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Savory Impulses - Catalyst developed from coffee cart to a Missoula must
Savory Impulses - Catalyst developed from coffee cart to a Missoula must

Start simply by serving excellent espresso from a coffee cart on Higgins Avenue. When a retail space becomes available later, move into it and continue as before. Over time, begin offering lunches - soups, sandwiches, salads and a few desserts - along with the coffee drinks for which you're known. A year or so down the road, form a partnership with an experienced chef to develop your business further, allowing you to go back to school to earn a degree in business. As co-owners, the chef cooks and manages the business and you, now a CPA, handle the financials.

I'm describing the Catalyst, a model success story. A thriving business now, it was built by taking baby steps and making savvy decisions over a period of several years. Kelly Sax's coffee cart is now history. The restaurant, under Martha Buser's guidance, has become a Missoula institution.

I've known Martha from the time she moved to Missoula about 12 years ago. She is a terrific cook with a great sense of taste, and one of the most highly trained chefs I know. A Kentucky native, Martha grew up in a family where her mom cooked the same dinner on certain nights of the week. Seven nights meant a repertoire of seven different dinners. Dessert was part of every meal, and it varied according to the season and her mom's mood. Martha says she learned a lot about food and cooking from her mom, especially baking.

Martha tried college, but found it wasn't a good fit. A doer by nature, sitting in classroom lectures made her fidgety. She dropped out of school, stayed in Bloomington, and found work first at a crepe restaurant, where she learned about French and German wines, then at Tao, a Buddhist ashram. Working there with a talented culinary school graduate, Martha decided she needed formal training.

At the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Martha studied cooking, baking, sanitation, wine making and restaurant management. She also waited tables at the academy's restaurant. By nature neat and organized, Martha learned how important these traits would become as her career developed.

Martha's first big break following graduation was a six-week externship at Iron Horse Vineyard in Sonoma, where she cooked lunch for 50 people a day, the wine harvest crew. The owners of the vineyard, Audrey and Barry Sterling, loved Martha's food so much they hired her as their personal chef. But after three years, Martha missed the team aspects of restaurant life and the excitement of preparing many different dishes in one night. So back to San Francisco she went.

Martha got her second big break when Judy Rogers, chef/owner of the Zuni Cafe hired her as a sous chef. At the time Martha began working there, the restaurant was a few years old and had developed a loyal clientele. Today, the Zuni Cafe is one of America's most honored restaurants - Judy Rogers and her establishment have earned James Beard Awards as chef and restaurant of the year.

At Zuni, all members of the staff taste every dish just before it goes on the menu. The tastings take place at 5:30 each evening, and the restaurant opens at 6, so the menu is approved and printed only moments before the first guests arrive.

Among the many things Martha learned during her seven years at the Zuni Cafe were the importance of quality ingredients and knowing where they came from. She learned how to develop relationships with purveyors so that they always supply her with the best they have.

But as much as Martha loved working at the Zuni Cafe, she didn't love city life, and longed to return to Missoula. I say return because Martha had spent a summer in Montana many years earlier during a break from her stint at Tao. She traveled all over the state, fell in love with its beauty and with the friendliness of the people, and made a vow someday to live and work here.

Martha's early cooking experiences in Montana included stir-frying at the Mustard Seed, working at a guest ranch in Ronan, and making doughnuts in Fort Benton. When she moved to Missoula to stay, Martha worked at Mammyth Bakery three mornings a week and at the original Hob Nob restaurant in the Union Club three nights a week. After about a year, she became chef at the Black Dog restaurant, a position she held for two years.

Working with Peter Lambros at his new venture, Caffe Dolce, in Southgate Mall, followed. For five years, Martha created foods on site - soups, sandwiches, salads, dressings, chocolate truffles, gelati and more. She loved working with Peter because he, too, like Judy Rogers, had high standards.

The opportunity to become a partner in the Catalyst four years ago was a no-brainer. Her years of experience cooking in restaurants and working for others had been preparing her for what most chefs I know desire: ownership.

In the years that Martha's been in charge of the Catalyst kitchen, the menus have broadened. For breakfast, she offers everything from oat crunch, buttermilk pancakes, veggie browns, and omelets to broccoli hash, tofu scramble, smoked salmon hash, and chilaquiles - Mexican-style casseroles of corn tortillas, spicy tomato broth, black beans, eggs and cheese.

At lunch you can always enjoy the now-classic Tomato, Lime and Tortilla Soup that Kelly Sax began serving years ago, many kinds of sandwiches, including the delicious vegan Smoked Tempeh with Caramelized Onions, and inventive seasonal salads such as Granny Smith Apple, Romaine, Toasted Cashews and Raisins served with a Creamy Curry Dressing.

And don't forget Sunday brunch, First Friday, and other occasional dinners. All wonderful, and all reasonably priced. Brava, Martha!

About the Catalyst

The Catalyst, located at 111 N. Higgins Ave., is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Breakfast is served from 7 to 11 a.m. Monday through Sunday, and lunch from 11 a.m. to closing. Coffee drinks, teas, other beverages and pastries are available at all times the restaurant is open. For questions about the menu, special dinners and brunches, call 542-1337. The Catalyst does not take credit cards.

About this series

On the first Wednesday of each month, Greg Patent profiles western Montana chefs in the Missoulian Foods section. What motivates chefs as they create their signature dishes? And how is local food incorporated into their menus? We'll take you into the kitchen for answers.

Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and magazine. He also co-hosts a weekly show about food with Jon Jackson on KUFM Radio Sundays at 11:10 a.m. His new cookbook, "A Baker's Odyssey," is published by John Wiley and Sons. Visit Greg's Web site at You can write him at

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