Inspired by his foreign travels, Bigfork chef Josh Auerhammer opens Koi Asian Bistro, serving authentic fare with imaginative twists
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Sally Finneran
Josh Auerhammer, a Flathead native and experienced chef, spent a month in Vietnam last year, absorbing an exotic culinary world with all his senses: smelling and tasting, of course, but also gawking, listening and feeling. The marvels of a food market in Southeast Asia are both tactile and abstract, easy to touch but harder to demystify. Taken as a whole, it’s more of a cultural enlightenment than a grocery trip.
“I would just wander through the markets going, ‘Holy cow, this is out of this world,’” Auerhammer said recently. “The flavors, everything there, it just blew my mind.”
When Auerhammer returned to Bigfork, he was sitting in his house, basking in the afterglow of his overseas adventure and “wanting that kind of food.” So he decided to make it, and Koi Asian Bistro, an ancillary operation to his Culinary Design Studio business, was born on a whim.
“That night, I went and started the Facebook page,” he said. “It was really random, but I have total control of the business, as both owner and chef, so I can do it.”
Auerhammer started his Bigfork-based Culinary Design Studio in 2008. It has a restaurant along Highway 35 but also specializes in catering and private parties, with a larger kitchen than dining area. While Culinary Design Studio offers wide-ranging cuisine of diverse origins, Koi Asian Bistro’s menu showcases Auerhammer’s specific brand of French-influenced Asian fusion fare, with dishes such as kim chi fried rice, local chanterelle mushroom egg rolls, Korean pork riblets, pad Thai, udon, and his interpretations of mainstays found at many American Asian restaurants: stir fry, curries, Mongolian beef and broccoli, cashew chicken and more.
Though it will have staples, Auerhammer expects Koi Asian Bistro’s menu to change depending on ingredient availability, seasons and his creative instincts. Customers are encouraged to check his Facebook page for menu updates and to place reservations, preferably a day in advance.
As a trial run, Auerhammer began serving dinners for Koi Asian Bistro on a preliminary invitation-only basis in October before kicking off his carryout service on Election Night. The response left no doubt that his impulsive decision to start the Asian diner would garner a customer base.
“It was very well-received,” he said of Election Night. “I did way better than I thought I would.”
Auerhammer grew up in the valley and attended Flathead Valley Community College’s culinary school, which was fledgling at the time. He then walked into La Provence in Bigfork and asked Marc Guizol, the owner and a respected French chef, if he could help out in some way, essentially without experience outside of the community college. Guizol took him on, and Auerhammer started off in the “pantry,” preparing soups, salads, appetizers and desserts.
“It was just about showing drive, working hard,” Auerhammer said. “He had a wealth of knowledge.”
Auerhammer worked his way up to sous chef, and Guizol, who was previously a chef in England, France and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, progressively gave him more duties and control. Then, after three-and-half years at La Provence, Auerhammer accepted a job at a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, under another reputed French chef, Joël Antunes, who had earlier worked with Guizol in London.
Antunes had been the executive chef at Mandarin Oriental, an acclaimed restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, and he carried those Asian influences over to his Atlanta restaurant, where they rubbed off on Auerhammer. In 2005, Antunes won the prestigious James Beard award for best chef in the Southeastern United States.
“What I learned there was very influential on my whole cooking technique in general,” Auerhammer said, referencing the traces of French cuisine in his Asian-based dishes.
After Atlanta, Auerhammer came back to Bigfork and spent one final summer at La Provence before starting Culinary Design Studio. He knocked out walls and gutted the Highway 35 location, remodeling it into a kitchen and dining room. Over the next eight years, Culinary Design Studio evolved through several iterations, maintaining a base built on personal chef work, catering, and private parties, but also incorporating prix fixe meals and tapas.
Auerhammer’s willingness to experiment laid a foundation for both his bold culinary repertoire and a customer base eager to sample his new offerings, setting the stage for Koi Asian Bistro’s emergence in a region not widely accustomed to such gastronomic flair.
“It’s almost like you’re educating the palate of the customers to get you into a space where you can do the kind of food you want to,” he said.
Auerhammer works exclusively with fresh ingredients: “I have a freezer but I never even use it anymore.” He offers vegetarian dishes along with meat-based entrees. It’s authentic Asian cuisine, infused with the chef’s distinctive style. You may never get the chance to visit a Southeast Asian market, but Auerhammer will bring it to you, right here on the shores of Flathead Lake.
Culinary Design Studio and Koi Asian Bistro can be found online at www.facebook.com/chefjauerhammer or reached by phone at (406) 270-4255. Regular dine-in and carryout hours begin at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.