregnant, he sold his share of Safire to his other partners and moved to Red Lodge to settle down.
Having visited Red Lodge over the years, he said, “I always thought it would be great to live here.”
He originally planned to open a hamburger joint, until he and Jenny realized there were no Mexican restaurants in Red Lodge. He had never worked in a Mexican restaurant himself, but he had friends in the industry from all over Latin America and he’d prepared a lot of Mexican dishes for family and friends.
It appears to have been a good choice.
Asano Otsu, the general manager at Más Taco, said people, particularly people from the Southwest, are often amazed to find such authentic Mexican food high in the mountains of Montana.
“We get that all the time,” she said.
Michael Winn, who cooks at Más Taco, swears it true. “I’m from San Diego and they’re still the best tacos I’ve had,” he said.
Muirhead is obviously proud of making the James Beard list of semifinalists, but he doesn’t appear to be in danger of letting it go to this head. Thursday morning, as he talked about the competition, he was simultaneously preparing the weekly empanada special—this week an empanada stuffed with roasted beets and feta cheese.
He was using an ancient Cuisinart food processor to mix the beets, feta and cream, which only worked if Muirhead manipulated the broken “on” button with a wooden food skewer.
He was talking about how, when the five finalists are announced this spring, they would be watching on a television in the kitchen.
“If I win,” he said, “I’m buying a new Cuisinart.”
Details: Check out Más Taco’s Facebook page for daily specials and other news. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 11 to 9 in the summer. It is also open in the summer on Sundays from 11 to 4.