Culinary students preparing for event
Jan 23, 2023
Flathead Beacon

Meet the Chef: Clayton McDaniel

By Maggie Dresser

At age 18, Clayton McDaniel graduated from the culinary arts and catering program at Flathead Valley Community College during the same year that he was supposed to graduate from Glacier High School. 

McDaniel didn’t thrive in high school, but he loved cooking. So, he would work his way through culinary school, starting his day at Great Harvest Bread Company in the mornings before class and finishing his day at Ciao Mambo Italian Restaurant in Whitefish. After graduating, he traveled back and forth between Arizona and Montana, working various cooking gigs and immersing himself in the industry. 

“I met a lot of fun people in restaurants, and I think that was just something that I fit into,” McDaniel said. “A lot of people you find in restaurants are a bunch of misfits. I’ve always felt like I’ve related to people in restaurants, and we share similar stories. People find themselves in kitchens when they don’t know where else to go.”

This mentality worked out for McDaniel, who now runs Great Northwest Catering out of a mobile kitchen, where he’s prepared dishes like elk tenderloin, beef short rib and seared trout for weddings and private events. He started the business in 2015, but in recent years, he’s started to shift more toward being an in-home chef for family gatherings and dinner parties.

“I think what I like best is having a more personal relationship with your clients and creating an experience for them,” McDaniel said. “Whether they are out here on vacation or if they live here, it’s nice to be able to go into people’s homes and have that interaction with them.”

McDaniel sat down with Flathead Living to discuss his career and culinary philosophies. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.

How did you get into the restaurant industry?

I was 16 when I decided high school really wasn’t for me, so I dropped out and went to culinary school. I graduated college the same year I would have graduated from high school. I found myself in a lot of restaurants where I was always the youngest person, but I was also the most eager. I worked under a lot of really awesome chefs along the way, and we would work 20 hours a day to make these big functions happen.

I’ve always been an independent self-starter and I always work well with others, and I love to be in the kitchen. I think I just realized that if I wanted to create a career in Montana, I had to do it on my own.

How would you describe your approach to cooking?

I do a lot of organic items like venison, elk, bison, walleye and trout. I want to give people that authentic Montana experience because I would say 90% of our clientele is from out of state.

We do elk tenderloin, and we get our cherrywood from Bowman Cherry Orchard outside of Woods Bay. We do a lot of smoked meats and incorporate local flavor as well into our food, which I think is a nice touch. We don’t change the dish a whole lot but we elevate some flavors that maybe your palate hasn’t recognized. We do a variety of things, like garlic parmesan mashed potatoes with parsnip puree and a huckleberry-port sauce.

Utilizing our local resources is important to us – the elk comes from Lower Valley Processing, the microgreens and vegetables come from Raven Ridge Farm and the trout and walleye come from Flathead Seafood. We’re trying to utilize what we have here in the valley and support our local farmers. 

I also work closely with our clients to figure out what they want, because we don’t have a set menu. It’s a lot fun. My experience has taught me to really listen and pay attention to clients’ exact needs and wants, which is important, especially when you’re in somebody else’s home. 

What tips do you have for home cooks?

You just have to have fun – pour yourself a glass of wine and turn on some good music. Cooking is supposed to be fun. It’s challenging and you might burn things or mess stuff up, but being around a dinner table has always been a place of peace for me because you get to put good food in front of people.