At first, Antonio Campolio thought someone was playing a joke on him.
As the executive chef of the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center, Campolio gets a lot of email, not all of it serious. But after re-reading the message, he realized it was the real deal — he was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City.
Once he got his head wrapped around the invitation, Campolio knew he wanted to feature Walla Walla’s food culture and to communicate the charm of a small agricultural town in Eastern Washington to the big-city gastronomes of New York.
“I never intended the evening to be about me as a chef, but more about us, as a whole, as a valley,” Campolio says. “And that’s what the entire dinner was built around. It was meant to showcase the type of people, integrity and passion here in the Valley.”
His plan was to include locally sourced food and wine.
Chef Campolio is a big man with a subtle West Virginian accent that becomes more pronounced when he talks about his family. Before he even stepped into a professional kitchen, he was making pasta from scratch under the watchful eye of his grandmother.
“It got in my blood at a young age,” explains Campolio. He began his career in his family’s restaurant before graduating to some of the nation’s most prestigious resorts, including the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., and the five-star-rated Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. At 28 years old, Campolio is impressing diners from all over the country.
He especially impressed a group of fellow Southerners who had spent an evening at a Chef’s Table dinner at The Marc, tasting a variety of Campolio’s creations.
“At the end of the dinner they asked me if I had ever heard of the James Beard House,” he says. “I laughed and said, ‘Well, yes, what self-respecting chef hasn’t?’”
His dinner guests explained they were members of the James Beard Foundation and would like to recommend him as a visiting chef. Campolio wrote this off as polite dinner conversation. Months later, the James Beard House offered him the opportunity to create a dinner for 80 guests.
James Beard was a cookbook author, teacher and seminal figure in American food culture. Today his legacy is carried on by the James Beard Foundation, which promotes the exploration of American food culture through events, awards and educational programs. At the hub of the foundation is the James Beard House, the former home of the American culinary legend, which has now been transformed into “a performance space for visiting chefs.”
After six months of rigorous planning and logistics the stage was set, and on Dec. 12, 2012, Walla Walla made its debut in the Big Apple.
Not only was the food sourced from a number of local farms, ranches and fromageries, but the dining room was garnished with grapevines and Walla Walla Wine Barrels centerpieces. In addition to the décor, there was an entourage of Walla Walla residents spread out among the tables to invite conversation about the Valley.
Campolio made sure the founding fathers — and mothers — of the Walla Walla wine industry were there: Gary and Nancy Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, Rick and Darcy Small of Woodward Canyon, Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No 41, Doug and Jan Roskelley of TERO Estates, and Andy Purdue and Holly Turner of Three Rivers Winery. Kyle and Brenda Mussman of the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center rounded out the group.
The menu, describing four hors d’oeuvres and six courses with individual wine pairings, was mounted in a leather-bound folio that also contained descriptions of the wineries.
Campolio’s creations included smoked Quinault River blueback salmon and roe with orange pepper crème fraîche on potato blini, Walla Walla Roastery espresso-crusted beef carpaccio with Monteillet Causse Noir cheese, Walla Walla Sweet Onions, fingerling potatoes, and Oregon summer black truffles paired with L’Ecole No 41 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot 2005.
Campolio’s culinary team comprised Executive Sous-Chef Erik Johnson, Pastry Chef Mandi Wendt, and Chef Dan Thiessen from Walla Walla Community College.
Campolio is pleased with the result. “Walla Walla rocked New York,” he says. “It will be one of those moments in my life that I will look back on and have zero regrets. The week that we were there was phenomenal. And to share it with so many great people is huge.”
The Walla Walla entourage agrees. “It was obvious from the people we talked to that they enjoyed it. They said it was the best ever. Chef Campolio knocked it out of the park,”
Small agrees. “This dinner was very much about the Walla Walla of the old days, in the sense that everybody in the community tries to build for a greater good. Walla Walla will benefit from this.”