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Eric Gruber, the head chef at the Horn and Castle restaurant at Lone Mountain Ranch resort. (Tamra Bolton/Lifestyles Magazine) 

As the head chef at the Horn and Cantle at the Lone Mountain Ranch resort in Montana, Chef Eric Gruber has found a place in the culinary world.

Born and raised in southern California, Gruber had an unlikely beginning for a career in culinary arts. Growing up with busy parents, he and his younger brother often relied on TV dinners. It wasn’t until Gruber was in college and started cooking that he discovered a love for experimenting with food.

Catching and cooking surf perch and Dungeness crab to stretch his meager college budget, Gruber had a penchant for making food flavorful and creating innovative cooking methods.

He dropped out of college and enrolled in Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he flourished in the culinary school's supportive environment. After graduation, he worked in several places, picking up skills and tips from fellow chefs.

Meeting his future wife also influenced his culinary skills. She is of Latin descent and Gruber enjoyed spending time at her parents’ house where something delicious always was simmering on the stove.

He also was influenced by Dan Barber’s book "The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food," which offered a  different way to think about food.

The Horn and Cantle's menu is driven by the availability of local produce and meats. From Montana bison, Wagyu beef, locally-raised lamb, eggs and dairy products, Gruber builds the menu around seasonal produce. 

In summer, trout and lighter fare are offered and in winter, robust elk chili and bison stew grace the menu.

Gruber beams with pride when he talks about the restaurant's staples — sourdough bread and pickle-brined fried Montana chicken.

The sourdough was served at the restaurant long before Gruber arrived and he is proud to keep up the tradition.

The current sourdough starter, nicknamed Betty, is about eight years old and is kept alive by Gruber and several  chefs dedicated to preserving the starter.

The bread is sourdough perfection — brown and crusty on the outside and soft and light inside

The pickle-brined chicken has its own story. “Years ago, when I was working at a place in Idaho, five or six of my buddies got together and had a fried chicken cook-off," shares Gruber. "One of them was a sous chef from South Carolina and his chicken was great, so I asked him about the recipe.”

The chef didn't want to share, so Gruber had to experiment to create the recipe he uses.

“It’s a customer favorite, like the sourdough bread, so those are always on the menu, year round,” Guber says.

A sous chef gave him advice on his elk chili recipe. “He was from Austin, so I figured being from Texas, he must know chili!”

Gruber listened to his suggestions on seasonings and came up with the delicious elk chili recipe that makes the menu every winter.

“Consistency in menu is the fabric of what we do,” Gruber  says proudly. “We work to have an honest and approachable menu, one that fits guests’ expectations for a ranch in Montana.”

Tamra Bolton is a freelance writer based in Eat Texas.

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