In 1910, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane would have felt right at home in Billings’ newest restaurant, their boots resting on the brass bar railing, waiting for their bison steaks.
On Wednesday, 102 years later, The Rex’s red brick-and-oak dining room was all lights, camera and shouts of “quiet-on-the-set.”
A video crew working for Los Angeles-based Prometheus Entertainment, shot close-ups of two Rex chefs preparing Montana bison steaks that will be featured nationally on the Travel Channel’s “Steak Paradise” show.
When the call came two months ago, Gene Burgad, who bought The Rex in 1983, didn’t hesitate.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. Gosh, sure,’ ” he said.
The Rex is a fixture along Montana Avenue, which parallels the railroad tracks that used to bring more than a dozen passenger trains through Billings every day. This is the second time in five years that the restaurant has drawn national attention for its cuisine.
In 2007, New York City judges chose The Rex from among 2,000 other restaurants to receive the National Beef Booster Award for Innovator of the Year.
“That was a very prestigious award for us to win. We’re the only Montana restaurant to win that,” said semi-retired executive chef David Maplethorpe, who has worked for seven years with the newly appointed chef Tyler Ellis.
Chopping parsley at warp speed with his large French knife, Maplethorpe said he wasn’t nervous about the TV crew.
Ellis was fired up, as well.
“I was excited. I’ve seen the show — a couple of them,” said Ellis, who was raised in Billings.
After adjusting the lighting, the camera and the microphone, independent producer Scott Paddor of Denver shouted, “Quiet in the back,” and started interviewing Burgad about The Rex’s history and the Montana bison raised in Ronan.
“The goal of the show is to feature legendary, historic steak destination spots,” Paddor said.
The Billings episode will be part of a one-hour “Steak Paradise” expected to air next winter. The “Food Paradise” series, including “Pasta Paradise” and “Hot Dog Paradise,” is in its fourth season.
The chefs prepared three styles of hand-cut bison steaks: grilled topped with vodka pancetta cream sauce; garlic roasted with a cognac Dijon mustard sauce; and bacon-wrapped fillet with a Point Reyes Blue Cheese and rosemary demi-glaze and Cajun onion rings.
Serving bison raised in Montana is a no-brainer for The Rex chefs. Just don’t ask them to overcook this lean game.
“If someone wanted it well done, Tyler and I would go out to the table and tell them not to waste their money because this is a $40 steak,” Maplethorpe said. “Serve it well done and it will be shoe leather.”
Other than spiffing up the starch on their white jackets, the two chefs said they changed nothing for the Travel Channel performance.
“It’s pretty, pretty cool, but this is just a basic day,” Ellis said.
As usual, they prepped food for six to eight hours, making everything from scratch, including desserts. But they did make a special shallot, lemon vinaigrette sauce for the asparagus, plus a diced tomato garnish.
“We’re excited about it, but why fix something that’s not broke? We stuck to our recipes,” Maplethorpe said.
When it was all done, the executive chef was pleased.
“I think the kitchen demonstrations went extremely well. Tyler did just a hell of a job on it,” Maplethorpe said.
Director of photography Josh Bane shot close-up after close-up of what’s called in the food entertainment industry “food porn”: shots that show the bison steaks sizzling on the plate, being served, being eaten and especially the comments by diners.
The crew also shot historic photos of Billings, including at the Western Heritage Center.
Burgad is one fan supporting statistics that Americans consume twice as much red meat as the rest of the world.
“If you had one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? For me it would be steak,” Burgad said. “The taste, the texture. It’s very satisfying.”