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Last June, Caffé Dolce owner Peter Lambros cast a national net to find a new executive chef.

His top four candidates hailed from his favorite foodie cities - Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

With high hopes of elevating his Italian-flavored venture within Missoula's culinary community by creating the ultimate authentic European neighborhood dining experience, he never imagined that net would snare what it did.

In kitchen's belly, atop an ebony grill, heat writhes as Caffé Dolce's new executive chef, Andrew Martin, lays a fat slab of beet-red filet mignon onto a cast-iron surface.

No ordinary steak, this fleshy prime cut has been rimmed in thin slices of balsamic-roasted portobello mushroom, affixed with culinary "force glue" - a special one-hour process of melding filet ends with cream that Martin achieves several times weekly, strictly for this dish.

Across the kitchen, executive pastry chef Amy Nack lays three fudgy slices of chocolate terrine atop a smear of crème Anglaise scented with Grand Marnier. Bundled fingers cast a thin wisp of chili sugar - culinary pixie dust imbued with red-hot spice and sensual hue to enliven an already sinful dessert.

It's just one of many palate-teasing confections the new pastry chef has created, or retooled, for Caffé Dolce in the last six months.

Martin's beef filet, perfectly caramelized by a 450-degree sear, is plated, then flanked by chunks of winter root vegetables and topped in a port-balsamic reduction amid well-orchestrated kitchen banter.

On opposite sides of the kitchen, both chefs stretch hands forward - a silent "ta-da!" in perfect unison.

Two-for-one.

Despite the division between savory and sweet, synchronicity between these two chefs seems effortless - owing to the fact that this husband-and-wife team has been working together in kitchens since their days with hotel giant Ritz-Carlton.

Jumping from culinary school to luxury hotel for lessons in the grand-scale lexicon of hospitality is a logical "feet-to-fire" path for any new chef.

But for Andrew Martin and Amy Nack, that path first took root seaside at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in California, then moved slopeside to the Ritz-Carlton Club Aspen Highlands in Colorado.

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"Martin and Nack" sounds as much like a good comedy team as a pair of chefs buried deep within a gourmet kitchen. But whether comedy or culinary, all good partnerships are forged on timing.

The two met at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel just after culinary school. Nack worked under esteemed pastry wizard Jean-Francois "Jeff" Lehuede - famous for his chocolate sculptures - and Martin cooked on the line.

"Working at the Ritz as a line cook showed me what it takes to be successful in any kitchen - the kind of organizational skills you need, the sense of budget and level of quality it takes, and it was a great start," Martin says.

A few years earlier, this bantam chef might well have been on his way to designing a line. As a mechanical engineering major at the University of Rochester in New York, his love of precision and execution had originally been directed toward industry. But an eventual transfer to a New England culinary academy made engineering more about menus and much lighter fork lifts.

While cooking at the Ritz-Carlton Club Aspen Highlands, the couple married, had a child, then began honing their careers at the ultra-exclusive five-star, five-diamond Little Nell Colorado ski resort.

A season there placed them among the cream of cooking's crop, but also put them in the midst of a culinary conundrum: Working seven 16-hour days per week, catering to the wealthy in winter, would never be conducive to family life.

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Culinary school pals had ended up in the Northwest, and Portland's esteemed culinary community was too attractive for the pair to pass up. There, Nack began decorating cakes for upscale Elephant's Delicatessen - a gourmet emporium in the tony northwest section of downtown.

Martin canvassed city kitchens and landed a gig as sous-chef at "Pazzo" - part of the hip Kimpton Hotels chain whose restaurants are, within their own right, as successful as popular stand-alones.

"Pazzo is part of the Hotel Vintage Park, but it doesn't feel like a hotel restaurant," says Martin. "It is much more like working at any great downtown city restaurant in Portland."

Ditto for Nack, who eventually made the move to create pastry at neighboring Red Star - another of Kimpton's popular boutique hotel eateries.

Both say Kimpton kitchens run a tight ship financially, and all levels of cooking staff are included in production and budget meetings, no matter their station.

"They give their junior managers a lot of responsibility in that way," Martin says. "Whereas, at Little Nell, a sous-chef does what a chef tells him, and isn't cut in on any of the reasons for a decision."

Nack credits her time at Red Star with teaching her as much about business as dessert. "Kimpton set us both up for successful progression in our respective careers," she says.

Martin says an effective head chef is "20 percent writing cool menus, 50 percent human resources and 30 percent budget," and counts himself fortunate that the time he cooks in Dolce's kitchen accounts for much more than a pie-slice segment.

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In Dolce's kitchen, owner Peter Lambros points to what looks like a deep-fry bay. Instead, it's a pasta boiling station that features a two-way filter system that continuously ushers fresh water in, and escorts excess starch out, for optimal results.

It's imported from Italy, he says, and is state-of-the-art.

"The fresh pasta that we make cooks in one to two minutes, so a chef has to understand how that plays within a sauté station and in relation to the length of cooking time of other items," says Lambros. If pasta is just incidental to a chef's repertoire, he says, it can become a difficulty.

Lambros says while the foundation of culinary school is rooted in French principles, he wanted a chef who had training in a distinctly Italian kitchen and who could understood the Mario Batali method of cooking: respecting Italian tradition, but placing it in a relevant American context.

At Pazzo, Martin worked under John Eisenhart - once Batali's own sous-chef at Babbo in Manhattan's West Village, so he understood exactly what Lambros wanted.

Beyond Italian training, Lambros says he was looking for someone with an overall intelligence to run a kitchen, someone with a sound palate and the aptitude to create simple food that respects tradition and local ingredients.

The perfect candidate also had to want to "root in Missoula," he says, and understand the culture, and the relevance and seasonality of local food.

With a loose directive to "cook in season," on the day Martin auditioned his final dish for Lambros and general manager Selya Avila, he seemed the clear choice to shape the future of Caffé Dolce - not only for the flavor profiles he presented, but for what Lambros can only describe as "alignment of philosophy."

"His instincts with food are impeccable and I couldn't be happier with him - it makes our job a blast, and we look forward to each new season," he says. "I echo all of the same with Amy."

Nack was hired on as Dolce's executive pastry chef one month after Martin was brought on.

According to Lambros, dinner business at Caffé Dolce is up by 40 percent from last January.

Lori Grannis is a Missoula foods writer. She can be reached at 360-8788 or at llgrannis@gmail.com.

 

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