Flavors: David Maplethorpe Leaves The Rex After 20 Years

Mar 22, 2017

Executive Chef David Maplethorpe in front of the historic bar at the Rex Bar and Grill.

Executive Chef David Maplethorpe retired from the Rex Bar and Grill the day after Valentine’s Day. With the sudden closing of the iconic restaurant, Maplethorpe exited earlier than his planned May 20th date, after fulfilling his commitments with the Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival. 

Retiring has been a moving target. With his 70th birthday last November, he was planning to end his 20-year stint at the restaurant coincident with the milestone, but he could not leave.

Maplethorpe’s journey into the kitchen came by a circuitous route. After teaching political science at San Jose State for a year and a half, he discovered he hated what he was doing.  He then built cabinets with his brother-in-law for five years. He tried to live in the hustle and bustle of New York after splitting from his wife, but the West pulled him to Denver, Colorado two years later. He worked in catering, and as a beverage manager at the Westin Hotel, eventually coming under the tutelage of a French chef, Serge De Laughe. Years later Maplethorpe took over De Laughe’s position as Executive Chef.

Maplethorpe’s restlessness took him to Chicago and then to Wyoming. While he was taking a course at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa, California, he met someone who encouraged him to give Gene Burgad at the Rex Bar and Grill a call. Maplethorpe started for Burgad in 1994. He left for a hiatus several years later, venturing to Michigan and Texas, but rode back into Billings in 2000.

Maplethorpe admitted about cooking at the Rex, “It is a big task” and credited his success to a good staff.  The restaurant, built in 1909 by H. Alfred Heimer and Buffalo Bill Cody, was a complicated structure to navigate with multiple spaces below ground. Narrow steps and hallways added to the challenge of preparing food for diners.

At this year’s Chefs and Cooks of Montana annual dinner, Maplethorpe bequeathed his knife set to Tyler Ellis who had been at Maplethorpe’s side for about 8 years.  For many years, the Rex had sought a replacement for Maplethorpe, but most applicants did not measure up, or were not willing to work hard the long hours. Tyler Ellis was the only person Maplethorpe believed who could have taken charge.  

Long time friend and culinary colleague Executive Chef Carl Kurokawa recalled meeting Maplethorpe. Because both have strong personalities, most people believed that they would never get along, but they have been friends for years. Both have been active in the Chefs and Cooks of Montana. Kurokawa joked about the “grandpas” of the group.

Carl Kurokawa holds the silver platter from the Chefs and Cooks of Montana for David Maplethorpe’s retirement.
Credit Stella Fong

When Maplethorpe was asked what advice he would give a young aspiring chef, he said, “Work hard. Stay busy. Do your job. Above all have a good work ethic.”  He has certainly been an example of what he preached as his hours began early in the day and ended late into the night. Then during off times, he contributed to the community through his donation of dinners and volunteer work in the culinary world.

In the years at the Rex, Maplethorpe served many meals to famous customers such as Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. He said he never treated these clients any differently than he would other guests. He wanted to do his best for all who walked through the door of the restaurant.

A light moment at a charity dinner between Carl Kurokawa and David Maplethorpe.
Credit Seth Carlson

Kurokawa and Maplethorpe have teamed up over the years to cook dinners for various fundraisers. The Rogue Chef dinners have brought in funds for scholarships for the Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival and for organizations such as the Food Bank. The multicourse meals came about with Kurokawa and Maplethorpe collaborating. Maplethorpe brought his beef expertise while Kurokawa showcased his Hawaiian background.

An example of a meal at Stan Barr’s house for ten people were as follows:

Appetizers: 

Escargot en Croute, Goose Liver Paté, Baby Octopus and Artichoke Bruschetta.

Soup:  Chilled Cantaloupe with Crème Fraiche

Salad: 

Non-Traditional Caesar Salad with Parmesan Croutons and Fried Prosciutto

Intermezzo:  Lemon Sorbet

Entrée: 

Sous Vide Filet of Beef Topped with Foie Gras with topped Béarnaise Sauce, w/ Asparagus, and Potato Fritters.

(Side note from Maplethorpe: Carl and I tried to burn the house down when we heated the Fois Gras in their oven.)

Dessert:

  Flourless Chocolate Cake with Crème Anglaise and Raspberry Sauce with Vanilla Ice Cream

With the closing of the Rex, Maplethorpe will be a Guest Chef for the Monday night Guest Chef Dinner for the MSUB Wine and Food Festival. In years past, the Rex had hosted the event so Maplethorpe played host. Chefs from around the country such as Shane Ryan, Jason Wilson and Bernard Guillas came into Maplethorpe’s kitchen to cook. He usually contributed the final entrée of a beef course while he allowed the other chefs to showcase their culinary specialties. Mostly he coordinated and organized the behind the scenes details for the success of this dinner.

With the event moving to the Northern Hotel, he will be cooking in Executive Chef Nick Steen’s kitchen with Kevin Davis of Steelhead Diner, Blue Acre Seafood, and Orfeo in Seattle, Eric Donnelly of Rockcreek Seafood and Spirits and Flintcreek Cattle Company in Seattle, and Bernard Guillas of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in La Jolla, California.

Kurokawa shared how cooking was a passion for the two men. They excelled in the kitchen and still felt the most comfortable there. While Maplethorpe was considering a move to California to be with his daughter, he admitted that all most of his friends are in Billings. In the meantime, he hoped to continue to donate dinners, collaborating with Kurokawa. Kurokawa wanted Maplethorpe to relax, and spend some time with him on the river. Maplethorpe said he wanted to spend time reading while continuing his work on the Steering Committee of the MSUB Wine and Food Festival.

Imagine that! Maplethorpe and Kurokawa on the river. With beer in hand, they will probably talk about what the future holds, and the menu for the next benefit dinner they will be cooking together.