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Clocking In with Zac Kellerman

Bozeman Daily Chronicle
by Lewis Kendall
April 28, 2015

The thick steel door groans open, revealing a gaping, sooted maw large enough to cram 100 whole chickens, several sides of pig or dozens of chunks of cow.

Standing beside the mammoth meat-smoking apparatus, pit master Zac Kellerman — a tall drink of water himself — appears small by comparison.

Kellerman, speaking with the soft, methodical drawl of his native Louisville, Kentucky, gets animated as he explains brines, smoke times and temperatures.

“We take the barbecue very serious,” Kellerman says, adjusting his cowboy hat. “Barbecue is tricky so you’d better be taking it seriously.”

Kellerman, the owner of catering company Zac’s Montana Kitchen, opened his new foray into barbecue — Zac’s Montana Barbeque — in March after nearly six months of planning. With the help of his interior designer wife, Kellerman renovated his catering space on Eighth Street in Livingston into what he now affectionately calls “hillbilly chic.” License plates plaster the front of the counter, upon which perch jars of homemade pickles and sauces. Reclaimed metal chairs sit around picnic-style tables made from old 50 gallon metal barrels.

The place is both immaculately decorated and organized. In the kitchen, where prep work for the restaurant and catering company takes place, pots and pans are stacked neatly, containers of every shape and size lined against the walls next to rows of meticulously placed ingredients.

“By having an operation like this kitchen — something that is very well organized — your product is very polished, from the employees’ uniforms to the vinaigrette,” Kellerman says. “If I’m going to represent myself through a restaurant, it’s going to be clean and shiny.”

The 48-year-old’s professionalism stems in part from a long career in the food industry. Kellerman got his first restaurant job at 15, working alongside his uncle helping to prepare salads.

“I immediately was fascinated by it,” Kellerman says, explaining how he was awed by chefs who could tell the readiness of meat simply by touching it.

Kellerman admits he originally came to Montana “mostly for the fly fishing.” He took classes at the University of Montana and worked at a lodge in Glacier National Park before eventually returning to a restaurant in Kentucky. It was there that he met Dean Fearing, the television personality and chef known as the “father of southwestern cuisine.”

“I was cooking seriously at the time and it was then that I realized that it was what I wanted to do as a career,” he said.

After speaking with Fearing, Kellerman moved to Dallas to take a job at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, an upscale hotel that included a five-star restaurant. Kellerman cut his teeth in the 10 years spent under Fearing, learning the ins and outs of fine dining and restaurant ownership.

“That was where I really learned how to cook. I really had to stick to it and stay focused,” he says. “Cooking is one profession that you can do without formal training if you have the right attitude and are willing to put in that approach to learning your craft.”

But Kellerman wanted his own business, and he pined for the open skies and trout-laden rivers of Montana so he moved back, ending up in Livingston in 2000. A year later he met Jewel Redmon, the owner of a catering business, which Kellerman purchased in 2005 and renamed Zac’s Montana Kitchen.

The two still work closely together, Redmon baking the southern-inspired desserts like pecan pie, banana pudding and the chow mein noodle, butterscotch and peanut creation Kellerman calls Hillbilly Haystacks.

In addition to Redmon, Zac’s Montana Barbeque employs around 10 mostly full-time staff, all of whom take their cues from Kellerman.

“If you’re here all day long enforcing a goal and what it takes to attain that goal, your staff sees that. It comes from the top. If the owner doesn’t care, why would the staff care? If the owner does care, the staff has to care or else they won’t have a job,” Kellerman says.

For all his plaudits as a chef, Kellerman has proved himself a savvy business owner. In the months leading up to the restaurant’s opening, he partnered with Katabatic Brewing Co. in Livingston, selling plates of ribs and pulled pork to bar customers on Saturday nights.

“You can run ads in papers and do radio and commercials all day, but the best way to promote food is to give you a plate of it,” Kellerman says of the cross-marketing campaign. “You could tell then by people’s responses how excited they were.”

Additionally, Kellerman opened the restaurant with a soft opening, offering his barbecue for half price for the first two days. In that period the joint sold around 1,000 plates, well exceeding expectations.

“That was a really smart marketing move,” he said.

Kellerman insists his business nous is mostly self-taught, and his long and varied career attests to that. But much of his success appears attributable to a combination of hard work and scrupulous preparation — something he insists applies to all types of entrepreneurship.

“This is not for kids. It’s not for someone who doesn’t have a work ethic or who is not willing to make sacrifices or put in 80 hours a week,” Kellerman says. “No one can do the job better than you can, and that’s really evident especially with barbecue because it is such a tricky execution.”

True to form, despite the restaurant’s early success, Kellerman is not resting on his laurels. He plans to begin a delivery service in the coming months, and won’t rule out franchising the business in the long term. But on the whole he appears content with his artisanal approach to barbeque.

“I can’t express my emotions through a pork rib, but I can express my desire for an artistic craft. Doing good business, and all of the responsibilities that come with it, can be seen as an artistic craft. Good business is a craft, and it takes passion to do a craft well.”

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