A culinary sorcerer dwells in the Paradise Valley. Executive Chef Dave Wells performs cooking magic among the geothermal waters at Chico Hot Springs Resort, earning him recognition in 2019 and 2020 as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef in the Northwest and Best Chef: Mountain.
On this day, as a mystical haze hovers around Emigrant Peak and I join him in the kitchen, Wells boils and toils, combining ancient practices with current food science and art. The private wine cellar known as the Tasting Room serves two to six guests, and is the gastronomic stage for Wells’ creations, while in the historic dining room he continues to satisfy guests with favorites like Beef Wellington and the Orange Flambé, stirred with memories and comfort.
Wells was born into a military family with a father in the Army stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. After his birth, his mother moved him and his sister to Wallace, Idaho, and following a year in Okinawa, Japan, his dad rejoined the family in Idaho, taking a job at the Lucky Friday mine. In the 1980s, after the mine closed, Nashville became the family’s home.
At nineteen, the allure of the West beckoned Wells and he headed to Colorado to snowboard. “I wanted to hunt elk,” he says of his move to Denver, while fly fishing called him to Bozeman. He finds joy in the outdoors, in hunting and foraging. “I like the connection to the moment. Whether it’s hunting for mushrooms or elk, I am completely focused on what’s happening, and in that sense, it’s almost like meditation. Things I may have been worrying about are put on hold or forgotten completely, because at that moment I am just focused on finding that mushroom under a leaf or the elk that’s over the next ridge.”
While pursuing university studies at MSU, Wells took jobs in construction, delivered pizzas, and washed dishes at Naked Noodle. “It was one of my favorite places for lunch,” he says. He began prepping food there, and after a month was cooking on the line. Before long, he moved into the kitchen at Papoose Creek Lodge, now renamed the Sun Ranch, in Cameron.
Environmental studies brought Wells to Missoula, where he had the opportunity to work under Chef Tony Underkoffler at the Rattlesnake Market and Café. It was with Underkoffler that he learned the importance of cooking from scratch. “He taught me to set my bar high,” Wells says. “This is where I learned to take pride in what I was doing, and to do it well.”
Doing it well led Wells to another position at a luxury lodge: the Triple Creek Lodge in Darby. Th en, in 2017, Wells took the position as sous chef at Chico Hot Springs, and soon thereafter became executive chef.
A year later, collaborating with Chico’s owner Colin Davis, the Tasting Room opened. “When guests come here, we want to represent Montana and the Paradise Valley,” Wells says. With the seven- or twelve-course menu, and the option of wine pairings orchestrated by Davis, Wells views the Tasting Room as an intimate experience. He visits with diners, talking about food and the local area.
“Dave is the ultimate student of food,” Davis says. “He seems to be abreast of everything old and new.” From his collection of several dozen cookbooks, Wells derives many innovations, leaning on titles like Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking; Peter Gilmore’s Quay: Food Inspired by Nature; and Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation by Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky.
His current favorite sorcerer ingredient is the koji mold, Aspergillus oryzae, a white fluff y filamentous fungus used to break down complex carbohydrates like those found in rice or barley into sugars for creating the alcoholic beverage sake, and the fermentation of soybeans for soy sauce and miso.
“It’s amazing how people determined that koji was good, since it is closely related to deadly toxic molds,” Wells marvels. In determining the success of the enzymatic process, he says, “They say to trust your nose when fermenting,” as the aroma should be good, even inviting.
Behind the main lodge, inside a stone building, a gathering space accommodates ten to sixteen guests. At the rear is a small kitchen stage where guests can watch Wells’ team perform final touches. Wells experiments here: persimmons for hoshigaki in fall, and currently, containers of salmon, bison, and barley aminos curing in koji and 12-percent salt.
He readies the protein for koji-cured bison, prepared with winter squash purée and raspberry wine reduction. When he cuts open a vacuum bag holding bison steaks marinated in koji, rosemary, thyme, and juniper, scents of wet pine waft into the air. As the meat sears on the hot cast-iron skillet, smoky flavors of caramel and mushrooms, redolent of an open campfire and forest, entice the palate.
At Chico Hot Springs, Chef Dave Wells continues to wave his wand to combine ancient and modern cooking while showcasing Montana’s bounty.