At every restaurant where he’s worked — from Indianapolis to Vail to Las Vegas — chef Tyson Peterson cooked Spanish food. And at every restaurant, he included a variation of funeral potatoes on the menu.
“One, that’s my heritage,” said Peterson, who grew up in West Valley City and Magna. “And two, they’re fantastic. They remind me of me and my family. It’s so rich, you don’t need a ton of it. I was in Food & Wine Magazine in Indianapolis for my Mormon funeral potatoes, and they said it was an American classic.”
Earlier this year, Peterson stepped into the role of executive chef at Mar | Muntanya, a Spanish-inspired fine dining restaurant on the sixth floor of the Hyatt Regency Downtown (170 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City), which opened its doors on Oct. 20. Once again, he’s mixing his Western roots with his love of Basque and Catalonian food.
Peterson lived in Holladay, St. George and Salt Lake City before his culinary career took him around the country. He said he originally aspired to be an architect or engineer, but as he was taking his prerequisites, “It just wasn’t as fun as I thought it was going to be. My mom called and said, ‘Hey, there’s a culinary school that’s just opened in Salt Lake. Why don’t you come check it out?’”
After graduation, Peterson landed at the J&G Grill at St. Regis in Deer Valley, a restaurant owned and operated by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
“I had done things here and there, helped with catering and, you know, just little things. Nothing that I was ever in charge of. But like my real first kitchen experience was essentially a Michelin-star style kitchen, and it was very sink-or-swim,” Peterson said. “It was very, very, very intense. But what a good experience to cut my teeth. And that kind of set me up for success for the rest of my career.”
Four years after starting as a line cook, Peterson worked his way up to sous chef. When J&G won Best of the Best Restaurant in 2014, he said, the chef and executive sous chef had moved on to other projects. “So I was the one that actually walked up onstage,” he said.
Traveling the country
Peterson was helping Squatters and Wasatch breweries open new restaurants when he “got the offer of a lifetime to help open a luxury hotel in Indianapolis. It was downtown in a very old, historic hotel called the Canterbury, right next to the Alamo Steakhouse,” Peterson said. “I was offered executive chef for that property [the Le Meridien], and the menu was mine.”
That led to a post in Vail as the executive chef at The Leonora, a Spanish tapas restaurant at The Sebastian hotel. Four years later, Peterson decamped to Vegas, where he ran Envy The Steakhouse at the Renaissance, a 400-room hotel with 45,000 square feet of meeting space. About a year into that gig, his mom called again.
“She said, ‘There’s a hotel opening up in Salt Lake City,’” he said. “So Mom keeps calling me home, which I love.” Though Peterson had a great connection there through an old friend who’d also worked at the St. Regis, he was reluctant to accept another position at a hotel.
“Sometimes I felt like the box was getting bigger, and I was getting further and further away from actually cooking, which is what I want to do,” he said. After being told the job would be overseeing one restaurant, rather than running all the food service, he got excited again. Eventually, he accepted the role of executive chef.
On Oct. 20, when Mar | Muntanya opened its doors, Peterson had created a menu that drew on both his Utah upbringing and his background in Spanish food. The name, which means “sea” and “mountains,” alludes to one of his biggest inspirations as a chef: the food of Basque Country and Catalonia, on opposite ends of the Pyrenees mountain range — one on the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean, the other on the Mediterranean Sea.
“It’s such a cool vibe,” he said. “There’s such a diversity of product that you can use, you can hit a lot of that French technique that bleeds into Spain. … When they told me the name, I was like, ‘That is excellent.’ … It’s fun, because it’s a nod to the Great Salt Lake and the Rocky Mountains, and the Basque region in particular.”
There are cultural parallels, Peterson said. Basque Country has a tradition of alpine shepherds, and so does Utah; farmers in both places have long-standing food traditions, like baking bread and preserving food.
“It’s been fun, but also enriching, to dive into my own heritage and mine my Danish and Swedish roots, and there are so many similarities, so many fun things that make sense to me,” he said. “I’m having a blast.”
He added he has felt so enthusiastic about all the research he’s done that he had to edit himself when he built the menu. “I won’t put anything on the menu unless I can tell a story, or explain an ingredient that was inspired that comes from Spain,” he said.
What’s on the menu
The Mar | Muntanya oysters — MM Oysters, for short — start with the freshest oysters that can be overnighted to Salt Lake City. They’re topped with beef tartare (which Peterson hopes to shift to elk soon), plus a spruce jelly.
“It has a piney flavor, so you get that mountain vibe, and then our coctel [cocktail] sauce is made with piquillo peppers. You get a sea and mountain flavor profile, and just a nice oyster snack,” he said.
The funeral potato croquettas, Peterson said, are now the restaurant’s top seller.
“Croquettas are classic tapas; you find them all over Spain. I wanted to see how I could make that work,” he said. “Traditionally it’s ham and cheese croquettas, fairly simple, and they put it with a sauce of some kind.”
He serves his with scallion aoili. “When you go to those family parties, sometimes people will put ham, some people will put chiles, some people will put scallions, so that decision was based on experiences eating funeral potatoes.”
Another dish he’s excited about is the steelhead trout, which is encrusted in hazelnuts and garnished with mustard pickles using his grandmother’s recipe.
“We just had a 90th birthday party for her,” Peterson said. “She still bakes bread once a week, she still goes out and rakes the leaves in the yard, even though we tell her not to.” He paired her pickles with the trout, he said, because one of his oldest memories is fishing with his grandpa, coming back and eating mustard pickles his grandmother had made.”
The roasted elk tenderloin is important to him, he said, because he’s trying to include as much mountain game as he can on the menu — but it also has a backstory.
“It’s sourced from Delta, Utah, and that one’s fun because when I lived in Utah, growing up, I’d go hunting with my dad,” Peterson said. “When you get an animal, harvesting it and bringing it back to camp, you really don’t eat dinner that night. It’s just such a chore. I just remember being in the mountains, and we’d harvest an animal, and then we’d have breakfast. So there’s potatoes and bacon and some jam and bread and butter.”
The elk dish, he said, pays homage to that experience by pairing the roast elk with a potato puree, Iberian pork belly bacon, and a blackberry au jus made from elk and beef bones, blackberry jam, red wine and sherry vinegar.
“I’ve actually had a few people say, ‘If you take that off the menu, we’re not coming back,’” he said.
Peterson said he’s still got some traveling to do, but that right now, Utah feels a little like kismet.
“I had no intention of coming home,” he said. “I’ve been gone for eight years. I mean, I love Utah. I love visiting. I love hiking. I love being with my family. I still have a bit of wanderlust and want to explore. I’ve traveled, but I still have the intention of going to Europe and refining my skills even more. But the universe has pulled me home. And I’m so jacked to be here.”
Mar | Muntanya is open Tuesday through Saturday for cocktail hour (4 to 5 p.m.) and dinner (5 to 10 p.m.). Reservations can be made online, at www.mar-muntanya.com.
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