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Chef returns to Jefferson County

January 29, 2001

Chef returns to Jefferson County



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

John NewcomerHARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Fate may have brought John R. Newcomer to the Hilltop House Hotel.

Late last year, the quaint 65-room hotel was looking for a talented chef to oversee its dining business.

And Newcomer, a talented chef who has traveled the world perfecting his trade, had returned home.

Newcomer had been in Jefferson County for about two years and was looking for a restaurant to take over when he heard about the opening at the Hilltop House Hotel.

Now he's turning heads as the executive chef at the country inn on Ridge Street.

Delectable creations like pecan-crusted red snapper and sesame-crusted salmon now await the palette in the dining room.

And dessert?

Newcomer, who was the pastry chef for the four-star, four-diamond Mayfair House Hotel in Miami, knows how to work magic with sweets.

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His flourless chocolate cake is artfully presented on a plate with swirls of raspberry and chocolate sauce. As a final interesting touch, he swirls caramel on a piece of parchment paper, lets it dry, and attaches it to the piece of cake.

Newcomer, 30, said food falls into two categories.

During the week, everyone rushes out to "fill our bellies," a routine that is to satisfy need more than to delight.

"And then there is the dining experience. This extreme," he said.

Since last month, Newcomer has been injecting dishes like jumbalaya and hints of Indian and Italian cuisine into the hotel's menu. Always insisting that the dining experience be fun, the restaurant has also been experimenting with other ways to highlight the evenings.

The restaurant has started doing murder mysteries, where each patron assumes a character in a mystery and everyone tries to determine who did it.

"Even though there is a little slower pace here, people still like to have a good time," Newcomer said.

But Newcomer is not planning an about-face in the dining room.

The successful staple at the Hilltop House Hotel has been its buffet, and Newcomer said he plans to continue the tradition. Only now, patrons can order a Newcomer specialty if they opt to skip the buffet offering.

"We really want to get more of a local base," said Newcomer, explaining that there are still some local people who don't realize the inn, which dates back to 1888, exists.

Newcomer grew up around cooking when his grandparents started the Cliffside Inn about 60 years ago. After the school bus would drop him off at the Cliffside Inn following a day of classes at nearby Shipley Elementary School, Newcomer would go into the kitchen to watch his grandmother and others cook.

Newcomer completed much of his schooling in Jefferson County, but finished high school in Hawaii after his family was transferred through his father's military job. He received his formal training from a culinary school in Paris and continued to work overseas.

Newcomer and his wife, Stephanie, then moved to New Orleans, where Newcomer operated two restaurants. He was in New Orleans for about seven years, and while there worked as a purchaser for Emeril Lagasse, the popular chef who has his own show on the Food Network.

Newcomer said he owns 51 percent of a restaurant in New Orleans known as Pirates Alley Cafe.

Although the Newcomers loved New Orleans, they were looking for a different place to raise their two young children. Newcomer thought of the fun he had growing up in Jefferson County and decided he wanted the same for his children.

As far as his own future here, Newcomer said he sees great potential.

The Hilltop House, with its breathtaking views of the Shenandoah and Potomac river canyons, is a success story waiting to bloom, he said.

"It's a gold mine. The view is impeccable and the building has a lot of history. There's no reason why this place shouldn't be a massive success," he said.

Although he said he could not go into detail, hotel owner Bill Stanhagen said he is considering expanding the business.

"We have great hopes for what we can do here," Stanhagen said.

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