If you’re ready for a truly tantalizing experience attended to by people who are passionate about their profession, make your reservations for The Gamekeeper! This is a venue devoted to the procurement and presentation of wild game and other fine foods. The menu is not restricted to game but you will find a more eclectic offering here than in most restaurants. When you meet Ken Gordon, the proprietor along with his wife Wendy and the Chef de Cuisine, Edwin Bloodworth you will be struck with their passion and with the quality of the restaurant they have built.
Ken and Wendy are App State grads who fell in love with the mountains years ago and when the opportunity to run a mountain restaurant opened thirteen years ago at The Gamekeeper, they jumped! And lucky for us in the high country that they did – for we now have a world-class, exotic cuisine restaurant right in our back yard! After graduating from App, Ken worked as Executive Chef at J. Basul Noble’s restaurant in High Point for 8-9 years before the current opportunity occurred. There he developed his art for the meals he now creates at The Gamekeeper.
Edwin, the Chef de Cuisine has a long history at The Gamekeeper. He began with the Gordon’s shortly after they started and with some “sabbaticals” he’s been there ever since. He took a few years to understudy with a phenomenal local fine dining venue called The Townhouse Grille in Chilhowie, VA and returned soon with great experience. Edwin says they like to maintain an element of surprise and delight in their fare by presenting what they’ve seen in the streams and woods the week before. He loves to experiment with small touches like creating their own mustard. A big part of his work is learning. He loves to grow in his craft and reads constantly. To Edwin food is an inspiration – an opportunity to grow by learning more about it each year. You’ll see in his videos how he incorporates a heritage of the southern Appalachians directly into the art of his cuisine.
Ken describes their current cuisine as “New or Progressive Appalachian” which he describes as simple, yet complex and sourcing locally and within the state as much as possible within the USDA wild game dictates. The “game” aspect of this restaurant ensures your experience here will be unique from any high country eatery. In fact ostrich has become their number one item today. They’ve had great results with a great North Carolina ostrich farm who according to Ken, “save their best cuts for us.” Some of Ken’s favorites are their local mountain trout and their duck served with bourbon and maple sugar. In the early days their guests were choosing 50% beef and 30% fish but now it’s shifted far more toward game and other fare. Ken likes to say that “we put love in all our dishes.” Freshness is an imperative with them and they want their greens to look like they came straight from the garden to the table. But Ken is quick to assure those with less adventurous palates that they also offer local beef, country ham, fresh Virginia lamb and local mountain trout.
This is Ken and Wendy’s dream of creating a vision in their restaurant of what good times are. They conclude it has a lot to do with good friends and good food all in one place at the same time. But Ken is quick to assert that while it’s a restaurant and about food, that it’s also very much about the people they serve. He frequently repeated this tenet that they must never forget they’re more in the business of serving people than preparing food. And so the organization is driven by that principle to serve the most desired, highest quality product with the best service and attention to detail. And they never forget how important it is to keep the work fun. They want every day to bring something new in their business. They embrace culinary challenge and make it a team effort. He’s obsessed with the importance of his staff cultivating relationships with the customers. Likewise he and Wendy devote a great deal of attention to the relationship with their staff and vendors. A small thing he said to me was, “We tend to keep our staff.” That struck me as a big reason why this is such a healthy organization. It is a team! This kind of philosophy is hard to fake. While we were there interviewing them Ken was constantly talking about his wife and partner Wendy, and their kids. Both Matt and I were deeply impressed with a man who speaks so affectionately and admiringly of his wife.
Ken focuses on simplicity and quality. As he likes to say, “If you’re serving true quality, you don’t have to change it too much to make it great.” One of the ways they do that is by sourcing locally so it’s fresher. USDA standards on wild game often require them to procure from regional sources but when they can they source locally. For deer and buffalo this often means sourcing from Canada and the West. The boar may come from Arizona or Texas. Some wild boar, bison and ostrich however are available locally. In the end though this results in quality on your plate.
Ken loves what he calls, “wild things.” By that I take that he refers to the local wild herbs that can be found on jaunts through the mountains. One of these for example is “fiddle-head ferns.” After being in business here so long he says people just regularly show up with great fresh wild things that are perfect for his table. He strives to inculcate in his staff the importance of keeping an open mind so when fresh produce arrives that they can respond to the opportunity. Game changes regularly throughout the year. Venison is a staple as is ostrich but you’re also likely to often see such fare as rabbit, pheasant, Asheville bison, antelope, elk, rattlesnake and more.
Ken and Wendy did not set out to be a game restaurant but when the opportunity emerged with the name, “Gamekeeper” established and intact, they had no choice but to run with it. And they love the old stone building. It was a “really cool building with the legacy of an affinity with Yonahlossee – right across the street which is attractive.
Ken says they loved the ambiance of this remarkable old stone building at first sight. He felt it had a cool vibe to it and liked the legacy of it being related to the old Camp Yonalhossee where many kids got their first taste of the mountains. Wendy loves to save old items of memorabilia and Americana and you’ll see her avocation all over the walls here and set about on the floors and tables here. Ken says his favorite place to work is at the counter beside the bar just to the right of where you walk in. My suggestion is to get there early enough to saunter up to the bar and enjoy a libation while getting to know this affable and endearing young family man. You’ll enjoy getting to know him and he declares the sunsets are beyond magnificent – that no place on Earth has “that view!” And when the colder weather rolls around you’ll love the magical ambiance in the great room with the fire roaring in the hearth!
Don’t forget dessert! Wendy’s bread pudding is a staple and acclaimed by all. Once they attempted to remove it from the menu only to encounter a backlash of resistance from the regulars. Flourless chocolate cake is another crowd pleaser sure to remain on the menu. As summer comes on you’ll love to try their blueberry cobbler and famous cheesecake.
In conclusion The Gamekeeper is a local restaurant that is alive and vibrant. Ttake your time while you dine and observe the staff. Engage Ken, Wendy and Edwin in conversation and in addition to enjoying a great meal you’ll probably become a part of their dining community and be hard pressed to stay away. This is a rising restaurant in the high country and one that is sure to reward the decision to dine. Bon Appétit!