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Making it in Big Sky: Horn & Cantle

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Executive Chef Eric Gruber has led the kitchen staff at the Horn & Cantle restaurant for more than four years. PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIC GRUBER

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Executive Chef Eric Gruber has led the kitchen staff at the Horn & Cantle restaurant, located at Lone Mountain Ranch, for more than four years. He graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute with an associate’s degree in culinary arts that he has put to good use for more than three decades.

His hospitality industry experience runs deep, working primarily in hotels on the west coast throughout his career. Gruber and his family relocated to Gallatin County from San Diego, California when he accepted the position at LMR, seeking a change from the busy, city life.

Currently, he leads a kitchen staff of roughly 15 employees, down from the usual number of 25 in a typical summer. Gruber and his slender team have adapted to the new normal but will soon take a short break—dates to be determined—ahead of the busy, winter season. 

He recently spoke with EBS about the adaptations that he and his kitchen staff have made as they continue serving guests and community members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Explore Big Sky: In your opinion, what is the greatest key to operating safely and successfully during a pandemic?

Eric Gruber: “I would say it’s being aware of CDC guidelines and … I would say, from a sanitary sense of us making sure that we are doing everything we can to keep not only ourselves safe but our guests safe.”

EBS: What has been your biggest operational success in the last five months?

E.G.: “We’ve had zero positive cases on the ranch with over 90 employees. It’s using, like I said, looking at the CDC guidelines. We revisit it every day and on shift we talk about masks, we talk about handwashing, we talk about everything that we can do from a sanitizing sense and then we try to stay in the bubble on the ranch.”

EBS: Have you and your staff made any operational adjustments, spurred by the virus, that you will maintain for the foreseeable future?

E.G.: “I mean we’re extra aware of cleanliness. We used to have this philosophy of wash your hands 50 times a day and that turned into 200. It’s in my kitchen handbook, so I changed it to 200 times a day. So, I guess just a heightened sense of awareness of how important sanitation, hygiene and everything is.”

EBS: Having a career that is centered around customer service, what thoughts ran through your mind as restrictions and shutdowns began to occur around the U.S.? 

E.G.: “I was personally pretty terrified for myself and my family as well as my team. You know this is their livelihood and I think we’re incredibly lucky to open back up and have been as successful as we can [be] and hopefully the rest of the country can take note of the things that’re happening in Montana, I think.”

EBS: Can you describe the feeling when you returned to the kitchen, surrounded by your staff once again?

E.G.: “It was very nervous [times]. I didn’t sleep much the first month and we were busy and we didn’t have enough staff, so like I said, we [were] kind of winging it for a while. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and it was by far the most challenging couple month of my career.”

EBS: How does it feel to view patrons entering the restaurant and your fellow staff members wearing masks every day?

E.G.: “Staying in the back and trying not to expose everybody to everybody has been a very different experience. … It’s much more personal for me to meet, not only the guests that stay at the ranch, but people coming in for dinner.”

EBS: If you could’ve weathered the stay-at-home period learning alongside a famous chef of your choosing, who would it have been and why?

E.G.: “It would be Anthony Bourdain, but he passed away. But he’s probably one of the most intelligent people out there from a [sense of] how food and culture are so intertwined. … I’d love to stand next to him for a little bit; learn something through osmosis.”

EBS: You have to continue using one health and safety related item (i.e. Masks, Hand Sanitizer, Gloves) on a consistent basis for the remainder of your life. Which item would it be and why?

E.G.: “It’s definitely hand sanitizer. The mask, like I said … getting to know people and seeing their face and talking to them and emotion and expression—having someone’s mouth covered is difficult and I hate wearing gloves. I would much rather wash my hands.”

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

E.G.: “I had a really good GM once … he said, ‘you don’t put profit margin in the bank, you put money in the bank.’”

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