In Conversation with Jeremy Engebretson

On April 30, 2015, as part of Toucan's "In Conversation" series, Mark Sanderson had a conversation with Jeremy Engebretson, chef and proprietor at Lilac restaurant in Billings, Montana. They talked for about an hour and half, including some questions from the audience. The conversation covered a broad range of topics, including, among other things, the creative process in the context of the kitchen, the relationship of local and national food culture, and the challenges of owning and running a business dedicated to contemporary cuisine in a place like Billings. A snippet of the conversation is transcribed below.

 

MARK

Let's get away from talking about the public, about customers, and let's talk about the food. You sort of started to talk about it, but just tell us about the philosophy of food that you have.

JEREMY

Yeah, it's a funny line we walk at Lilac. If it was a four table restaurant, and we did fifteen [meals] a night, that would be one model that we could draw from, but we have to be ready for -- I mean on a Friday, or on a brunch, if you've ever been to brunch, we'll do 120 or 130 [meals]. If you’re trying to put a protein on the menu, and approach it from an animal, as in you're buying the whole animal, which we do ... well, there's only so many pork chops on a pig. And then you're left with 140 pounds of other product, where you just can't tell people: "well, we're out of the pork chop, but we have a random pork plate for $24, if you would wish to buy that instead." That's the nature of the beast with respect to where we are. I mean, I would love to be able to buy a pig and use that pig across the board, the whole pig, and then buy another pig, but it's just not realistic with our size. At least I haven't figured it out in our supply chain -- which is weird in Montana, by the way, in Billings, Montana, specifically -- with respect to the size of our restaurant. We've moved away a little bit from the hyper-local thing, just because -- and it's because -- of supply chain, but the thing we haven't abandoned is making everything from base ingredients.

MARK

Which is commendable. It's a great concept. It doesn't happen much around here.

JEREMY

It's funny today, the way the food market is, that it's disadvantageous to do things that way. It's crazy to me that it's cheaper for me to buy some product and cook it -- and it tastes pretty good -- rather than buy a whole chicken and break down a chicken, which costs way more than just buying individual chicken breasts or thighs. I mean, that's crazy. And that's the fight we fight to try to do it the right way.

MARK

And that's part of the vision of the restaurant, as you've said. I mean, you can sell out at so many different levels --

JEREMY

Yeah.

MARK

-- but the integrity of that is, obviously, commendable, and is not necessarily easy.

JEREMY

Yeah. If the first thing you do in the morning is butcher a pig, it's an interesting day.

MARK

Right. And … it's an interesting day.

JEREMY

That's definitely part of the paycheck you don't take home. That's valuable.

 

The schedule of upcoming "In Conversation" events is on the EVENTS page of the Toucan website.