Chef John Sharpe and tourism mogul Fred Harvey have a lot in common, even beyond their birthplace, England, and their links to a hotel in Winslow, Arizona. They also share a pioneering spirit and an ability to gauge the tastes of their respective cultures.
In the 1870s, Harvey hit upon the notion of attracting rail travelers to the West by highlighting the region’s exoticism, especially its Native American traditions, while providing them with familiar Continental-style comforts. These days, John Sharpe applies his classic European culinary training to such dishes as Hopi Hummus and Native Cassoulet at The Turquoise Room in La Posada Hotel – built for the Fred Harvey Company in the late 1920s to the early 1930s.
Foodies from far-flung cities laud his culinary accomplishments, but Sharpe is not only interested in appealing to gourmets. He also seeks to please less adventurous diners. And he wants the restaurant to acknowledge the history of La Posada with more than just its Southwest Deco decor. How has he managed to achieve these ambitious, sometimes contradictory, goals? Diverse though it is, his menu is devoted to what he calls, “down-to-earth, honest food.” Sharpe says, “I cook with what nature presents me, no matter where I am.”
Before he came to Winslow in 2000, Sharpe owned restaurants in Newport Beach, California, for two decades. He previously worked in such places as Switzerland and Beverly Hills, where, as part of the nouvelle cuisine revolution, he emphasized fresh and local ingredients. But the most direct precedent to The Turquoise Room was the restaurant at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California. There, Sharpe put together a series on Native American-inspired feasts, which was met with great enthusiasm.
Their friends Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion, the owners of La Posada, initially drew Sharpe and his wife, Patricia, to Winslow, but it was author Gary Paul Nabhan who introduced Sharpe to growers and providers so The Turquoise Room’s menu could evolve further in the direction toward which it was leaning. Nabhan, the first director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University and co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, among other projects, “came in one day,” Sharpe says, “and saw what I was doing. He asked if I would be interested in working some of the purveyors he knew, including Tohono O’odham near Tucson, and Navajo and Hopi closer to Winslow.”
And so it was that Sharp’s Native Cassoulet came to be made with Tohono O’odham-grown brown tepary beans and Navajo-raised churro lamb, among other non-traditional ingredients. And that the hummus on the menu includes Hopi heirloom corn, a variety with tiny kernels that has never been genetically modified.
For those who don’t like cassoulet and hummus, no matter where their ingredients come from, Sharpe offers the “Sizzling Steak House” menu, with specials such as porterhouse steak and ground round burgers – not to mention American buffalo steak that’s free-range, and hormone and antibiotic free. He also pays tribute to the early days of La Posada with Continental standards such as Angus prime rib roast au jus with horseradish cream, and filet mignon and shrimp with wild mushroom sauce. What’s this portion of the bill of fare called? Why “Fred Harvey inspired,” of course.
Recipe: Arizona All-Native Nations Winter Stew with Blue Corn and Mesquite Flour Dumplings
This recipe, created for an event at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, appears in John Sharpe’s “The Turquoise Room at La Posada: The Story and Local Foods of the Region,” which can be purchased at www.theturquoiseroom.net.
Churro lamb, venison or beef all may be used for this dish. As is the tradition among all native peoples, the slaughtering by hunting or harvesting is a ritual associated with a special occasion. The cooking thereafter is a process that wastes nothing and uses ingredients found at hand or saved especially for a ceremony.
Churro Lamb Stew
- 2 lbs. lamb stew meat on the bone (neck bones are best for this, but ribs or lamb shanks cut into small pieces by your butcher also work well)
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 cups diced brown onion
- 6 crushed cloves of garlic
- 2 cups sliced carrots
- 2 lbs. of assorted fresh chiles (poblano, red bells and jalapenos; double the jalapenos if you want the dish medium spicy, and use none if you do not want it spicy at all)
- 2 lbs. Roma tomatoes
- 3 teaspoons sea salt
- Fresh-ground black pepper
- 12 cups water
- 4 sprigs fresh sage
- 1 cup fresh mint leaves
- 1 cup canned red chile sauce (I like the Embassa brand)
- 2 lbs. peeled diced hard winter squash (you may use anything from pumpkin to Hubbard to acorn or banana squash; sweet or regular potatoes are also suitable for substitution in this dish).
Optional Ingredients (for serving and garnish)
- 2 dozen 4-inch corn tortillas
- 1 large red onion diced into small pieces
- One bunch of cilantro chopped, stalks removed
- Fresh jalapeno or serrano chiles chopped fine, seeds removed
For this dish you will need a large, thick-bottomed casserole with lid.
Char chiles a little over an open flame. They can be roasted on an outside grill that has been turned on high: at least 500 degrees F. Take the chiles from the grill and place them all in a bowl and cover for 15 minutes. This will steam them and make it easier to take off the skin. Remove most of the burnt skin, leaving some on for added color in the sauce and for a richer flavor. Cut open the chiles and remove the seeds and stems.
Char the Roma tomatoes over an open flame till black and caramelized. Take out the core and cut into wedges. Leave the burnt skin on.
Season the meat with sea salt and ground black pepper.
Place the casserole on the stove and add the oil; heat until it is lightly smoking. Add the meat and continue to cook over a high heat until it is browned on all sides. Add the carrot, onion and garlic and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 5 minutes more or until you see the garlic turning a light brown and smell the garlic roasted. Add all of the other ingredients except the hard squash and bring the dish to a boil.
Place in a preheated oven and bake for 2 hours at 325 degrees F. Take out and allow the dish to settle for 15 minutes. Carefully remove the excess grease from the top of the stew (it is not essential to remove all of it, just the excess). Add the hard squash and mix it in with the stew. Bring to a boil and this time return it to the oven without the lid. Cook until the meat is tender. You can test this after another 30 minutes by removing it with a slotted spoon and cutting it with a knife.
The dish may be made one or two days ahead of time and kept refrigerated. It will always be better the next day, as the flavors will have time to meld.
- 1 cup blue cornmeal
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup mesquite flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ½ teaspoon chipotle powder or red chile powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground fresh black pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter or shortening (rendered fat from the meat would be traditional here)
- ¾ cup milk
Place all the dry ingredients in a bowl and rub in the shortening.
Add the milk until you have bread-like dough; keep adding a little flour until the mixture forms balls that will not stick to your hands. Roll into small balls about the size of a walnut and place on paper towels in a sealed container until needed.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bring the stew to a boil and add the dumplings to it. Make sure you turn them over so as to make sure the grease on top of the stew covers each one with a thin layer. Place the stew back into the oven and cook for 15 minutes. When you remove the pot from the oven, skim any excess grease that may be on the surface.
A large soup bowl is best for this dish. Ladle a portion into each bowl and serve very hot with warm corn tortillas on the side.You may also serve chopped fresh cilantro, diced red onion and finely chopped fresh jalapeno or serrano chiles if you wish to give your guests some options.
(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism – 2009)