It’s not just the staff that’s bustling at The Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel. There’s plenty going on behind the scenes that will, down the line, yield more of the delicious treats that diners have come to expect there.
For starters, the staff is moving its office to a new area of the restaurant; the old “Spam Room” office will be demolished to make room for a patio dining area (scheduled to open next spring) and adjoining chef’s garden.
Turquoise Room fans – and they are legion – know the restaurant sources many menu items locally, and the garden will give acclaimed chef John Sharpe even more fresh items to work with.
The next step isn’t directly a Turquoise Room project. Part of the La Posada Hotel expansion plans (which visitors can view in a room off the hotel lobby) include planting a vineyard. That is tentatively scheduled for 2013, and even if it is on schedule, the vineyard would not be expected to produce enough grapes for wine until at least 2016.
The vineyard will be a project with John Sutclifffe, who owns Sutcliffe Vineyards in Cortez, Colo. Sutcilffe did not return calls to discuss the project by press time. But Sharpe said Sutcliffe would make the wine, which of course would be available at The Turquoise Room.
Flagstaff localvores already know Sharpe as a familiar face at the Flagstaff Farmer’s Market on Sundays from June through October. Many will have seen him doing demonstrations in March at the Flagstaff Home and Garden Show – his fourth year at that show.
“Flagstaff is a very big part of my clientele,” Sharpe said. “I literally have hundreds of people who come down to eat here.”
For new visitors, the Turquoise Room is an unexpected desert flower, the blooming sign of an oasis in the center of an unforgiving desert. For 11 years, the restaurant has brought Winslow a level of fine dining that surprises many of the visitors touring Route 66 or local natural landmarks from the Petrified Forest to the Grand Canyon.
The millions of people who visit Northern Arizona’s wonders each year was one of the factors that persuaded Sharpe and wife Patricia to leave Orange County, Calif., to open the local landmark restaurant in 2000.
“Actually, I didn’t believe it, initially,” he said. But after meeting with tourism officials, “It showed me that with so many people visiting this area…they tend to do the loop though Winslow.”
Even so, getting started was a challenge. The restaurant space was still extremely rough, and the hotel had just 12 rooms rental-ready (it is up to 49 now, and will reach 53 rooms soon).
The Internet also helped pave the way. The infobahn and the shipping revolution it created made it easier for chefs to source fresh ingredients that are so essential to their creations.
“Access to raw ingredients was very challenging for the first two years,” Sharpe said. “Had I come here in 1985 or 1990, we would not have been able to provide the foods we provide here.”
But he developed connections with suppliers from around the state – his churro lamb comes from the Navajo Indian reservation and his Tepary beans come from the Tohono O’Odham cooperative. Fish and other items are sourced through more distant suppliers, but new shipping technologies help keep ingredients fresh. Now, Sharpe said, “I can order halibut from Seattle or Alaska and have it 48 hours after it was in the water.”
Also local is the restaurant’s staff, although a few, like Sharpe and his new general manager, Bob Carr, are imported. But most of the 40 employees are from Winslow or the reservation. Weather – most notably, seasonal dust and snowstorms – makes it impractical to hire Flagstaff residents, because weather may force road closures that would hurt day-to-day staffing. Unlike in manufacturing, Sharpe noted, restaurants “have no excuse for your product not being ready.”
For some positions, he recruits experienced professionals from outside of Winslow. Selling points include the low cost of living, surrounding natural beauty, clean air and, of course, the opportunity to work with a world-class chef. Even so, he admits, “If the person or persons is not ready to live in a small town, it’s not going to work.”
Sharpe prides himself on training and cultivating a memorable service staff that keeps visitors coming back.
“I try to teach them the craft and the rules and the etiquette of being good servers,” he said, but sincerity can’t be taught. “I tell them to be truthful and sincere and be themselves.” Nothing makes him happier than getting emails or comment cards that compliment servers by name.
Well, almost nothing makes him happier. Sharpe has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award twice. He was nominated in 2011 for Best Chef – Southwest, and was a semifinalist again this year, but has yet to bring home the award known as the culinary Oscar.
Even the nomination is an accomplishment for a restaurant in a place like Winslow. Nominations are made and voted secretly by James Beard Foundation members, with the requirement that members must have dined at the restaurant they vote for. That may be easy in a metropolis like Phoenix, Dallas or Denver; not so much for an establishment in a small hamlet like Winslow that’s remote from big cities. But visitors come from all over the world.
The Turquoise Room’s reach is reflected in its social media following: Sharpe’s email newsletter has 14,000 subscribers – half again the population of Winslow. The restaurant just started a Facebook page this year that had, at press time, 367 “likes.”
“The business side of this is that we have been very fortunate to have this kind of a restaurant in a small community where the community has supported us,” Sharpe said. “”Without that kind of support, we would never have made it through 11 years of business.” FBN