Carole Sullivan likes a challenge. From opening a new storefront in downtown Livingston this summer, to promoting a cookbook full of celebrities and easy-to-follow, delicious recipes, she has guaranteed herself a challenging season.
This morning she is directing kitchen staff busily preparing her signature “gourmet comfort food” for fishing guides and their clients. Her husband, and Mustang Fresh Food and Catering co-owner Dan Sullivan, pulls up a picture from Costco of a pile of the new cookbook “Gatherings: Friends and Recipes from Montana’s Mustang Kitchen.” Freshly made bread is delivered, phone calls are answered, lunch and dinner items for the restaurant are prepped, and another day begins.
Sullivan didn’t start out with a dream to cook. In her 20s she worked in the music business in her native Minneapolis. A friend wanted to open a music, books and coffee shop years before Barnes and Noble, and she drafted Sullivan to run the coffee shop. As Sullivan got to know the food business, and the people in it, it occurred to her that this might be something she wanted to dive deeper into.
Their location was better suited for coffee than music, and the store soon split. Sullivan began working for D’Amico Catering, run by two brothers who owned several restaurants in the Twin Cities. She quickly earned her chops and got an on-the-job cooking school education.
Like many people, Sullivan felt drawn to both something more and something simpler. Montana was calling. Her mother’s siblings lived in Big Sky Country, so Sullivan took a road trip around the state, ending at a wedding at Chico Hot Springs and Resort in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston. She knew she was home; she just needed a job.
Once back in Minnesota, her aunt sent Sullivan an article about a restaurant that artist and food lover Russell Chatham was opening in Livingston. Sullivan applied for a job, and Chatham sent her three $100 bills in the mail to pay for a flight to Montana. Sullivan interviewed for the job and impressed Chatham enough to hire her on the spot.
From Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill, Sullivan moved on to opening her own catering business in 1997. She focused on simple, delicious food.
“I love cooking new things,” Sullivan said, “but I am a traditionalist. I like things made the way they are meant to be. If I am making French food, I cook it the way the French cook it.”
If it’s Indian food, she uses traditional Indian spices and cooking methods. There are no fusion meals in Sullivan’s kitchen.
“That’s how I built my reputation.”
In 2001, Sullivan and her husband opened a small retail store to accompany the catering business. It moved and grew until early this summer when they bought a building on Main Street and re-opened as a restaurant that also provided catering and take-home meals.
“This was home,” Sullivan said. “From the moment we moved in.”
A tin ceiling tops a rough sawn wood floor. Fresh flowers in Mason jars warm metal tables, and photographs of fresh food and natural ingredients decorate the walls. At the counter, customers order her popular chicken pot pie, catfish and pulled pork sandwiches. She can hardly keep the gluten-free chicken pot pie in stock.
“That’s been really big for us,” Sullivan said. “I have to have it all the time because our customers love it so much.”
And on the counter, a stack of Sullivan’s cookbooks invite her customers to try this at home. “Gatherings” is arranged a little different than other cookbooks. Each chapter starts with a story about an individual gathering of some of Sullivan’s well-known clients such as Jeff and Susan Bridges, Michael Keaton, John and Kathryn Hemingway, and nonprofit organizations including the American Prairie Reserve and the World Wildlife Fund. The recipes that follow are easy-to-emulate, classic dishes.
Sullivan cooked for President Obama when he came to fly-fish during his first campaign, she catered meals for Martha Stewart while she filmed a show nearby, she’s grown a tiny catering business into a full-scale restaurant and created a cookbook that begs to be read cover to cover, but she’s not ready to rest, yet.
After two decades in the business, Sullivan is ready for her next challenge.
This story originally appeared in the Great Falls Tribune.