Local chef takes helm in Horn & Cantle kitchen
By Tucker Harris
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Scott Mechura was the executive chef at The Timbers and the Yellowstone Club. The article has been updated to state that he was the opening chef at the Timbers and executive sous chef at the Yellowstone Club.
BIG SKY – Scott Mechura takes a sip of his Lone Mountain cocktail, a mixture of rye, bourbon and sweet vermouth, served up to his liking. He looks down at the menu in his hands, the menu he translates into beautifully dressed plates every day. Inside the rustic Horn & Cantle dining room, flames crackle in the stone fireplace, welcoming hungry guests ready to experience authentic Western cuisine and escape the snowflakes falling on the cabins outside.
“I know I definitely want the scallops and tartare to start,” Mechura says. “They’re so good.” I trust his judgement.
More than 20 years after taking his first job in Big Sky, Mechura recently returned to the town’s culinary scene as executive chef at Lone Mountain Ranch’s Horn & Cantle.
Like the tale familiar to many Big Sky locals, Mechura is locked into a career path that always pulls him back to the growing Montana ski town. His name is not only known by most longtime Big Sky diners, it’s celebrated.
Long before attaining celebrity in Big Sky, Mechura started his career just as most aspiring chefs do to get their foot in the kitchen door: as a dishwasher at age 15. From scrubbing plates in St. Paul, Minnesota, he moved up in the ranks, cooking in a classic French restaurant and working as a sous chef and assistant brewer at an English-style brew pub—and everything in between.
Like many residents of the community, Mechura started coming out to Big Sky for vacations, but it didn’t take long for him to know he wanted to make it his home.
On one of his trips in 2000, Mechura was walking through the newly constructed Moonlight Lodge when he ran into Lee Poole, founder of Moonlight Basin.
“If anybody in this valley knew Lee Poole, they know how gregarious and how open of his time and heart he was to people,” Mechura said.
Poole put him in touch with the right people, and five weeks later, Mechura was loading up his car to move to Big Sky, where he debuted his talents to the community as opening chef at The Timbers in the Moonlight Lodge.
“I cut my teeth as a chef at The Timbers in Moonlight, where I at least started to develop some confidence and some skill set,” Mechura said.
In 2008, Mechura took a gig as the executive sous chef at the Yellowstone Club.
After 11 years in Big Sky, though, the young chef decided he’d lived out his mountain dreams and was ready to change course once again. Mechura left the Yellowstone Club in 2011 and moved south to Austin, Texas.
“I was like, ‘I’m ready for the cold to be done and ready to be warm—never thinking I would move back [to Big Sky],’” Mechura joked.
But fate, or something like it, had something different in store for him.
While Mechura was fully immersed in the Texas barbecue scene, working as an executive chef for a private club, opening a prime steakhouse, and rebranding a boutique hotel, a friend of his was back in a Big Sky bar having a conversation with Chuck Schommer, former owner of Big Sky’s Bucks-T4 Lodge. Schommer said he was looking for a new executive chef and asked the friend if he thought Mechura would ever come back to Big Sky, to which the friend replied: “No way. He loves Texas.”
And he did love Texas. But the pull of Big Sky was stronger.
“It’s familiar and comfortable,” Mechura said with a smile. “The people here are amazing. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. From newcomers to strangers, to old locals that have been here forever.” He took a pause, filling the empty space with palpable sentiment. “I love the community here.”
Mechura worked at Bucks for six years, building on the restaurant’s reputation in the regional culinary scene. But once again, he found himself chasing another opportunity beyond the view of Lone Mountain.
Mechura moved to Bozeman in 2018 to hang up his chef’s hat and start a position in Nov. 2020 as culinary director for four restaurants: Plonk Bozeman, Plonk Missoula, Stacey’s Old Faithful Bar & Saloon and The Old Saloon in Emigrant. Mechura loved his new home in Bozeman and enjoyed providing his experience and skillset to a collaboration with fellow chefs.
But despite his success in one of Montana’s fastest growing urban areas, that familiar tug of Big Sky was steadfast and familiar, and like so many times before, he gave into it.
Mechura said he wasn’t looking for a new job, but circumstances aligned for him to join the Lone Mountain Ranch team, officially starting on Nov. 15 this year. For him, it all comes back to community.
“I like the community, and it was just intriguing to me and exciting specifically here as Big Sky grows,” Mechura said.
Already, Mechura is fitting right in at the ranch. Northwestern cuisine is more than in his wheelhouse. He talks about game; about seasonal nuts, berries and fruit; about smoking, curing and preserving.
These are all techniques and culinary themes present on our table: his classic steak and frites and my bison tenderloin atop cranberry thyme savory oats and draped in raisin tapenade and crispy shallots.
When Mechura arrived at Horn & Cantle, the kitchen staff had already set a menu for the winter season.
“I walked into a menu that our team had put together without me, which is something I had never really done before,” Mechura said. “And it’s been a really cool experience.”
He’ll have his chance to make it his own, though, because for Mechura, menus should always be evolving. “To me, menus are the ultimate living document,” he said.
Mechura never worked at the ranch, but it was always a part of his Big Sky experience.
“I have been familiar with the ranch since I moved here.” Mechura said. “In fact, I used to come up here on a day off with a book and sit at the bar in the saloon to hide and get away from people… [The Saloon] was like a hideout for me,” Mechura recalled.
Though perhaps no longer a hideout, the newly renovated saloon is a draw to the idyllic Western ranch in itself. Perfectly curated Western tunes play as we drink cocktails far too good for a real saloon: the Lone Mountain for Mechura and the Big Sky Bramble for myself.
I observe the dining room, full of guests comfortably conversing as they dig into their dishes, props in this larger picture of an authentic Western experience.
“This guy is fantastic,” Mechura whispers to me after our waiter checks in on us. The western brand, explains Mechura, is underrated hospitality and caring for a stranger.
“It comes off on the surface as casual and comfortable and friendly and warm and welcoming—and it’s all of those things—but behind the curtain, underneath it all, there’s a deeper energy… and a lot of work that goes behind it.”
Perhaps that’s what makes a chef not just good but great: the understanding that the food is just a piece of it. It’s not just about the well-dressed piece of game on the plate, but as he says, “all the work that goes into it.” Perhaps he understands this about Big Sky, too.
Mechura remembers his drive from Minnesota to Big Sky on his way to his first job at The Timbers. He describes the back and forth in his head during the drive: “This is so great. I’m so excited.” And an hour later: “What am I doing? I’m changing my life. I can’t do this.”
In the end, he made it to Big Sky, a place he will always call home regardless of how many times he leaves.
“I never turned around.”