Chico Chef Dave Wells Earns James Beard Nod for Culinary Excellence
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
For Dave Wells, the memory of sharing a Beef Wellington with his grandfather in the hunting lodge-like hall of the historic Chico dining room is something he will never forget. That experience has stayed with him for a lifetime, giving him a unique sense of place about Chico Hot Springs, a family-owned resort nestled in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountains in Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park.
Now working as Executive Chef at the Chico Dining Room, Wells strives to bring the sense of place to each dish he creates.
“What does it taste like to live in Paradise Valley?” Wells asks. One season, he explains, he hunted, felled, dressed and prepared an elk. Wells says the flavor of the elk represented the “terroir” of the surrounding country, a specific “taste of place” he works to refine and share with diners at Chico.
“Wild elk is similar to beef grown in the area because the feed is the same,” he says, noting that he sources local grass-fed beef from area ranchers as one way to put the flavor of Paradise Valley on the table at Chico Hot Springs Resort.
The creativity and passion Wells shows in the Chico kitchens has earned him notice from the James Beard Foundation, who chose Wells among 20 fellow chefs, nearly all of whom are located in Seattle or Portland, as a Beard Foundation semi-finalist for the Pacific Northwest. The nod is an honor akin to Oscar nomination in the food world and indicates Chef Wells is on track to earn even greater accolades for his work in the culinary field.
Trained in the kitchens of Montana, Wells’ career started as a happy accident when doing a favor for a friend. The Naked Noodle in Bozeman had lost a dishwasher and his friend, the manager, called him in a panic and needing help immediately. Wells agreed and went to the restaurant that night to help out where he could. He started prep cooking almost immediately and soon moved up in the ranks to chef.
Eventually, he started work with the Triple Creek Ranch, a luxury resort in Darby where, he says, the sky was the limit as far as resources and supplies, and he was able to learn and experiment with an endless, specially-sourced pantry. Chico Hot Springs owner and manager Colin Davis spotted Wells’ talent and hired him 2017 to run the Chico kitchens.
Davis says initially he was astonished by the natural ability and heart of the new hire. “He’s so passionate about food,” he explains, noting that in decades of resort management, he’s never met anyone with Wells’ inherent ability. “It’s apparent in the amount of care in the work he does,” Davis adds.
“He’s a forager. We’ve had morels every week on the menu for the entire summer because Dave has gone out and picked them, washed them, and prepared them. We’ve never had that before. He has a commitment to food and quality I’ve never seen before in all my experience running restaurants and dining rooms,” says Chico owner Colin Davis.
Being recognized as a James Beard semi-finalist in the Pacific Northwest is quite a distinction, Davis says. “For Dave to get recognized from Pray, Montana, is a great honor. His food could hold its own with anybody’s, past or present. Its fresh, driven, and creative.” Davis adds that Chef Wells has reinvigorated everyone at Chico.
“It’s definitely a dream job,” Wells admits. Wells and Davis chat at a high table in the Chico wine cellar. A soft-spoken man, Wells appears humble in a chef’s apron fastened with metal buckles rather than strings, and rolled-up shirtsleeves in the absence of the traditional chef’s coat. “You’re encouraged to go kind of out of the box, chase down dreams,” he says of his work at Chico.
Many of Wells’ dreams have already become realities. After envisioning the idea of a tasting room to host small, multi-course dinners for patrons, Davis built the wine cellar and created the space. In the soft lighting of the cellar, Chico Hot Springs can now accommodate up to six people for unique meals, surrounded by an extensive wine collection curated by Chico’s past and current owners.
Davis has given Wells free rein to seek sources for everything from sake-finished Japanese beef to unique caviar, along with the full utilization of a historic Chico resource, the hotel’s garden and geothermally-heated greenhouses, which have been in operation for over 100 years. The extensive gardening operation is under the guidance of Jeanne Duran, who oversees maintenance of a facility that includes raspberry bushes, rows of seasonal greens and a number of large greenhouse structures which house flowers, tomatoes, peppers, bushy bright-green basil plants, micro-greens and other grown for use exclusively at the resort.
Chef Wells uses a variety of produce from the garden and greenhouses on the grounds as well as seeking local sources for what he terms “things that can also only be found in Paradise Valley.” Micro greens, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard from the garden are on the menu nearly every night during the growing season, along with salad greens, fava beans, spinach and tomatoes. A wide variety of peppers are grown to make Chico’s signature hot sauce, and raspberries from garden bushes end up in balsamic vinegar used in the kitchens and for sale in the resort gift shop. Honey from 60 beehives on the property is ubiquitous in the kitchens and in Chico products for sale at the resort.
“We’ve never had anyone take such advantage of the garden,” notes Davis, indicating Wells’ use of ingredients to craft specials for the dining room and products for the resort shops.
Wells is continually asking, “How can we make it better? How can we move forward?” and Davis is happy to facilitate new ideas.
When Wells wanted to start using whole animals, Davis invested in band saws and building a space for butchering. Wells credits his experience working on a ranch in Lolo in helping him to come up with unique ways to use every part of a whole animal in culinary preparations. For example, if they bought six lambs, they could have rack of lamb on a special menu for a few nights, then leg of lamb on a special menu, and then maybe even grind lamb and create a shepherd’s pie on a special menu.
Davis and Wells have also recently built a space for fermenting. “There’s no end to the creativity of Chef Dave Wells,” says Davis.
Wells demurs and says he owes his success to a great staff who are dedicated to hard work and eager to learn and improve. He considers his right-hand man, Sous Chef Tracy Wein, instrumental in helping him run the bustling kitchen.
Half a dozen cooks work chopping, rinsing, sautéing and dishwashing behind the swinging doors to the kitchen in the iconic dining room at Chico. Midday on a weekend means the night will be busy, and each worker has a list of duties they power through as Wells pulls a large jar of vegetables from a walk-in cooler.
In the jar is one of his “experiments” with kimchi, a fermented vegetable salad; this particular version is made with roasted corn and chipotle along with traditional cabbage, carrots, and Korean chili powder.
The flavor is sharp and complex, hot enough to jolt the taste buds but savory enough to demand multiple tastings. His excitement at the response of the samplers is apparent. Do we like it?
The concoction is superb and compliments abound. Wells beams with a simple smile before beginning preparation of the “Chico Garden Kimchi” which is a staple in many dishes and specials from the kitchen.
In assembling the dish, Wells and his sous chef head outside to pick fresh Napa cabbage, kohlrabi, carrots, and scallions from the Chico garden, just steps away from the back door of the kitchen.
After rinsing the vegetables, Wells demonstrates the brining process used for the cabbage by mixing a cup of salt and a gallon of water and weighting the cabbage in a large pot with a plate. This brine is set aside for six hours before the cabbage is removed and rinsed.
Wells chops the remaining vegetables along with pre-brined and rinsed cabbage and creates a puree of chili powder, ginger, garlic and fish sauce before tossing the mixture together with the vegetables and packing in a glass jar (see detailed recipe below).
He proffers a taste of an earlier-made version of the simple kimchi. The flavor is fresh and tangy and ultimately addictive, another variation from Wells’ kimchi imagination.
Wells grew up in the South, in Nashville, but spent some of his young life in Wallace, Idaho. He moved to Denver in 1996 as the Rocky Mountains drew him to a different lifestyle and he eventually found his way to Montana. Having lived in Montana now for 17 years, he says he is absolutely “living the dream and having a dream job.”
Wells says he takes great pride in “being able to work with all the fine people at Chico, as well as having the freedom to create amazing dishes for a dining room with fairly unlimited resources.”
Chico Garden Kimchi
1 cup Kosher or sea salt
1 gallon water
2 heads Napa cabbage
1 kohlrabi bulb/julienned
1 carrot julienned
1 bunch scallions
cut to one-inch pieces
1/2 cup Korean chili powder
2 pieces of ginger (two inches each)
4 cloves garlic
1/3 cup fish sauce
Wash cabbage and chop into one-inch pieces. Mix salt with water. Place cabbage in the brine and weight with plate to keep the cabbage submerged. Leave cabbage in brine at least six hours or overnight.
Remove cabbage from brine and rinse. Puree chili powder, garlic and ginger and fish sauce.
Mix all ingredients thoroughly and pack in a glass jar leaving a little head space, cover with lid, and leave the lid loose so air can escape.
Place jar in a pan to collect any overflow and leave on counter or in pantry at room temperature. After about three days, it should be ready to eat but it can ferment longer for stronger flavor.
When ready, store in refrigerator.
Photos by Lindsay Wells