The fine dining experience at Missoula College is full of surprises.
The Blackfoot Café, staffed by Culinary Arts students, serves lunch Tuesday through Friday. Yes, they take reservations. And yes, you might need one.
Think about butternut squash agnolotti with thick sage cream sauce, a recent special. Now think about it for $10, served in a “river level” restaurant with front row seats to one of the three industrial kitchens where students train.
I didn’t expect Blackfoot Café to become my go-to lunch spot until I began a graduate assistantship with Missoula College last year, but once people know it’s there, they tend to become regulars.
Founded in 1968, the program’s existence surprised even chef Thomas Campbell, who became the program’s director in 2003. Campbell cut his teeth working in Seattle kitchens, owned a restaurant, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and was a chef instructor at the Seattle Art Institute before he heard about the program he now runs. It’s the only one in Montana accredited by the American Culinary Federation. Campbell credits his colleagues for what the program has become. Graduates are highly sought after, and some even own their own restaurants.
But first, they have to get through the program.
“They come in here with stars in their eyes before reality hits in the form of 50 pounds of potatoes that need to be peeled,” Campbell says.
Students’ schooling isn’t limited to the “back of the house.” Each student serves diners in the café, whether that’s retirees out to lunch, students or, well, me.
While Blackfoot Café’s salad and sandwich staples are hardly trifles, it’s the daily specials that steal the show. Standouts include eggplant cheesecake, Jamaican oxtail stew and seared scallops with beurre blanc — all at less than $20 a plate.
But for Campbell, the real gems of Blackfoot Café are the students, not the food.
Yes, Blackfoot Café is open to the public, filling a niche in Missoula’s lunchtime scene. But the students are here to learn. As a result, diners get to sample some uncommon dishes. And considering the meatloaf and mashed potatoes many of those students were cooking when Campbell first started, well…
“We’ve come a long way,” he says.
The Blackfoot Café is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with expanded brunch options for spring semester.