Black Hills Maverick Dennis Boitnott

By on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

It’s a cold, cold afternoon in Pringle, South Dakota. The calendar says May, but that’s irrelevant around here, where the semi-arid mountain temperature careens every which way–26 degrees one day, followed by a 3-day heat spell of 90+. This small town in the Black Hills appears quiet and huddled against the cold winds, but in a nearby kitchen, Dennis Boitnott is busy lighting Pringle on culinary fire. Since taking over the Hitchrail Bar & Restaurant in the center of town a few months ago, Boitnott’s simple but tasty tweaks on the menu’s casual fare are turning heads and attracting an appreciative clientele, both local and out-of-town.

Known for its abundant elk population and proximity to Mt. Rushmore, Pringle is not the most likely spot for culinary experimentation. And yet, as game meat proliferates on restaurant menus and chefs are continuing to create innovative dishes with it, places like Pringle can arguably be considered food laboratories. Like any other enterprising chef, Boitnott is bent on creating what he hopes will be signature–and brisk-selling–dishes.

Residents are warming up to the fact that Pringle is now Boitnott’s home as far as he is concerned. He gets the nutrition and tastes the flavor in a simple life.

Some of them have to do with red meat and barbecue but Boitnott’s also contemplating foraging, a big-city trend with paleolithic roots, and classic ranch-to-table practices. “When I first got here I’d do something simple, like make scrambled eggs with local ranch eggs,” Boitnott says. “Customers were blown away, they tasted so good. I don’t know why a place would use mass-produced eggs from caged hens when there are so many farms and ranches nearby.”

Then he moved to the fries. Tossing out the bags of frozen spuds, Boitnott sourced fresh russet potatoes and fries them with the skin on, in small batches, and finished with sea salt. Burgers are hand-formed and cooked with rendered duck fat; the buns are cornmeal-dusted, fresh from a local bakery. Around here, you always use local beef–that’s a no-brainer. And for folks who are not quite accustomed to cattle ranching, there’s also the required introduction to an exotic Black Hills delicacy called “mountain oysters,” otherwise known as Rocky Mountain Oysters. Those are on the menu, too, and will have their own day in the sun next month, when they will be “cooked a bunch of different ways” for the Sturgis Rally, a world-famous motorcycle event.

Smoker Is Permitted

But Boitnott has seen the future, and that future is in barbecue. “Everyone around here loves barbecue and it wasn’t on the menu before,” he says. He invested in a Yoder Smoker made in Hutchinson, Kansas. This BBQ behemoth sits out front and Boitnott set to work doing brisket, ribs and chicken; the aromas bring in crowds from as far as Custer. When the snow flies, Boitnott will put away the smoker and switch to intense meaty dishes like braised beef, buffalo short ribs and osso buco.

Customers tuck in at simple rectangular tables in a large dining room. Watching them from above is a convention of mounted elk heads, trophies contributed to the restaurant by local hunters. A small fireplace warms the place in cold season, which can stretch up to 8 or 9 months at a time.

Trail Blazing

In a reversal of the usual “small town boy makes it big in the big city” tale, Boitnott left behind an impressive string of stints (27 years’ worth) at places like the Hyatt Hotels’ Condado Plaza in Puerto Rico, the Ritz Carlton and Taos’ renowned El Monte Sagrado in order to downsize his life. “I got burnt out with the corporate atmosphere at a lot of these places,” Boitnott says. “My passion is for cooking, not bureaucracy.” He spotted the Hitchrail on a trip a few years back and saw that it was for sale; but he blew it off. When he came back it was up for auction, and he grabbed it.

“I fell in love with this area,” says Boitnott, who grew up on a farm in Michigan. He lives in a mobile home and spends most of his days and nights at the Hitchrail. Although the restaurant competition is minimal in Pringle, it doesn’t mean that business will generate itself. Boitnott is learning the fine art of balancing status quo with semper quaere (always question). Traditions run deep in Pringle–families live here for generations, passing down the ranch to sons, daughters, grandchildren. They’re not always ready to embrace radical food changes–they like their ways just fine, thank you just the same. “Some are shy and don’t want the fancy stuff…until they taste it on someone else’s plate and then they’re ready,” Boitnott says with his booming laugh.

Raising the Bar

He was leaning on the old blue laminate bar one day when he thought “Man, this is ugly.” Commissioning local artisan David James, Boitnott got himself a beautifully polished wood slab. When it was delivered a few weeks ago he invited all the local ranchers to come and put their brand on it: literally. The place was mobbed– “I had close to 200 people in my bar” –and the bar top is now peppered with hanging Ts and Rocking Rs. “People loved it,” Boitnott says. “It was a way to make them feel like they own part of this bar, and they do.” Ranchers work long hours and don’t have much time for hanging out. The Hitchrail fills the belly and satisfies the need for socializing after a hard day’s work.

Back in the dining room, Boitnott continues to refine his menu and rotate seasonal items as they come his way. He was excited to learn that wild asparagus grow abundantly nearby and has commissioned someone to bring him some. “I’m not sure what I’ll do with them yet but I’ll figure it out-maybe an omelette with brie,” he says. A self-proclaimed truffle hound (he once ran a pasta company called Truffle Gourmet), Boitnott says that his customers are going to see lots of wild mushrooms on the menu. Morels will appear in omelettes and in Boitnott’s own steak topping with white truffle oil.

Living the Good Life

Boitnott’s brand of seasonal-meets-traditional cuisine will no doubt continue to raise some eyebrows but a chef has to be a chef. Residents are warming up to the fact that Pringle is now Boitnott’s home as far as he is concerned. He gets the nutrition and tastes the flavor in a simple life. In her blog Ranchwife’s Slant, Pringle resident Amy Kirk writes, “Pringle may not be well-groomed, have a city park, sidewalks, a convenience store gas station, or paved roads lined with fancy street lamps but our town(speople) look out for each other.”

Written by Erika Kotite

Erika Kotite is an editor, writer and owner of Toque.

5 Comments

  1. Amy Kirk says:

    My hometown, our very popular restaurant & its new owner featured on ToqueMag http://tinyurl.com/2dafdp4 I took some of the pics 4 the site

  2. Chef Dennis has an amazing outlook on food, and life. He has taken the time to teach, and expose new flavors to my pallet and without that I would still be living on jack in the box. If you take the time to get to know him, you will love him. Not only for his food, but for his wonderful personality. I just wish the Hitch Rail and that unbelievable smoker were closer.

  3. Walt Watzinger says:

    I worked with Chef Dennis in Texas and really do miss his cooking. It is a long ride from here to Pringle – about 1300 miles, but one I will do very soon to experience the Hitchrail for myself!

    We miss you down here Chef D!

  4. Kirk Sandland says:

    I cooked many steaks and prime ribs when I was a young lad at the Hitchrail.

    I wish Dennis well in his new venture

  5. Tim Mehne says:

    I am so happy for Dennis! I knew and worked with him in Houston. His pasta line was awesome and his BBQ’ing and smoker skills are exceptional. I hope to get out to SD and visit the Hitchpost and my chef/friend Dinnis one day soon!

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