Inside Big Sky’s first annual Pairsine

Story and photos by Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Managing Editor

BIG SKY – As a golden August sun balanced above the northern flank of Lone Mountain, Montana Skies’ Jennifer Adams thumped her cello while her husband Jonathan fingerpicked a Spanish acoustic. The easy ambiance on the terrace at Big Sky Resort’s Peaks Restaurant didn’t suggest a battle was underway.

Wielding Shun knives and hot woks, and geared for a fight in chef coats and aprons, 10 southwest Montana culinary artists seared, flipped, rolled and stuffed specialty dishes for the Pairsine Fine Wine and Food Pairing Competition, the event to open the resort’s second annual, four-day Vine and Dine Festival.

More than 200 guests on Aug. 13 took in the sunset and the contemporary instrumentals of Montana Skies, while tasting delicacies from some of the region’s finest chefs as they paired dishes with wines from around the world. Attendees floated between 30 tables set up on the Peaks terrace, sampling food and wine pairings at their leisure.

The Pairsine, pronounced “pair-zeen,” is a signature event of Wine Country Network, a Denver, Colo.-based media and event company dedicated to all things vino, cuisine and travel. WCN has been holding pairsines since the inaugural 2004 event at the Denver International Wine Festival. The name derives from a combination of “pairing” and “cuisine,” and the spirit is in competition, according to WCN founder and CEO Christopher J. Davies.

“I tell people it’s Iron Chef meets wine,” said Davies, sipping from a glass of Brooks 2014 Rosé. “The hard part – the stress – for the chefs is that they don’t get wines until eight days before the event.”

Once organizers identified the wineries that would be featured at Vine and Dine, they reviewed rankings

More than 200 attendees flocked to the Pairsine.

More than 200 attendees flocked to the Pairsine.

and assigned each chef a red and a white bottle of the highest rated wines. Along with a panel of expert judges, attendees also had a say in which chefs would be standing after the competition.

Guests received ballots to vote on the taste, compatibility with wine, and appearance of dishes prepared by their favorite chef. Some of the industry’s heaviest hitters made up the judging panel, including master sommeliers Fred Dame and Jay Fletcher; sommelier Colleen Helm, owner of Bozeman’s Vino per Tutti; Master of Cheese Kent Torrey; and Google’s Global Program Chef Scott Giambastiani.

Big Sky Resort boasted five of the 10 chefs competing in the Pairsine, the other five representing restaurants and ranches in Big Sky and Bozeman, save local personal chef Anna Dickson who paired breaded and fried head cheese tacos with an Elk Cove Winery Willamette Pinot Gris.

Other chefs outside of the resort included Alex Hoeksema, owner and chef at local Asian and Thai restaurant Lotus Pad; Lone Mountain Ranch Executive Chef Nick Steen; Rainbow Ranch Executive Chef Jake Irwin; and Executive Chef for Bozeman’s 14 North, Mason Zeglen.

“The chefs really hit it out of the park,” Davies said.

Chef Andres Titus of Big Sky Resort’s Peaks Restaurant said he appreciated zoning in on the flavor profile of the “Big Sky” Natalie’s Estate Pinot Noir to pair it with a succulent braised pork cheek.

The chefs bask in the evening sun after the event.

The chefs bask in the evening sun after the event.

While guests took their time savoring the landslide of different flavors during the Pairsine, the chefs focused on the task at hand.

“It was the shortest three hours of my life,” Titus said after the event.

The full spread lay like a veritable maze, savory smells wafting above the crowd donning colorful polo shirts or skirts, and sunglasses. Locals milled with visitors from across the country, strolling between the tables displaying the broad array of culinary options.

“We love to cook so I’ll keep one of these [ballot] sheets to know the different foods and learn about new wines,” said Steve Young, who moved with his wife from Dayton, Ohio to Big Sky in 2012. “[The Pairsine] was beyond our expectations.”

Margaret Krome of Madison, Wisc., hiked into Beehive Basin with her Bozeman friend Elizabeth Bird before attending the Pairsine. “The grass-fed lamb and gnocchi was phenomenal,” Krome said, referring to Zeglen’s braised lamb and handmade gnocchi paired with a Reiniger Winery Seven Hills Carmenère.

At 8 p.m., Davies took the microphone to announce the three winners of the 2015 Pairsine competition. When the smoke cleared, Davies declared the “People’s Choice Award” would go to Chef Wilson Wieggel of Big Sky Resort’s Summit Hotel. Along with a foie gras and fig dish, Wieggel prepared a “seared n’ spiced elk” with wild mushroom and huckleberry, paired with a Klinker Brick Old Ghost Zinfandel.

The judging panel chose the two final winners. Chef Eric Holup of the resort’s Huntley Lodge took home the “Best Chef” award for his dishes. Holup paired bacon-wrapped prawn with a Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris, and a sous vide duck breast with Arcadian Fiddlestix Pinot Noir.

The “Most Creative” award went to Jake Irwin of Rainbow Ranch. First matching an oak cervena venison dish with a Pepper Bridge Winery Merlot, Irwin also paired el mar Mediterraneo trio Spanish pulpo with an Amavi Cellars Semillon.

Peak's Restaurant Chef Wilson Wieggel looks on as Rainbow Ranch Chef Jake Irwin gives a high five to Huntley Lodge Chef Eric Holup.

Peak’s Restaurant Chef Wilson Wieggel looks on as Rainbow Ranch Chef Jake Irwin gives a high five to Huntley Lodge Chef Eric Holup.

“I feel great,” Irwin said after the Pairsine, adding that this was one of the biggest competitions he’s been in. “Being creative is part of being a good chef, and there were a lot of good chefs up there.”

After the event, Davies read judges’ comments and awarded LMR’s Steen honorary mention for his creations, which included a “bacon and eggs” dish with pork belly and egg yolk. “The master sommeliers really thought Nick was second place for most creative,” Davies said.

Those who missed the Pairsine at the Vine and Dine Festival this year have a chance to redeem themselves in 2016. The competition will return next Aug. 11 and the chefs will be ready for round two.