Executive Chef Ian Anderson took the reins of the historic Northern Hotel kitchen more than a month ago, and already there is a new pulse.
Some time had passed since I’d stepped into Bernie’s Diner, the Northern’s breakfast-and-lunch cafe, and it was quieter back then. On this Wednesday morning, behind the counter, staff busily filled cups of coffee and gathered plates of food for the customers who filled the seating by the west-side windows.
As I waited to talk to Anderson I anticipated a toque-topped gentlemen attired in white. So I was surprised when the man with the black cap and black short-sleeved uniform greeted me as he took utensils and napkins to reset a table. Then he stepped over to the awaiting customers, welcomed them and directed them to their tables. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a chef emerge from the kitchen to perform front-of-house duties.
As we moved through the hotel to finally settle in for a talk at TEN, the Northern’s main restaurant, Anderson continued to greet guests and open doors. Bernie’s Diner and TEN are side by side at First Avenue North and North Broadway, in the heart of downtown Billings.
Asked why he was working tables at Bernie’s Diner, Anderson said that in his role as chef, “you have to understand the demographics. I don’t know that unless I am out there. I need to know their needs and wants and wishes. I cannot drive the menu without knowing what people want. I want to turn the rough gem into the diamond it could be.”
Anderson also wants to lead by example.
“I don’t mind taking the time to re-energize the staff,” he said.
As part of that effort, he introduced the new all-black look in kitchen-staff clothing. He said it was the first time Northern owner Mike Nelson had allowed the change.
For the record, Nelson is pleased with his new chef.
“There is a special personality in this part of the world,” he said. “People are very genuine here,” and he wanted a chef who could fit in with the Montana culture. “He chose us as much as we chose him,” Nelson continued. “He was driven. It was a campaign from him to get the job, too.”
Besides, Nelson said with a smile, “The man can make a steak.”
Executive Chef Nick Steen left the post at the Northern early in the year to go across the back parking lot to Walkers Grill and Tapas Bar. He replaced Marlo Spreng, who is now the executive chef for Sodexo at Montana State University Billings.
After almost 25 years with Princess Cruises, Anderson understands catering to large crowds. He worked at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge early on, when the hotel was more intimate. These days, the lodge has over 600 rooms with seven dining outlets, which does not include catering options. In 2003 Princess merged with Carnival Corp.
“Everything was developed with a handshake,” Anderson said, recalling his early days with the outfit. “The company is now too corporate. It took away the personal service.”
“I’m an old school kind of chef in a new world,” he said. Friends with a bison ranch in Livingston told Anderson about the opening for a chef at the Northern. At first, he thought he could help Nelson recruit the new person for the vacancy. But then Nelson asked, “What about you?” and invited him to come to Billings.
“He’s direct, funny, quick-witted,” Anderson said of Nelson. “Very much like me.”
What Anderson thought would be a few days of investigating the job turned out to be five. He was here helping behind the scenes when Garth Brooks was in town. And he did his homework.
“I invaded staff,” he said. “I invaded the hotel,” wanting to know everything about the Northern.
“I have taken care of VIPs and dignitaries all of my life,” Anderson said. In 1999, he became Gov. George W. Bush’s executive chef at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. For six years,after Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, Anderson cooked at the ranch when the family took refuge from the White House.
He remembered the 18-month process when the Secret Service was checking out his background. His two sons were young then. They enjoyed the company of the Secret Service, especially at school, relishing the attention they received. Anderson himself had one agent assigned to him 24/7.
When Anderson was not working for the Bushes he worked for Princess Cruises. In Waco, Texas, he worked with Vicki and Randy Parker’s company, Bestyett Catering. Anderson takes pride in having increased the revenues of what was a “small mom and pop catering company” as it became “the wedding guru of the South.”
Anderson looks forward to cultivating off-site catering for the Northern. Just as in Texas, he said, “You have hot summers. We need to have the tents, the vehicles, the equipment, to effectively have an event outside. It will be fun to help and develop.”
For TEN, Anderson plans a new menu, to be released early this month. His goal: “To create smart, effective dishes that do well, sell well consistently.” And he wants the “Northern to epitomize fine dining.” With his years at Princess, he has the resources and connections to bring in products sourced from around the nation. Soft-shell crab flown in from Virginia, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and steaks from the Montana Waygu Cattle Company in Belgrade will be on the menu. He promised there would be everyday items, too, including vegetarian options.
Nelson said the Northern is also working with Chef Bill Jensen, chef instructor at the Billings Career Center, to set up a hydroponic gardening system to grow herbs and tomatoes for the hotel. Anderson looks forward to bringing these the students into the kitchen for culinary training.
As the fifth chef since the 2013 reopening of the Northern Hotel, Anderson is hoping to play a big role in bringing back the grandness of this historic place.