COWLEY — An English chef who once trained alongside Gordon Ramsay took a vacation 30 years ago at a guest ranch in the Pryor Mountains, and it changed the trajectory of her life.
Now she’s the chef at the Bull Pub Restaurant in Cowley, Wyoming, where customers are treated to cuisine that would fit right in at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
That’s because the chef, Samantha Wright, trained at a three-star Michelin restaurant when she was living in London.
Her new summer menu features dishes like Burrata Gratin, Asian Salmon Fillet and Rosé Shrimp Penne Pasta, just to name a few, and the amazing food is drawing regulars from as far away as Billings.
“I ended up coming out to cook for (the ranch) in the summer,” Wright told Cowboy State Daily, “And I thought it would just be for, you know, one summer, and I ended up doing it for about 10 years.”
In the process, the South London girl bought a farm in Wyoming and ended up settling in the area.
Her connection to the Bull Pub in Cowley was a bit more circuitous than the job with the guest ranch, but there’s a connection.
While working on the ranch, she decided to get cattle and horses, which she bought from the Bull Pub’s owner, Michael Leonhardt.
“When he bought (the Bull Pub), I sort of chatted to him about it a little bit,” Wright said. “Not with a mind to do anything with it, because at the time I didn’t want to (run a restaurant).”
Leonhardt, meanwhile, had no idea at the time that Wright was a chef, and a highly trained chef at that.
His restaurant would sit empty for another two years before he figured that out.
Learning The Ropes
Wright was trained as a classical French chef at a world-famous London restaurant known for its haute cuisine. That restaurant is none other than Le Gavroche, where Chef Gordon Ramsay himself trained.
At the time Wright and Ramsay trained there, Le Gavroche was a three-star Michelin restaurant. But the stars follow the chef, so when the Roux brothers’ father died, the restaurant dropped to two stars.
Wright spent three years on an old-school apprenticeship with French chefs in London, the last year of which was at Le Gavroche.
“Every chef that’s any good has at some point probably trained with them,” Wright said. “And that’s how I knew, like, Gordon Ramsay came to train there when I was still there.”
Ramsay then had been working for Marco Pierre White, also a world-famous chef, who had trained once at Le Gavroche.
“Marco sent Gordon to Gavroche, and then (Ramsay) ended up as the head chef at Gavroche,” Wright said.
Wright had just a couple of weeks left in her apprenticeship, so she didn’t get to see Ramsay in action for long. But all the chefs were highly interested in Ramsay when he came to Le Gavroche.
“Marco Pierre White was a bit of a rock star chef at the time, so we were all interested to see who Gordon was, because he was his sous chef,” Wright said. “He obviously, you know, was pretty good and knew what he was doing. We knew he was going to be something a little bit special.”
The Buzz Is ‘A Little Addictive’
Training at a world-famous three-star Michelin restaurant is high-stress, and highly addictive.
“They don’t ever say well done or whatever,” Wright said. “If it’s perfect, that’s just how it’s supposed to be. And if it’s not, they definitely let you know.”
In spite of the stress, Wright loved it.
“It’s what we were there for,” she said. “When you do a really busy service in a restaurant, it’s high adrenaline. You know, you’re working fast and furious with a lot of people, and it gives you a buzz. That’s what chefs do it for, I think. It gets a little addictive.”
Taking On The Bull Pub
When Leonhardt finally found out that Wright was a highly trained chef, he gave her a call to talk about his restaurant.
“It had been sitting empty for a couple of years,” Wright recalled. “Then one day out of the blue he just called me up and said, ‘Sam, I just found out that you’re a chef.’ I was like, ‘You didn’t know that?’ And he’s like, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve always been a chef.’”
Leonhardt had caught her at just the right moment, it turns out.
“I’d literally just finished selling my cattle,” Wright said. “And I was doing a lot of farmers markets and things. But I’d been doing that long enough that I did mind to, you know, stop doing it. And I thought it might be fun to come and run this place.”
As it happened, expert help showed up on the doorstep even as Wright was considering her options.
“There was this knock at the door,” Wright said. “And a young guy was standing outside and said, ‘I was wondering if you were hiring chefs at all.’”
Five minutes into the conversation with the Colorado-trained chef, whose first name was Jeremy, Wright knew she was hiring him, and that the restaurant was going to be a go.
“They had just moved here for a couple of years for his wife’s first job,” Wright said. “And he lived just down the road. We weren’t open, we didn’t even have a kitchen. I hired him on the spot and he helped me set the place up.”
How The Pub Got Its Name
Naming the Bull Pub turned out to be the easiest part of setting the restaurant up.
“We called it the Bull Pub because it’s a traditional old English pub name,” Wright said. “And, also, because Michael raises bulls.”
The clincher, though, was the big bull’s head that now hangs over the bar.
“Michael got charged by that bull when it was alive,” Wright said. “He only just managed to, you know, get out of the way before it squashed him. And so, it was going to be slaughtered so he said, ‘I want its head,’ and that’s why we’ve got him on the wall.”
Winning Customers From Near And Far
The Bull Pub has been open for about five years, but the early days were something of a struggle.
Cowley is a town of just 795 people, Wright said, so right off the bat in her chef’s mind this means the restaurant, to thrive, must attract a steady clientele from far and wide.
“They’re not going to come here if we just sell the same stuff that you can get everywhere else,” Wright said. “So that was my first idea is that we have to be different. And, you know, that’s just what I cook. That’s my style of food, so I can’t cook other things that are not, my, you know, I have to cook what I know how to do.”
That meant, in her mind, no prime rib, no chicken-fried steak — beloved American classics that are on most any menu in Wyoming.
Wright doesn’t offer those at all. Instead, she offers a fusion of foods from around the world made with fresh ingredients sourced from Wyoming whenever possible. Sometimes, that might even mean produce from her own garden.
“I’ve traveled a lot,” Wright said. “I spent some time in China, and I bought a ticket and went around the world, so I’ve been to Egypt, Pakistan, Nepal — all sorts of places. And, always when I’m traveling, what I’m interested in is the food. So, I’d spend time in the kitchens if I could, and I bring a little bit of that with me.”
At first, Wright heard often that the restaurant just wasn’t going to work without traditional American classics.
But Wright stuck to her guns.
“I’m like, if you want that, you can just go anywhere else and get it,” she said. “So, we’re not doing it.”
With time, Wright’s vision, and her classically prepared food, has proven its worth.
“People have started to trust us,” Wright said. “We have a lot of people who come from Cody, a lot of people who come from Powell and we actually now have quite a few people who come from Billings even, to eat at the restaurant.”
Every Day Something Is New
One thing that’s proven a draw for the restaurant is its variability. The surprise is part of the delight.
While burgers, steaks and salmon are generally always on the menu, the overall lineup changes with the seasons and sometimes with the day.
“That’s to keep us from getting bored,” Wright said. “And then obviously because it’s seasonal, you know. I think it’s very important to change your menu with the seasons because of the things that are available to buy, and also because of what you want to eat at different times of the year.”
The specials board, meanwhile, is where Wright has a little bit of fun playing with food.
“Quite often people will call and say, ‘What are your specials going to be next week?’” Wright said. “And I just don’t know until the morning of the day. That’s when we come in and I say, what should we make today?”
The decision will be based on what’s available that day, particularly whether there’s something interesting and fun available from any of restaurant’s suppliers.
One day it’s southwest shrimp cocktail served in a margarita glass. The next, it’s chicken and peanut lettuce wraps or duck bao buns.
The dishes that Wright designs around these freshest, best-available ingredients don’t just taste amazing either.
They are a feast for the eyes as well.
“That’s all part of my training, too,” Wright said. “It has to look like something you want to eat, because if it tastes amazing but looks awful, do you want to eat it? You know, you eat with your eyes, so we try to make everything look nice.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.