Missoula Restaurant Owners & Chefs:
Curtis Strohl and Nate Jerrell – Mercantile Deli

By BOB ZIMORINO

“Owners and Chefs” is a restaurant section with a twist. To fill either position, chefs and owners must be able to wear many hats: Cook, server, human resource manager, repair person, negotiator, mediator, psychologist, bookkeeper, and more. Armed with his top 10 questions, Bob Zimorino takes a peek behind the kitchen doors to find out how these local restaurateurs view the restaurant business, in their own words.

I met Nathan and Curtis through my nephew, Alex. They worked together at Bravo Catering and the two of them decided to strike out on their own. Curtis went to Culinary School in San Francisco. I asked him his thoughts on coming out of cooking school as compared to working your way through the business. He said the mistake that a lot of the people coming out of cooking school make is assuming that working in a real restaurant will be like what they learned in school.

Nathan, on the other hand, has worked in restaurants throughout his life and ski bummed around for nine years before settling back in Missoula. Having tried other jobs, he found that he liked working with and creating food, and no matter how hard he tried, he found himself back in the food business. Originally, it was all about earning money but turned into something else the further he moved up the chain.

Curtis made a reference to Snow Bowl in the interview and, although it never came up in the interview, I noticed that they offer a sandwich called the Z Man’s Revenge. It’s named for a popular ski run that was named after my brother and old restaurant partner Nick (Alex’s father).

There are a lot of eateries in Missoula. Why should a prospective diner choose yours?

CS: We take a lot of time and a lot of care in the food that we make here. We roast our meats, the beef and turkey. We use locally-made bread. Every sandwich is made to order. The soups are made fresh. Everything that we can, we make in house. A lot of places you go into are pretty generic but we really take a lot of care in developing our recipes. It makes it a great experience for the customer.

NJ: Freshness is very important, so we slice all of our meats and cheeses to order. It keeps it moister and fresher that way.

Being located south of Front Street but north of the Higgins Avenue Bridge offers limited parking. How does it affect your business?

NJ: We have a lot of residences and downtown workers, what with the bank and the Wilma. There is really a lot just within a close block walk. Obviously, someone that needs to park close may not be able to, but being part of downtown more than makes up for it.

CS: We also offer delivery to downtown businesses. It’s a good location.

What dish is your signature dish and why that particulardish?

CS: We have a sandwich called the Pork Love that is a grilled Panini. It is pretty unique. It is pork shoulder served confit style – braised in it’s own renderings. It’s considered a real treat in the south of France and has become more popular around the world for its succulence. We shred that. It has a red chile sauce. It has pickled red onions and havarti cheese. I have never seen anything like anywhere else before. Whoever tries it has been really impressed by it. We have a lady that comes in and every time it is Pork Love and a side of cole slaw. She doesn’t even have to order. I am writing it down as she comes in. It is a great sandwich.

What would you want it to say to the person that orders it?

CS: Well first, it has a wonderful aroma. It is a hot sandwich and it looks really good as it’s being set down. All of our sandwiches look great. As Nate said, we slice everything to order so the colors are right. They don’t sit around and lose their color and get all dried out.

NJ: You get so much more life out of a roast by not pre-slicing it up. We brine our turkey breasts and it is amazing how moist they are.

What is your favorite dish prepared in another Missoula restaurant?

NJ: (without hesitation) Chorizo and Fries at the Red Bird.

CS: Yup. I would go with that.

NJ: They make their chorizo in house, grill it up, and serve it right over the top of their frittes (fried potatoes) with caramelized onions and stuff. It is greasy good and throw in a beer…there’s nothing wrong with that.

As a place to do business, whyMissoula?

NJ: It’s where we live. I was born here. I left for a while but moved back here to raise my family. I just love it here. I like the community, the people here are easy going and nice. It is a nice place to be.

CS: It is a great place to raise a family. I moved here from Indianapolis in 1996. I lived in Red Lodge for a year then went to culinary school in San Francisco, but my heart was always back here. There is Snow Bowl and a lot of great little communities around here.

What is your least favorite cooking trend?

CS: I don’t like the glitziness that comes with it, a lot of which we can thank the Food Network for. The textbook we used in culinary school was “The Art of French Cooking.” Julia Child at her best, really. I just like those classic things. It’s not about glitzing it up. It’s about good, hard work and attention to detail, really taking your time and being patient and making sure things are right. It’s not magic. Shows like the Iron Chef don’t really show you what is really going on in a restaurant kitchen. It gets cut and edited before we ever see it. It doesn’t portray the real stresses of working in a kitchen.

NJ: Along the same lines, I don’t like the whole celebrity chef trend. I don’t see this business as really very glamorous. It’s hard work and it’s stressful and hot. There are a lot of different circumstances to working in a kitchen day in and day out. Not so much here in our sandwich shop, but in a true full kitchen with a hot line. It doesn’t matter if you’re the sous chef, the pantry chef or whatever, you’re in there working hard. It’s not very glamorous.

That being said, it’s the Iron Chef competition and you are up. Who would you rather be up against: Bobby Flay or Cat Cora?

CS: I actually met Cat Cora before. She did a special seminar at our cooking school. I was not impressed. This was before she was on the Food Network, but you could see even then that she was grooming herself for something.  I’d go against either one of them. I wouldn’t be worried.

NJ: I have seen more of what Bobby Flay has done so I would probably challenge him, just for hell of it.

CS: Are we talking Iron Chef or a wrestling match?

Do you work with family members here?

CS: Nooooo. We try to keep the family out. At the end of the day we (he and Nate) don’t have to go home together. We have another life.

NJ: We both have a lot of time working together so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Bravo was good for us because you had to spend a lot time figuring out, “How are we going to make this work?”

CS: We would take a mobile kitchen to a location we’ve never been and, often times, prepare a menu that we’ve never done. There was a lot of thinking on our feet, making it work. With that kind of pressure you either learn to hate someone or you build camaraderie. Camaraderie obviously works better because you can reach your common goal easier.

NJ: You get to a job and it isn’t what you expected. A rough turn and all of the stuff in the coolers falls off of the shelf, platters break, and you go, “Shit we’re on-site. Now what do we do?”

CS: Gear breaks down…

NJ: You’re under a lot different stress in those circumstances.

What do you think when you hear someone say: “I never really worked in a restaurant but I think owning a restaurant looks likefun.”

NJ: (laughs) A lot of times people really don’t think it is as hard of work as it really is. They think it would be fun as a place for their friends to hang out or it’s something cool to own or a status symbol or something. It is more like a hobby or something. I don’t know. I think they’re out of their minds.

CS: A lot of young people think, “Well I’ll just go to culinary school,” even though they have no restaurant experience. It is very expensive and often ends up being a huge waste. If you aren’t willing to wash dishes right from the start, don’t even apply. School worked out for me but I understood it was going to be hard work. You need to go to work in a restaurant to really understand what it all means. Older, investor-types need to realize that hobbies are supposed to be relaxing and fun, you know like tying flies or something. This is not relaxation. There is so much more stress that comes along with it. Our families are our fun time.

Give me 5 words to describe your restaurant.

NJ: Quality, Thoughtful, Handmade, Detailed…

CS: …Robust

BZ: Thanks, fellas.

Both: Thank you.

The Mercantile Deli
119 S. Higgins
(406) 721-6372

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Bob Zimorino is a full-time real estate agent with Lambros/ERA Real Estate, a retired Certified Executive Chef, a Musician with the popular local band Hellgate Rodeo, a dad, and a grandpa. He shares the experiences from his life that helped shape his careers and hobbies. His weekly “Taste It” blog gives a behind-the-scenes look at Missoula’s restaurant industry.