Chef's surprise: Campolio gets offer he can't refuse

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WALLA WALLA — Many of the best foods of the Valley will be served up in the Big Apple this December at a dinner that will be a culminating moment in the career of a young executive chef for the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

“I would say this is one of those things. Cooking at the Beard Foundation is like going to the Emmys,” Antonio Campolio said.

This week, hotel officials will announce that their 27-year-old executive chef has been invited to cook a dinner of his choice at the James Beard Foundation in New York City.

The foundation is dedicated to continuing the life work of renowned cookbook author, food journalist and American cuisine champion James Beard.

The foundation is known for sponsoring a number of educational programs, including awards that are considered the Oscars or Emmys of the fine dining industry.

So how did the young chef from Greenbrier, W.Va., get invited to cook at one of the most renowned culinary institutions in the world?

By cooking for customers.

“We had a chef’s table and four people, really nice people — they are from the South is the best way to say it — and we obviously hit it off because I am from West Virginia,” Campolio said, his Southern draw becoming a little more audible.

A chef’s table is a modern dining concept where tables or counters are set in restaurant kitchens so guests can interact with the chefs as they prepares their meals.

As Campolio cooked for the two couples, he had no idea the influence his Southern guests could have in his life.

“We were having a great time just all the way around. And at the end of the meal they said, ‘Have you ever heard of the James Beard Foundation?’ And I said, ‘Well yeah. What self-respecting chef hasn’t?’ And they said they were members of the James Beard Foundation and they were going to recommend that I go there as a guest chef.”

The idea was savory to Campolio, but it was also just dinner talk with new friends. Perhaps the promise would one day come to fruition, but the chef didn’t stew on it.

That was in the fall of 2011.

Then last month an email was mistakenly sent to the Marcus Whitman’s restaurant manager, who then forwarded the email to Campolio.

Naturally, Campolio thought the manager was ribbing on him.

“I thought it was a joke at first. I was, ‘No way. No.’ And I called. And it was a pretty legitimate deal,” Campolio said.

Perhaps a bit presumptuous, Campolio agreed to travel to the foundation, where he would prepare a meal for 80 guests on Dec. 12.

“After I am done jumping for joy I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is a huge undertaking and a huge expense. So I went to (hotel owner) Kyle (Mussman) and he didn’t even blink,” Campolio said.

With the financial backing obtained, Campolio must now plan out his trip to New York.

Accompanying him will be executive sous chef Erik Johnson, pastry chef Mandi Wendt, his own personal collection of cooking knives, food to feed 80 people and one bakery assistant from the South.

“My mother is going to be at the kitchen. She is a baker at the Greenbrier (Resort). She is 5-foot-2 and an Irish redhead. She works in a monstrous kitchen surrounded by men. She can take care of herself,” he said.

Campolio’s family is the reason he chose the dining industry as a career.

“I started at 12 washing dishes working at my folks’ place,” Campolio recalled of his early days on the family’s restaurant and vineyard.

“I was always helping out, helping my old man make meatballs. I was just free labor, but it got it in my blood,” Campolio said.

The death of Campolio’s father due to illness would eventually lead the family to sell the vineyard and restaurant, but the youth held on to his cooking aspirations, which developed as he was taken under the wing and into the kitchen by another chef.

“My family were close friends with another family, the Timmons family, and he (Peter Timmons) happened to be a certified master chef. And he told me if I wanted to be a chef he would teach me,” Campolio said.

First, Campolio had to start at the bottom of the kitchen at the Greenbrier Resort — a historical and award-winning luxury resort near White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. — where he spent most of his time prepping salads.

“Putting it into scale, our main dining room was 1,200 to 1,500 people a night, and that was just one dining room. So I was cutting a lot of vegetables,” Campolio said.

As he followed his dream, Campolio decided to forego the traditional culinary school education and, instead, worked up the ladder under Timmons’ tutelage.

Eventually, Campolio’s on-the-job training earned him an executive chef position at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Spring, Colo. At 23 he was the youngest executive chef ever for the hotel.

Then in 2010 he was hired as the executive chef of the Marcus Whitman.

Of course, there is the future one-night stint at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village.

“It’s levitating. It is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and I can’t tell you how proud I am,” Campolio said.

The invitation to cook at the foundation doesn’t require Campolio to use Walla Walla products, but the chef is committed to using only local foods, which means all food must be shipped.

The meal will include up to six courses, including hors d’oeuvres, dessert and 20 cases of Walla Walla wines.

Along with his cooking team, Campolio said he also invited Timmons to attend.

“It is truly an honor at the end of the day to be blessed with the opportunity to represent the Valley,” Campolio said.

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