“I try to create what I love most about eating in a restaurant: a comfortable, inviting place that is relaxing and encourages chatting, a sense of anticipation of what the food will look and taste like, and the pleasure of having delicious food brought to the table,” says Pearl Cash, owner of Pearl’s Cafe and Bakery in Missoula.

Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

 

About this series - On the first Wednesday of each month, Greg Patent profiles western Montana chefs in the Missoulian Foods section. What motivates a chef to do what he or she does? And how is local food incorporated into their menus? Patent takes you into the kitchen for answers.

Once upon a time, a certain couple had their first date at Pearl Cash’s first restaurant, d’Auria’s in Hamilton. During their courtship the couple dined there a few more times. They married and had a son, and the son grew up and had a sweetheart, and when the young couple decided to get married, the son announced his engagement to his parents at Cash’s newest restaurant, Pearl Cafe and Bakery in Missoula.

As fairy tales go, this is a true story, and what is remarkable about it is the passage of almost 30 years between these happy events that took place in Cash’s restaurants.
Despite her youthful 52 years, Cash has been in the restaurant business for more than three decades. If you ask what delights her, Cash will tell you she loves seeing the happiness that dining in her restaurant brings to people.

“I try to create what I love most about eating in a restaurant: a comfortable, inviting place that is relaxing and encourages chatting, a sense of anticipation of what the food will look and taste like, and the pleasure of having delicious food brought to the table,” Cash said.

Such sentiments suggest Cash grew up in a sophisticated household where extraordinary meals were the norm. The truth is she was raised on a small subsistence farm in the Bitterroot Valley where her parents grew 90 percent of their food.

The diet was limited to vegetables that could be eaten fresh or stored over winter in a root cellar, chickens and the eggs they laid, pigs, the dairy products from their cows and anything they could forage, typically wild asparagus in the spring and huckleberries in the summer. They had no lettuce, no phone and no TV.

Cash’s mother made everything from scratch and cooked on a wood-burning stove, a task that required a high level of proficiency manipulating dampers and flues. Her parents saw the farm as a dangerous place for a child, especially the stove, and kept Cash away from it.

Things changed when her family sold the farm and moved to Hamilton when Cash was about 11 years old. They had to buy all their food, but the foods were always the tried and true because her father was suspicious of anything unfamiliar.

Cash was picked on at school because she was totally out of sync with her schoolmates and their knowledge of pop culture. But during the move, something wonderful happened: For the first time in her life, Cash ate a meal in a restaurant.

The Range Cafe in Hamilton marked the beginning of Cash’s journey into food. Practically everything on the menu seemed exotic to her.

“Looking back, I’m sure it was pretty typical fare,” she said, but she knew she wanted to try something new and different. “So I ordered a breaded veal cutlet.”

The meal came with a small serving of soup and a salad.

“When the salad arrived along with a lazy susan of dressings, I was completely amazed. I was in heaven,” she said, recalling the event as if it had happened yesterday.

To learn about food, Cash borrowed cookbooks from her aunt, Dora, in Bozeman. She read them like novels. She created her own cookbook by cutting recipes out of magazines a neighbor gave her and pasting them onto the pages of a notebook. She’d walk to the public library and check out cookbooks. In one, she discovered a recipe for gazpacho, the classic Spanish tomato and vegetable soup. It was the first recipe she made. Her father, of course, wouldn’t try it, but Cash got hooked on cooking.

In high school, Cash was one of a group of students who won a free dinner at Hamilton’s first fancy restaurant, The Banque. Constructed inside an old bank vault, the restaurant walls were covered with patterned and velveteen wallpaper. For Cash, it was the best thing that had ever happened to her. It also firmly established her love of restaurants.

“I mentally convert every building I enter into a restaurant,” She said. “I just love doing this, and I can’t help it.”

Soon after graduating from high school, Cash began working at a restaurant in Hamilton called the Ground Cow. The name was later changed to the Stein and Beer. The owners, Bob and Elizabeth Holt, hired her to work out front. Bob Holt did the cooking. He was energetic and personable, and always thinking about the food, Cash recalls.

“He was a real character and loved visiting with the customers,” she said.

Then one day, knowing of Cash’s interest in cooking, Holt had her come into the kitchen to cook with him.

“And that was it,” she said. “I knew right then and there that I just had to have my own restaurant.”

After Cash began working at the restaurant, she started dating Elizabeth Holt’s son, David Stavers. The two married, and because of Cash’s love of food and Stavers’ love of wine, they went to the Burgundy region of France.

Cash said that on that first visit it felt as if she were going home. The French way of farming reminded her of the farm she grew up on. And the French way of cooking was something she’d been reading about and wanted to make her own. She took a course at a French cooking school, and the way the chef plated the milk to make cheese was the same way her mother had done it on the farm.

In 1976, Cash and Stavers bought the Stein and Steer from the Holts and changed the name to d’Auria’s, Bob Holt’s middle name. Cash cooked and Stavers served the wine and tended to the customers. She put escargots, a daring item for the time, on the menu. She also offered a chateaubriand for two, carved and served tableside. And she served crepes suzette, also prepared tableside.

Word soon got out, and diners began coming to d’Auria’s from Missoula. To bring the restaurant closer to Missoula and to remain a comfortable distance from Hamilton, the couple built a new d’Auria’s in Victor in 1978.

We began dining there with our pre-teen sons. The restaurant was a destination, and we all dressed in our finest duds for the occasion. Our experiences were just what Cash had always envisioned a dining experience to be. We looked forward with great anticipation to the glorious food she cooked, we chatted and laughed, and we were waited on with the utmost courtesy. Our boys even decided to try escargots, and they loved them. I often ordered a duck dish with a complex reduction sauce of Madeira, duck stock, red wine vinegar and cream, something Cash no longer makes because it’s DLT (damn lot of trouble).

Every winter, d’Auria’s closed for about two months, and for part of that time Cash and Stavers traveled to Europe to dine in restaurants and to learn as much as they could about food and wine. For Cash, one of the most valuable lessons as a chef is eating in restaurants and absorbing the knowledge she gets there. It feeds her creativity and inspires her with new ideas.

“As a restaurateur,” Cash said, “you have to know what you’re aiming for. You must have a clear vision. As much as I might love to be able to offer a dish to my customers, I have to decide if something is possible.”

Of course, the miraculous DLT duck popped into my mind, and I smiled.

When Cash and Stavers’ marriage ended, Cash moved to Missoula and opened Chanterelle, a grand and expansive restaurant in the space now occupied by the Boone and Crockett Club. During the two years of Chanterelle’s existence, Cash met and fell in love with Missoula businessman Bob Brugh. The two have been married since 1988.

The expense of running Chanterelle proved to be enormous, and so in 1987 Cash closed it and opened the Alley Cat, a cozy bistro off Higgins Avenue downtown. It was an immediate success and remained so for 10 years. But then, Cash decided she needed a break.

Between 1997 and 2004, Cash began what she refers to as her big time off. By that time, she’d been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years.

During her hiatus, Cash took up painting on porcelain, and she enrolled in an extension course in the master gardener’s program at the University of Montana. After completing the program, she became a volunteer and was a master gardener assistant to the horticulturalist. For three summers, this work became Cash’s “most fun pastime.” She discovered her latent interest in soil science and plant and insect identification, and gave advice to gardeners over the telephone regarding their problems.

But as much as Cash enjoyed these activities, she began feeling she had lost part of her soul not having a restaurant. By 2002, she felt she was ready to start a new venture.

She and Brugh learned that the former Missoula Children’s Theatre and the former Missoula Mercantile Warehouse along with a third connecting parcel were for sale. Brugh and Cash bought the warehouse section and converted it to Pearl Cafe and Bakery. Todd and Mary Frank bought the remaining two sections and converted one, the former Children’s Theatre, to The Trailhead.

Cash and Brugh spent months clearing out the ancient space and restoring the walls and floors to their original condition. They built a spacious kitchen and equipped it with top-quality appliances. And they hired a first-rate cooking and wait staff, including a pastry chef. After more than a year of renovation, Cash opened on June 12, 2004. One month later Cash was diagnosed with breast cancer.

For a time, the gruelling chemotherapy caused her to lose her sense of taste, and kitchen smells made her feel queasy. Brugh became an enormous help and took over the running of the restaurant. Cash kept up a presence by hosting on weekends. Since her

treatments ended more than a year ago, Cash has regained her acute sense of taste, her strength has come back, and she cooks two or more nights a week and hosts on Friday and Saturday nights.

The French food Cash loves is greatly influenced by the closeness she feels for France every time she visits there and also by the effect Julia Child has had on her cooking.

Although she doesn’t offer classical French tableside service today, several of her appetizers and entrees are deliciously French: Escargots in Mushroom Caps, Onion Soup Gratinee, Filet with Green Peppercorn Sauce, Seafood Stew Provencal and Choucroute Garni, for example.

Her menu is varied and offers many choices to satisfy just about every taste. Crab Cakes, Classic Filet Mignon, Smoked Bison Tenderloin with Huckleberry-Zinfandel Sauce, Duckling with Pomegranate Cherry Sauce and Truffle Shiitake Chevre Flan, and Grilled Salmon with Mustard Butter are just a few of her tempting selections.

“I’m not out to startle or to educate my customers about food,” she said. “But I am constantly tweaking recipes looking for perfection.”

As her latest ad says, “There are many oysters. But there is only one Pearl.”

Amen.