Stressing simplicity

Mark Cheffins combines sophistication and simplicity at the Kenyon Inn in his quest to make the restaurant a dining destination in Ohio.

For a chef who has worked in urban shrines like New York's Four Seasons, Gambier's Kenyon Inn presented some unusual challenges. Mark Cheffins discovered, for example, that the kitchen isn't exactly spacious. "I have a bigger kitchen at home," he points out.

Solving that one wasn't so tough. Cheffins installed more shelves, added $12,000 in new equipment, and jokes that he lost some weight to free up extra space. "At least everything you need is within reach," he says.

A more difficult problem was creating a menu that appeals to a variety of diners with very different palates. The restaurant had to be a place where parents from San Francisco, professors from Boston, and locals from Mount Vernon would feel equally at home. "You need to please people who are well-traveled and very sophisticated, but you also want the local community to come into the fold and not feel alienated," says Cheffins, who assumed his post as chef at the Kenyon Inn in 2001, about two years after the College took over its operation.

Prior to his work in Gambier, Cheffins helped transform the Worthington Inn's Seven Stars restaurant into one of the finest destinations in Columbus. And now he's getting recognition for his efforts at Kenyon. This summer, the Columbus Dispatch, gave the Kenyon Inn four out of five stars, and the restaurant was also praised in Columbus Monthly, a magazine devoted to business, cultural, and social life.

How did he do it? Partly by using a low-key approach. Cheffins incorporates elements of French cuisine, but he doesn't advertise it. "We use none of those French words," Cheffins says. "They're not even good in politics anymore."

Cheffins tries to keep things relatively simple. "I don't like menus that are like books," says the fifty-one-year-old, who started out working in a Swiss bakery during high school. "Younger chefs tend to go off on tangents--I know I did--and they get too complex. I try to maintain only three to four flavors on each plate."

Yet Cheffins offers a menu that is anything but staid. Take the seared salmon resting atop wasabi whipped potatoes that are spicy and green in color--a nice contrast with the orange hue of the fish. It's topped with a jalapeño hollandaise sauce, a peppery twist on a classic that Cheffins says would have the French chefs of old turning over in their graves. A thinly sliced, lightly fried daikon radish crowns the dish, and a soy cilantro vinaigrette is drizzled alongside.

Two good French champagnes are available, but the rest of the wine list comes from California.

By varying the menu and prices, Cheffins gives customers different options. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays feature a more casual, less-expensive menu. Thursdays offer more ambitious dishes at a slightly higher cost. And Fridays and Saturdays boast what Cheffins calls the most "upscale" offerings.

"It gives everyone from all walks of life a chance to eat here," Cheffins explains. "It helps create the atmosphere you want at an inn--a comfortable place where people feel welcome and relaxed."

In fact, the relaxing character of rural life definitely hasn't been a challenge for Cheffins. "It's so tranquil here," he says. "I'm usually a stress mess, so it's just what I need. I love it."

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