Call it love at first bite.
The tale of the Gamekeeper Restaurant centers on a local love story.
Owners Ken and Wendy Gordon met while they were students at Appalachian State University, and now they’re celebrating their restaurant’s sixth consecutive AAA Four-Diamond rating.
The prestigious honor was given to only 3.4 percent of the nearly 60,000 establishments that were anonymously evaluated nationwide. The Gamekeeper was the only restaurant in the area to receive the ranking.
But it all comes back to love. When Ken Gordon was at the university, he was an English major. The food business was only a side job at that point. But, that all changed when he began working at a High Country kitchen with elevated standards, where he was mentored by chefs who taught him a new respect for cooking.
“It happened when I was a junior in college, and I was working at Linville Ridge Country Club,” Gordon said. “Dean Mitchell was the chef there. I worked under him and Patty Strickland, his sous chef, and it was the team aspect of them that made me realize, ‘Wait a minute. They are not only making a lot of money, they are making art here. This is cool, and I can do this.’
“More than anything, it was seeing their professionalism in the kitchen. I was able to work side-by-side with some real players. Patty and the rest of the crew there at the time, they rode me hard. They were professionals, and I was a kid, and they weren’t light on me. I realized that I was past flipping burgers at that point.”
Ken and Wendy decided to spend the rest of their lives together and make a family in Boone. Soon, however, they sadly faced the reality that they would have to leave the High Country to find work.
So, the Gordons moved to Wilmington to begin their new restaurant careers. That led to an eight-year stint at J Basul Nobles restaurant in High Point, where Ken eventually became executive chef. Then, right around 2000, the Gordons jumped at the chance to buy the Gamekeeper.
The Gamekeeper lives up to its name by serving various wild game dishes, expertly cooked in a range of creative ways. The other half of the menu features vegetarian and other classic fare. Following a theme of “Mountain Cuisine,” the restaurant works to find local, sustainable food sources when available.
Ken maintains executive chef status, yet his right-hand man in the kitchen is chef d’cuisine Edwin Bloodworth, whose station at the restaurant reflects the Gordons’ desire to pass on the mentoring concept.
“(Bloodworth) has been with us since day one,” Gordon said. “I worked with him at a club the summer before we bought Gamekeeper. He had just been promoted from dishwasher to salads, and he was going to ASU, and I liked working with him. I just knew that he was a good kid who worked hard. In his senior year, he told me, ‘I want to finish this (non-related) degree, but I want to stick with this business. I want to stay here and do what you did at J Basul Nobles and learn everything.’ I said, ‘You already know a lot of what I know. It’s time for you to leave. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you want, but you have to leave first.’ He’s always come back. I think, eventually, he will have his own restaurant, and it will be fantastic.”
The AAA Four-Diamond rating is not just a reflection of a restaurant’s chefs, but of the overall staff, as well. The best example of that is maitre d’ Angie Pate, another case of new talent cultivated at the Gamekeeper.
“Angie has done an incredible job,” Gordon said. “She runs a tight ship, and she is the smiling face that our guests have come to love out front. We have so many return customers, and she knows them, and she makes sure that the little things that they like are taken care of. And she has developed quite a great palate for wine. We’re not such a large restaurant that we would have a wine sommelier, but she is our built-in sommelier. Angie trains our staff very well, and she and Wendy work with each other to put the wine menu together.”
In the music world and movie business, some artists create with the focus put on winning awards, while others truly follow their muse. When it comes to the restaurant business, the Gordons prefer the latter approach.
“The pressure that we put on ourselves for quality, it has always been there,” Gordon said. “We’re not trying to maintain their (AAA) standards; we want to maintain our own standards.”
The Gamekeeper Restaurant is located at 3005 Shull’s Mill Road in Boone. For more information, visit http://www.gamekeeper-nc.com, or call (828) 963-7400.
Got restaurant news? Email editor Frank Ruggiero at (email@example.com) , or call (828) 264-6397.