Vernon and Charlene Rollins have shied away from the media spotlight while occasionally enduring its glare over the past 22 years, but they've kept to a course of fine food and wine off the Rogue Valley's beaten path.
The couple's New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro is known to readers of Food & Wine magazine as one of the "top 50 wine experiences" nationwide. Bon Appetit magazine placed the secluded spot on Talent's Highway 99 among the country's "hot 10 romantic getaways."
Chef Charlene Rollins has three times been nominated as the Pacific Northwest's best by the country's most prestigious program for culinary achievement, the James Beard Foundation. Rollins is the only Oregon chef so recognized outside Portland's metro area since the foundation started announcing semifinalists four years ago.
Amid so many honors commending New Sammy's to its customers, the restaurant aspires to another, albeit less glamorous, title: healthiest.
"I am trying to make healthy food," says the 63-year-old chef. "That's one of our conscious goals."
A pioneer of the "eat-local" movement, Rollins didn't pursue the path for its popularity or even her proximity to a handful of high-quality, artisan foodstuffs. Vegetables, grown organically, prepared simply and eaten at the height of freshness, are Rollins' hallmark.
"I don't think vegetables are a garnish," she says. "They're a food."
Even in winter, when the garden behind the restaurant is all but lifeless, the colors on Rollins' plates suggest summer days. Purple and pink potatoes vie with magenta beets for brightness on a backdrop of emerald-hued greens. Clouds of ricotta gnocchi float in a savory broth, rather than cream, studded with vibrant carrots and silky leeks. The pungent aroma of rosemary wafting through the dining room, however, confirms cold-weather cooking.
But Rollins has plenty of supplies in storage, supplemented with purchases from Ashland Food Co-op. The pink potatoes, a variety called Red Thumb, were cultivated for the restaurant on Rogue River's Runnymede Farm.
"She likes some of the kind of odder things," says farmer Teri White.
Rollins says she has given over her property to some of the "odder things" since local growers markets started supplying lush, organic produce on a consistent basis within the past few years. Dried heirloom beans and specialty peppers from New Sammy's soil compose a South American-inspired stew served with a cabbage and radish salad and pickled vegetable "confetti."
The restaurant garden — a significant part of the operation for about 12 years — grows all the garlic and shallots the kitchen can use, as well as eggplants and tomatoes, which wouldn't be cost-effective to purchase organically, says Rollins. Fruit trees on the property bear plums, cherries, apples and figs, with tayberries and raspberries soon to complement well-established currant bushes.
What she can't use fresh, the chef preserves for leaner months of the year. Apples are caramelized, cherries infused with kirsch and other fruits put up in a variety of ways.
"We pickle things and make jams," says Rollins, who also operates a bakery that supplies not only New Sammy's whole-wheat bread but about 300 loaves daily for retail sale around the valley.
Rollins' seemingly tireless efforts yield foods that are practically free of chemical additives, not to mention the pesticides and herbicides the chef abhors. Whereas the phrase "we cook with organic ingredients" would translate to "seasonally" or "when convenient" at so many restaurants, it has meant almost without exclusion since 1989 when the Rollinses opened New Sammy's, christening it for their son, now 25.
Although she favors locally produced foods, Rollins ventures outside the Rogue Valley for some ingredients, including Emerald Hills beef and lamb from Riddle. However, local remains such a central theme that the menu simply can't list all the purveyors.
"It's always raised in a sustainable way," says Rollins. "It's always from small producers."
Among them is Willow-Witt Ranch outside of Ashland, which sells eggs, cuts of pasture-raised goat, pork and even whole suckling pigs to New Sammy's. The restaurant was the first in the area to serve Willow-Witt goat and still the only one to feature its 30-pound suckling pigs on the menu. The animals' small size allows Rollins to butcher the carcass herself and sell the meat at its freshest.
"She uses the whole hog," says rancher Suzanne Willow. "She's one of the most inventive chefs."
Rollins typically braises the pigs in milk and white wine with a "whole lot of garlic" to accompany a medley of root vegetables. Despite its diet of mostly milk, suckling pigs actually are very lean, say Willow and Rollins. Goat also is a naturally low-fat, low-cholesterol meat with the added appeal for many diners of being "easy on the landscape," says Willow.
"This is not a high-input animal."
Willow credits Rollins both with introducing Rogue Valley diners to goat and popularizing restaurants' support for local farmers. Although Willow hesitates to name a favorite among her restaurant customers, she says New Sammy's food is in a field apart.
Being a gardener, Rollins also has a unique rapport with local farmers like Willow, whose property provided New Sammy's first loads of compost, and White, who offers suggestions for combatting garden pests naturally and extending the growing season.
"I think it's absolutely symbiotic," says Willow of the farmer-chef relationship.
"They can get anything anywhere," says White. "But for them to come to us, it's pretty special."