CONWAY — Trailing after Chef James Scharnowske as he makes the rounds at the Red Jacket Mountain Resort in North Conway, you discover he seems to know every single person who works at the large establishment, and they all know him.
So it’s surprising to learn that the executive chef has been at the helm of the hotel’s multiple dining rooms — not to mention a banquet hall and the snack bar at the Kahuna Lagoon indoor water park — for only a year and a half.
However, he’s been cooking at different restaurants in the valley for the past 14 years.
Originally from Red Lodge, Mont., he came here in 2001 to manage an Italian restaurant called Mario’s. Later, he moved on to the Wentworth, then went to Littleton to helm a high-end place called Bailiwicks.
But with son, Isaiah, now 11, growing up in Conway, he seemed destined to return.
At the Red Jacket, he not only writes the menus and orders the food but also has been working to get certified as an executive chef by the American Culinary Federation. Getting such certification, he explained, “helps you stay current and up to date with today’s food trends,” he said, listing off barbecue, Latin American dishes and comfort food as some of the popular cuisines right now.
Chef James also likes to stay on top of what the resort guests will like. “As a rule, families don’t want fancy, fussy food,” he explained. “One of our most popular items right now is the California burger with fresh avocado,” he said. Another favorite is the Seafood Reuben.
In addition to the Palmer Lounge and Champney’s Restaurant, the water park snack bar, and the function room, which does events like weddings and the upcoming Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. Between the different venues, they can seat up to 600 people.
“Even when the valley is dead, we’re always busy,” said Chef James. Add in the bus tours, and it can get crazy busy. “I think last weekend (Columbus Day) was the most people we’ve ever served.”
To allow the cooking staff to feed all these hungry diners, the Red Jacket offers a Saturday buffet. Frequently it revolves around a theme like Mexican food, but prime beef is also popular.
As if that doesn’t sound like he’s got enough to do, Chef James — who puts in a 12-hour day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — also mentors local high school students in a program called Red Jacket Academy. Under Chef James’ tutelage, the juniors and seniors learn to make meals from scratch. They also compete in the spring against other schools. The real aim, Chef James said, is: to be able to go home and cook something for their families.
The dish Chef James chose to share with Sun readers is a soup loaded with autumn fruits and vegetables that sounds perfect for a crisp fall day. For more information about the Red Jacket, call (603) 356-5411.
Apple Rutabaga Soup
• ¼ cup butter
• 1 cup chopped onion
• 1 cup Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
• 1 cup rutabaga, peeled and chopped
• 1 cup butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped
• 1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
• 1 cup sweet potato, peeled and chopped
• 1 quart chicken stock
• 2 cups heavy cream
• ¼ cup maple syrup
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 pinch each, cinnamon and cayenne pepper
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, apple, rutabaga, squash, carrots and sweet potato, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent.
Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until all of the vegetables are cooked through and tender.
Puree the vegetables in a blender or food processor. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into the same pot you used to cook the vegetables.
Add cream, maple syrup, salt and cayenne pepper.
Return the pot to the stove, bring the soup to a simmer and serve.