chef andy blanton portrait in an instructional kitchen
Jun 25, 2024
Flathead Beacon

James Beard Award-Nominated Chef to Take On Executive Role at FVCC’s Culinary Institute

By Mike Kordenbrock

At the beginning of their education, Howard Karp likes to hand his culinary school students at Flathead Valley Community College’s Culinary Institute of Montana what he calls the light bulb scenario.

It starts with a little bit of his own biography, beginning with Karp in the 1960s, as a 17-year-old in Pittsburgh, working in the kitchen at the high-profile Duquesne Club. School wasn’t working out, but this was a way to make a living. The experience was bewildering, but Karp refused to quit. In his recollection, nothing made sense for over nine months. He acknowledges that a culinary education can be overwhelming at times, especially given the emphasis on French terminology.

“And then all of a sudden, I woke up, and a light bulb began to get electricity, and shine over my head,” Karp said. “That’s where I began to know, ‘I kind of want to stay in my industry,’ and things began to fall in place for me.”

A key part of this particular teaching device is Karp’s emphasis that when he started out all those decades ago, he had no idea what he would become today. Once a kid from Pittsburgh, his resume now includes time as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, as the food and beverage director for Hyatt Hotels, as the Super Bowl party director for former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, as the director of food and beverage operations for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and as a food operation consultant for the gourmet grocer Balducci’s. For the last 12 years, he’s been the executive chef for FVCC’s Culinary Institute of Montana, where he’s helped to develop some of the program’s signature events and offerings, and shared his wealth of knowledge with generations of students. Jane Karas, the president of FVCC, called Karp “instrumental” in shaping the college’s culinary institute.

As a whole, the light bulb scenario amounts to an acceptance of uncertainty, but it also functions as an admonition against letting uncertainty break you down. Keep trying and, eventually, things will make sense. He tells his students that he doesn’t know when their light bulb will come on. But he asks them to let him know when it does, or at the least, when they start to get a glimmer, or a pulse.

But there isn’t just one light bulb moment over the course of a life. And some time in the last year, Karp began to understand something else about where he wanted to be. Loss played a role. His wife passed away last July, and Karp began to think about doing something new. His thoughts started to drift toward the Oregon Coast, where the couple had enjoyed vacationing during their last years together, and where his children, who live in the Napa Valley, would be considerably closer.   

Now, at 78, the old chef is ready to move on. He plans to be an RV host at a site that’s less than a football field away from the Pacific Ocean. He thinks he’s done cooking professionally. And he’s got plans to potentially fill in time volunteering at an aquarium that also puts on marine biology education events. Describing this next chapter, Karp sounds giddy, amused, and seemingly at peace. He doesn’t imagine he’ll be coming back to Kalispell again.

“Tomorrow’s a new day,” Karp said. “I’m leaving a lot of beautiful people here. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the community, and what they stand for in supporting the school as they have, and supporting the arts, and supporting everything we’ve done to give them, the student, the opportunity to learn.”

The internal announcement of his plans to depart set off a job search for a new executive chef for the college’s culinary school, which is where Andy Blanton, a five-time James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for best chef in the Northwest Region, and the executive chef and owner of Café Kandahar, enters into the picture.

Blanton said that in the leadup to the transition, which goes into effect this summer, he spent some time observing Karp and how he carries out his role in the program, in part because he knows he’s coming into the picture midstream for some of the students. One of the central responsibilities is designing the menu for the college’s many events that showcase its culinary institute, and then organizing a plan for how to execute that particular menu with the students given their particular strengths and weaknesses.

“The chef’s tables, the capstones, the pop-ups, the catering,” Blanton said. “They, they being FVCC, like to say that the culinary program is like the football team of the college. It raises … money for scholarships and really, you know, is a big part of what makes education accessible for so many people in the valley.”

It’s a major change for Blanton, but one he is ready to explore. It’s also a return of sorts. His time at FVCC comes after 24 years at Café Kandahar, which he has owned for the last 17. Café Kandahar is still closed, and still in search of a buyer. Blanton taught at FVCC in the early 2000s. Amid the ongoing efforts to sell Kandahar his internal and external search for a creative outlet kept bringing him back to the idea of education. He called the program’s director, Manda Hudak, sometime late last fall to see if there could be a chance to guest teach.

“And she said, ‘Well, you know, Howard’s leaving.’” Blanton recalled. He took some time to think about it, and by the time the job was posted, he felt ready to commit to the post, should he receive an offer.

Blanton’s own education as a chef began when he was 15 doing dishwashing and prep work, and eventually working his way up to a line cook position. At 18, he moved from Virginia Beach, Va., to Baton Rouge, La., where he enrolled in culinary school. After finishing the program, he moved down to New Orleans, and started working in the kitchen at Commander’s Palace, which had just won a James Beard Award.

“It was like culinary bootcamp. Very high-volume fine dining, high pressure. You had to learn how to get along with your teammates in order just to get cooking space, or a pan that you need to make a certain sauce. I mean, it really taught me a lot of things,” Blanton said.

After Commander’s Palace, he went to work at another New Orleans restaurant called Brigtsen’s, which is the restaurant of Frank Brigtsen, a protégé of the legendary chef Paul Prudhomme, and Brigtsen’s wife Marna. In Prudhomme’s 2015 obituary, the New York Times credited him with putting the cooking of Louisiana on the American culinary map. Brigtsen’s is still going strong, and the Times lists it as one of the 25 best restaurants in New Orleans.

In 1999, Blanton moved to Whitefish to take over Café Kandahar’s kitchen. While he doesn’t think the new gig is going to be easy, Blanton said it’s a lot less daunting on the other side of his decades at Kandahar, where he would put in 12- to 14-hour shifts, and 80- to 90-hour work weeks.

“That’s really where the pressure and the tension comes in,” he said of being a chef. “And I feel like with this, I can actually have a life outside of work. I can actually enjoy the area that I came to several decades ago, because over the years, more and more time was spent in the kitchen, and less and less time was spent enjoying this (area).”

The goal with Cafe Kandahar was to be, hands down, the best restaurant in the valley. Between that and his ownership stake and the restaurant, which meant Blanton was to some extent paying employees out of his own pocket, he said it was hard at times to educate his own cooks because of the make-or-break feeling every night had. Over time, there was a sense of feeding the machine and wondering where meaningfulness could be found.

“I see this as a way for me to take that whole element out. Now I’m here as a conduit to provide something for people. This isn’t my program, or my college. I am now a staff member offering my expertise to assist in the education of the next generation of culinary professionals at whatever level they choose,” Blanton said.

One important aspect of a culinary education, in Blanton’s view, is giving people a foundation so that they can react to all of the variables that exist in a kitchen.

“Like a power outage, or, you know, a plate hits the floor. The seafood comes in bad,” Blanton said. “You’ve got this solid foundation, then sure, the top floor falls off, no problem. We’ve got the base, we can put it back together, and here’s how we’re going to do it.”

Learning how to be accountable is another point of emphasis for Blanton. He believes that making mistakes, acknowledging them, and learning from them, is where growth happens. Acting like everything is fine when it isn’t, can amount to what he called toxic positivity.

Aside from his culinary skillset, Blanton is also bringing to the program his business experience in the restaurant industry. That means teaching students things like how to budget, how to save, and the importance of setting up an emergency fund.

Sharing that kind of practical knowledge with students is also something that Karp valued during his time at FVCC. Saying that he’s a strong believer in entrepreneurialism, Karp talked about how that business acumen influenced him to establish a capstone program, which typically gives students a chance to design a restaurant concept, come up with a business plan, and open up a pop-up restaurant at the college. Karp also talked about his efforts to teach students how to come up with recipes, including by spending half a semester giving students different cookbooks to use for an assignment in which they would have to both create a recipe, and present on how the cookbook and chef were an influence on that recipe.

“It’s a very well-rounded education,” Karp said.

Blanton says there’s a need for quality culinary professionals in the valley. He sees FVCC as strongly positioned to fill that need, especially given that the early years of a culinary career, when someone is building a foundation, can be less difficult if you have family or a stable housing situation to offer support, which can be the case with local students who choose FVCC. From there, Blanton believes someone can choose to stay in the Flathead, or they can take the skills they learn and go anywhere in the world.

For all his high-level culinary experience, Blanton said that he understands that not everyone is going to be a fine dining chef.

“And that’s not what defines a culinary professional,” Blanton said.

Blanton emphasized that while he chose to go into the culinary trades because he was good at it, he wasn’t so good that he could coast on his talent indefinitely. There were instructors who taught him how to sweep, how to mop, how to chop, how to do everything, and take a sense of ownership and pride in each of those tasks and skills.

“Whether it was through culinary peers, or mentors throughout school, or people that I worked under, they definitely were like, ‘Look, your work is a direct reflection of who you are. So are you gonna be a half-ass, or a badass? I mean, up to you.’ Because nobody can really define that for you. I think it’s a personal goal,” Blanton said. “Thankfully I had people that steered me in the right direction, and helped me to be able to experience that, really feel it and go, ‘This is what’s possible. This is how it’s done. This is how the game is played.’”