Food Network shines spotlight on Missoula cuisine

Kagen Yochim, left, records Empanada Joint owner Solange Brunet as she demonstrates her talents with a ball of dough for an upcoming Food Network episode. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When Solange Brunet pulls the butter from the stove and pours it into a bowl of flour, she expresses a moment of trepidation, as if she’s never done this before.

But the feeling passes quickly. Brunet has been making empanadas since she was a girl growing up in Argentina, though with the camera rolling, she’s as nervous as she was on day one.

“I’ve made like a million of these, but I’m still nervous,” she said. “It’s pretty darned simple. There’s a lot of different recipes online, but this is my recipe right here.”

Brunet, owner and founder of the Empanada Joint at 123 East Main Street in downtown Missoula, was one of five local restaurateurs visited Thursday by a film crew working on behalf of the Food Network.

The footage, recipes and restaurants are intended to air on “Good Time On A Dime,” though the title remains a work in progress. Whatever they call it, the segment will feature a collection of Missoula’s culinary offerings, hosted by Hannah Hart of “My Drunk Kitchen” fame.

“She’s the host of this show for the Food Network,” said Ashley Kuehn, a member of the film crew. “She was out here with the Food Network folks doing her part. We’re out here now to get B-roll and give them a local flavor with the shoot. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these owners to get national publicity for their business.”

The crew navigated piles of snow and ice strewn across downtown Missoula, visiting Notorious P.I.G., the Mo Club, Burns Street Bistro and the Lolo Creek Steakhouse. By the time Kuehn and Kagan Yochim – owner of Gravity Media Productions in Missoula – arrived at the Empanada Joint, they’d already eaten.

But they would eat again.

Back in the kitchen, Brunet followed the steps she’s been taking for years – measuring the flour, melting the butter and rolling the dough. It is, she said, the most crucial step in the process.

“This is where we make the magic,” she said. “A lot of people tend to use machines for this. We do it all by hand – the good old-fashioned way. It gives it a little more love.”

Brunet basked before the camera, eager to show off her restaurant without revealing too many trade secrets. While the dough recipe is simple, she said, it took her two years to get it right.

The variables are many, she said, including altitude, humidity and temperature.

“We change our recipe a little during the summer and adjust it during the winter because of the temperature,” she said. “How the dough comes out is the one thing that sets me apart from every other empanada place in the country, or the world. When I find the right ingredients and the right method, I stick to it. It makes it consistent, and that’s huge for the process.”

The Empanada Joint in downtown Missoula turns five this April. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Brunet, who learned to make empanadas as a girl, has spent the past 20 years in Missoula. While she’s a certified master gardener, cooking holds a special place in her heart, as does her South American heritage.

Those roots come home when she trims the dough and fills it with one of her restaurant’s eight fillings. For this demonstration, she uses three ounces of roasted chicken mixed with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic before applying a “repulgue” fold.

“In Argentina, each empanada has its own fold,” she said. “That’s a little high maintenance for what I’m doing here. So we decided to use branders. They were designed by a friend of mine. It’s how we tell the empanadas apart. We don’t want any guessing games out there at the counter.”

While the dough includes a lot of butter – it’s one of her tricks – Brunet fills the empanadas with locally sourced food. The menu items range from spinach stuffed with a variety of cheeses to pork sausage, beets, beef and corn. The brand identifies the contents.

And while Brunet makes hundreds of empanadas each day, the process doesn’t get old. Her restaurant turns 5 in April, and she grins at the thought, grateful to be the owner of a successful Argentine cafe in “cosmopolitan” Missoula”

“The fact that Missoula is getting this kind of attention is awesome,” she said. “I took a big gamble doing this, ’cause I didn’t go to culinary school. I retired from a landscaping career and all of a sudden, I’m a chef in a successful restaurant.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com