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Trial by turkey for new chef at The Nittany Lion Inn

Chef Marissa
Thursday, December 1, 2016

Marissa Schaeffer was 21 years old when she cooked her first Thanksgiving dinner, the expected smorgasbord of turkey and fixings laid out buffet style at the Riverhill Country Club in Kerrville, Texas.

Having since danced to this particular tune many times in kitchens up and down the Lone Star State, Schaeffer is about as well acquainted as anyone has the right to be with one of America’s oldest institutions.

The bird, the stuffing, the cranberries — these aren’t variables so much as they are subtle shadings of white on a paint swatch. Nobody cares if “eggshell” works better with the curtains than “honeymilk,” just so long as that’s pumpkin pie they smell in the oven.

“Thanksgiving is a tough one because it’s a blend of trying to bring some new stuff, but it’s mostly traditional,” Schaeffer said.

In that way, the holiday has functioned as sort of the condensed milk version of some of the larger challenges that Schaeffer will face as the new executive chef of the Nittany Lion Inn.

You rarely hear about the drawbacks of inheriting an experienced staff, a well-received menu and a loyal clientele base — and that’s because by and large there aren’t many.

Schaeffer, for instance, is quick to point out how fortunate she was to walk through the doors of a highly organized kitchen back in October.

The chef and her family came to State College by way of San Antonio, where she was working a sweet gig as the proprietor of Crepe Landia, a mobile food station that set up shop every weekend at one of the local farmers markets.

Flanked by about 24 other crepe makers, Schaeffer would arrive on the scene in a trailer carrying all of the necessary ingredients to whip up a 400-square-foot kitchen from scratch.

On a good day, they could serve close to 500 of the hardworking denizens of San Antonio, with nary a wall or waiter between them.

The setup provided the sort of intimacy that is taken for granted in traditional restaurants, where there is a certain luxury to not knowing how the sausage gets made.

“People don’t really get to see kitchens work,” Schaeffer said.

Because, in all honesty, who wants to see the magician sweat? Or in this case, slaving over the raw components of broccoli and cauliflower gratin?

Actually, it’s not that bad. It’s Monday in the kitchen and two dutiful employees have just prepared three plastic tubs worth of the green vegetable.

This is just a fraction of the preparations for the inn’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. Reservations have long since been booked, and Schaeffer estimates that they could end up serving as many as 1,200 patrons.

The numbers are staggering, monotonous only in the sense that they just keep coming, like a runaway math problem that you don’t have the stomach to solve.

There’s the 300 pounds of white potatoes, the 30 gallons of soup, the 800 pounds (roughly 32 birds worth) of turkey — all prepared right there in the kitchen’s comparatively close quarters by hands that are invested in work.

“These people are quality people and really care about what they are doing,” Schaeffer said.

She’ll be keeping a close eye on the buffet line to see where there might be room for tweaks next year. There was even a brief window of time in which Schaeffer thought that there might be leftovers to worry about.

If that sounds naive, chalk it up to the learning curve of the new kid in town.

“This period of time is for me to see what we do,” Schaeffer said.

What they’ll do next is Christmas. After that, there might be room for some cautious experimentation with the menu, a long, deliberate process that involves gradually testing alternate flavors and ideas where warranted.

You see, if there is a downside to success, it’s that there isn’t much of an upside to change. There’s always the risk of trading lightning in a bottle for a can of vanilla Coke.

None of this seems to bother Schaeffer, who is nothing if not experienced with the blending the new with the traditional. She’s already settling into the community.

“Eventually I will know them and they will know me,” Schaeffer said.

by Frank Ready

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