WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Many chefs choose to describe their cuisine with terms such as "classic French," "Asian fusion" or "West Coast."
Antonio Campolio, 28, skillfully and casually steers clear of definition and boundaries. And yet, the West Virginian's attitude, approach and execution at The Marc Restaurant seems to be an ideal fit for Walla Walla, Wash., and the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel.
"I would just describe my style as creating food that doesn't suck," he chuckled.
This wine country chef's star is shining brightly and beyond the Walla Walla Valley, earning him a December date in New York City to prepare dinner at the famed James Beard House.
"There are so many phenomenal purveyors in the valley, winemakers, friends, the owners of the hotel and the phenomenal team I work with that helped me work on this dinner," Campolio said. "It's been very cool for me to see all these pieces of the puzzle come together. I'm lucky."
Among those celebrating Campolio's success is Kyle Mussman, who has restored the 12-story hotel to its status as the downtown icon. The town's residents shared in the construction costs in 1928.
"Antonio is certainly a young rock star who knocks it out of the park every day," said Mussman, who bought the hotel in 1999. "He's comfortable in his own skin and a big guy, but he's pretty graceful, pretty darn humble, talented and articulate. We've always had a pretty solid culinary program, but he's taken it to an all-time high. The James Beard House recognition speaks to that."
It's a career path many predicted for Campolio, whose resume includes the famed Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and the acclaimed Greenbrier Resort in his hometown of White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. He began kitchen life at the age of 12 when he washed dishes at Giovanni's, his parents' restaurant in the Allegheny Mountain town.
"My father had a very Italian background, and my mother was Irish with a very coal miner's daughter upbringing," he said. "I ate homemade pasta one night, then brown beans and corn bread the next night. And it was all made from scratch because it was what we had. These days, everyone is going back to simple food made from scratch. Well, I grew up that way."
Life changed dramatically when Campolio's father died and Giovanni's closed. Peter Timmins, a longtime family friend and executive chef at the Greenbrier, turned into his mentor.
"He said, 'If you want to be a chef, I'll teach you,' " Campolio said. "I didn't have money to go to school. I didn't have much money to do anything with, you know? I spent a lot of years when I was in high school, working with him in his home, working on competitions. You don't understatnd the gravity of working with a certified master chef in his kitchen when you are 16 years old. I probably should have spent a bit more time there, but you don't know.
"So a couple of days after I graduated high school, I shaved my beard, put on my whites and went to work," he added. "The rest was up to me."
So at age 18, he started at the Greenbrier Resort, one of America's largest and most distinguished culinary destinations. He was fast-tracked and never looked back.
"This is all I've ever wanted to do," he said. "I don't know what wiring circuit went sideways in my head, but if you ask most chefs, you don't necessarily choose. You just know."
In some ways, Mussman can empathize with Campolio. An Indiana native, he was just 27 in 1990 when he invested in the Walla Walla Valley as a franchisee for CellularOne.
"I came out here with a five-year business plan and have stayed for 22 years," Mussman chuckled.
During those first nine years, Mussman drove by the Marcus Whitman Hotel daily and bemoaned its dilipated state. The local college and a neighboring county are named for the missionary who was murdered a few miles to the west in 1847. So when Mussman bought the building, he devoted 22 months to its renovation, a project reminiscent of The Davenport Hotel in Spokane.
Once restored, Mussman made sure his hotel and adjacent conference center became a part of the valley's growing wine scene. It begins on the ground floor of the hotel, where several area wineries operate tasting rooms just off the lobby.
He and wife Brenda maintain a home near the Columbia River in Pasco, Wash., and a residence at the Marcus Whitman. That hands-on approach seems to factor into the hotel staff's attention to detail and enthusiasm.
"I eat breakfast at the hotel every day and, on average, we have dinner at the restaurant three times a week," said Mussman, who has a daughter entering Walla Walla Community College's new culinary program.
His executive chef is a hulk of a man with more than a few thoughtful tattoos, and Campolio looks as if he could play left guard for the Green Bay Packers. His sense of team shows in the hotel's photograph of the culinary staff. He's the young guy in the back row.
"If someone wants to come work for me, there are two basic questions I ask," Campolio said. "Do you know how to make risotto, and do you have passion? I can't teach you passion, but I can teach you everything else you need."
The synergy includes restaurant/lounge manager Dan McCaffrey, who was among the five Broadmoor employees Campolio recruited to join him at The Marc.
It didn't take much effort, said McCaffrey, who dreams of making wine in Walla Walla.
"I already knew of some of these wines when I was at the Broadmoor," he said, "but I've enjoyed getting to know more of them."
Regional spirits are offered in the Vineyard Lounge, and McCaffrey's wine list also ranks among Washington's best. Campolio took his knives and examples of five wineries found among those pages -- L'Ecole No. 41, Leonetti, Tero, Three Rivers and Woodward Canyon -- to the James Beard House. L'Ecole crafts the "Signature" wines for The Marc, and a glass of the red is a mere $8.
Each month, this wine country hotel also provides the featured winemakers a unique opportunity to interact with guests during special dinners, which pair four courses with four wines for just $60.
"At first, I was knocking on winery doors to participate in our Winery of the Month program. Now, wineries are asking me," McCaffrey said. We have the winemakers work the floor with us, acting as a guest sommelier.
"It's great PR for the wineres, and you can imagine how popular Gilles Nicault of Long Shadows was," he added.
Another feature at The Marc is the Chef's Table, a concept Mussman first experienced at the Commodore's Palace in New Orleans. Entertainment and education is served during a multi-course meal while sitting at a booth inside the kitchen. Campolio's table can be booked for $75 to $125 per person, depending upon the wines selected.
"And we don't speak over our guests' heads, especially when it comes to wine," Campolio said. "After all, it's just fermented grape juice."
Good juice shared during an evening of fellowship with assistant winemaker Andy Slusarenko of Three Rivers Winery helped Campolio grow a garden program. The Three Rivers Culinary Garden produced a cornucopia for The Marc, including 72 tomato plants -- many trained to a height of 9 feet.
"A crew of people in my kitchen, who are working 12-hour days, get up two or three hours early to work in the garden," Campolio said. "We stop somewhere in town, get breakfast or lunch and wash off the produce. Then we change and do dinner service with the same produce we harvested that morning."
There's also the vinegar program Slusarenko shepherds for Campolio.
"How many kitchens have their own barrels of red balsamic and white balsamic?" Campolio said. "I do! And in six to eight months, I'll have my first harvest out of it, and I will be happy as hell."
Mussman seems equally pleased Campolio outshined 115 applicants in December 2010 during his audition.
"He had this great leadership and presence, which is important in a large kitchen with moving pieces," Mussman said. "He had banquet experience, and we knew he was right-on with his wine pairings."
Campolio and McCaffrey collaborate on those pairings, just as they did at the Broadmoor.
For the Match Maker assignment, they paired the Walla Walla Vintners' 2010 Cabernet Franc with Wagyu Short Rib with Butterscotch Pumpkin Puree, Vanilla Pepper Spaetzel, Blueberry Plum Conserve and Horseradish. The supple yet lean rib played nicely with the restrained tannins, while the dark berries in the wine, the vanilla bean notes of the barrel and lack of herbaecous found favor with each of the components.
The Zerba Cellars 2011 Cockburn Vineyard Estate Roussanne came off just as seamless, and scallops are a favorite entree for Campolio. The Apricot and Seckle Pear Chutney complemented the stone fruit notes in the Roussanne, which carries plenty of citrusy acidity for the sauteed and carmelized scallops.
It's no coincidence that Mussman's makeover of the Marcus Whitman -- at a reported cost of $30 million --