By Paul T. Choate
Feb. 9, 2013. One of the area’s premiere fine dining establishments, the Gamekeeper was recently given the AAA Four Diamond Award for the sixth straight year. It is the only Four Diamond restaurant in the High Country and one of only 13 in the entire state.
“It’s thrilling,” said Gamekeeper owner Ken Gordon. “It’s an honor to be in a club of other restaurants and inns that have similar standards.”
AAA describes restaurants selected for the Four Diamond Award as:
A four Diamond restaurant is geared to individuals in search of a distinctive fine-dining experience. Often orchestrated by an executive chef and an accomplished staff, menus reflect a high degree of creativity and complexity, using imaginative presentations to enhance high quality, market-fresh ingredients. The equally proficient service staff demonstrates a strong desire to meet or exceed guest expectations. A wine steward is typically available to provide menu-specific knowledge on wine selection. The ambiance is highly refined, comfortable and well-coordinated, incorporating quality materials and a variety of upscale design enhancements to give a first-class impression.
The Gamekeeper was opened in 1987 by John Rice in a 1950s stone cottage that was once the residence of the founders of Camp Yonahlossee. It started to truly evolve into a fine dining establishment when Gordon and his wife Wendy purchased the business in 2000. Since that time, it has become a favorite among both locals and visitors alike.
So why is it so successful?
“Number one would be great staff,” Gordon said. “We’ve been very lucky with the crews that we’ve had across time. We’ve been able to keep our staff for long periods of time – especially in a business that is riddled with high turnover; we haven’t had that problem at all.”
Gordon also said a contributing factor in their success that is “right up there” are the offerings local growers bring to them to serve in their restaurant. Along with Chef Edwin Bloodworth, The Gordons work side-by-side in the Gamekeeper’s kitchen, creating the recipes that define the restaurant’s signature “modern mountain cuisine.”
“It only makes sense to keep things local,” Gordon said. “If a guy is growing something right down the street, why go any further to get it unless you are just trying to find something rare? I’m more interested in what our neighbors have than trying to go out there around the world and find something else.”
Gordon always keeps his menu evolving, but some things have to stay on the menu permanently. Gordon said his personal favorite in the restaurant was Wendy’s bread pudding, which is also a favorite among locals.
“We would have some very angry people if we took that off the menu,” he said.
Other favorites in the restaurant include the grilled ostrich fan filet, with ostrich that comes from a farm in Forsyth County, and different kinds of sausages that they have been making recently and featuring on the mixed game grill.
In addition to Chef Bloodworth, others have also contributed to the Gamekeeper’s continued success. Angie Pate has served for as the maître d’ for many years and Gordan said, “She’s probably one of the most familiar faces that everyone sees when they come in.”
Chef Bloodworth’s wife Jeannie has also been with the restaurant for many years and has served as a maître d’, server and has also helped out in the office.
“[Jeannie] does a little bit of everything,” Gordon said.
One other familiar face in Gamekeeper is Bartender Evan Bernon.
“He’s been with us a long time,” Gordon said. “He’s another one of those faces that are very recognizable here. Sometimes people will come in and just go straight to the bar just to have drinks and hang out with Evan.”
Bernon is know for coming up with some concotions that become instant classics, including his chocolate martini and his “backyard margarita.”
The Gordons are also expanding into the catering business. Working with Camp Sky Ranch, the Gamekeeper has been catering events such as wedding receptions, family reunions and a host of other functions.
A family affair
The Gordons have two children who have both grown up around the restaurant business. Gus, 15, is an avid skateboarder who is learning to help out in the kitchen with washing dishes and “is starting to get a taste for the culinary.”
“If Gus could make a career out of skateboarding he would totally do that in a heartbeat,” Gordon said. “In the meantime washing dishes gives him a few bucks.”
Their daughter Josie, 11, has spent many afternoons after school in the restaurant and sometimes helps out with setting tables, folding napkins and that sort of thing. Gordon said Josie is already showing a “really good feel for this business.”
Learning on the job
The Gordons have both been in the restaurant business for several years now and have worked at some of the best places around the state. Ken and Wendy have worked together at such places as J. Basul Noble in High Point, Linville Ridge Country Club in Linville, Roaring Gap Club in Roaring Gap and Caffe Phoenix in Wilmington.
“I started at Hardee’s,” Gordon said with a laugh. “I never went to culinary school but I tried to work in the best places that I could. I ended up at Noble’s restaurant in High Point for a number of years.”
While at Noble’s, Gordon said he asked the owner, Jim Noble, to write him a letter of recommendation to get into culinary school.
“Jim said, ‘Nah, that’s just a waste of your money. Just stay here and I’ll teach you everything I know.’ And he did,” Gordon said.
Gordon called working at Noble’s one of the best experiences a young chef could possibly have and said he has brought a lot of what he learned with him to Gamekeeper.
The Gordons attended Appalachian State University together and intended to remain in the High Country thereafter.
“We decided that when we finished we would get married and then never leave here. We just loved the area so much. And a very short while later we realized, ‘You know, if we stay here we are going to make $6 an hour for the rest of our lives.’”
So, the Gordons went off the mountain to further their education and experience. The couple spent about 10 years away from the High Country before they felt they were in a point in their lives where they could return.
Purchasing the Gamekeeper in 2000 was the culmination of all their hard work and dedication. Now, 13 years later, they operate the only Four Diamond restaurant in the area.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“We’ve just been rolling along and doing what we do. We try to stick true to what we do and to our technique, but while being innovative at the same time,” Gordon said. “And I guess it has worked.”
The Gamekeeper is located at 3005 Shulls Mill Road, Boone.
For more information, call 828-963-7400, or visit their website at gamekeeper-nc.com, where you will find their full menu, hours of operation and more.