Dave Lesh harvests crab hours before dinner is served at the Gustavus Inn, pictured here in summer 2009.
Corrine Marks, Sal (Lesh) McLaughlin, Dan Lesh, Dave Lesh, and JoAnn Lesh pose behind some of the Gustavus Inn's culinary offerings.
Story last updated at 3/3/2010 - 12:24 pm
GUSTAVUS - Spruce tip syrup and beach asparagus aren't found on many menus, but they are staples on the dining room tables of the Gustavus Inn.
The inn provides full-service lodging, travel booking and three meals a day for its guests-meals that haven't gone unnoticed. Last month, the Gustavus Inn was named a recipient of the 2010 James Beard Foundation America's Classics Award. The honor is bestowed to five restaurants per year by one of the country's most distinguished recognition programs in the eating industry.
The award came as a surprise to owners Dave and JoAnn Lesh, who don't know who nominated their restaurant for the award.
"We hadn't even known about the James Beard Foundation, much less think we'd ever have an award for cooking the food that we like to eat ourselves," Dave said.
Since 1998, the foundation has presented the award to small, regional eateries that have created unique menus that reflect the character of their communities.
Dave's parents, Jack and Sally Lesh, started the inn in 1965 and Dave and JoAnn took it over in 1980. The inn and its guests were an asset when it came to raising Dave and JoAnn's four children, all of whom are now grown.
"All four of the children are very important and have worked for us and with us through college," Dave said. "Our guests kind of raised our kids."
The historic homestead has undergone many renovations and additions since its original construction in the 1920s.
Many regularly served recipes have their roots in the early days of the inn. Their "Halibut Caddy Ganty," a recipe that Dave's mother acquired from a friend in Pelican, has been served unchanged for 45 years now.
"Our strength is in our consistency," Dave said. "Last year's food is as good as this year."
Dave and JoAnn gather and grow most of their restaurant's offerings locally rather than having ingredients shipped in.
"There's very little that we purchase," Dave said. "Everything we can reasonably make homemade we do."
The Gustavus Inn's grounds include a large garden, half of which is dedicated to flowers. The other half produces enough vegetables to feed over 40 people a day. The crop includes salad greens, herbs and a variety of other vegetables.
"Oftentimes I'm running out to the field to pick something for our visitors," JoAnn said.
But the gathering doesn't stop at the end of the garden's rows. The Leshes also gather a variety of tasty treats from their surrounding forests, fields and beaches to add to the table.
"We're always keeping our eyes open for ways to use the local offerings," JoAnn said. "We take guests and host them as we would in our own home and show them the really local, interesting things that there are."
Kelp salsa and pickles, wild berry jams and morel mushrooms are some of the wild items on the menu, not to mention the abundance of local seafood. The inn's guests enjoy local king salmon that is often only within a few hours from being caught.
Dave regularly runs his 18-foot skiff from the beach near the inn and across the mouth of Glacier Bay to the outer coast. There, he collects fish from friends on nearby fishing boats who report fresh catches.
"Then the guests are watching him cut off the head and collars of the salmon and smoke them, then bring them to the bar," JoAnn said.
Dave hesitated to call himself a chef, though his salmon skin sushi, caviar and assemblage of other seafood creations has kept customers coming back to his table year after year. In the 100 summer days that the inn is operational, most nights he serves a guest who has stayed there before.
As a seasonal business dependent on tourism, the Gustavus Inn felt the pinch of last season's decline in travelers.
"I swear, last summer some of our regular guests came back twice just to support us because it was a really down year," JoAnn said.
"Last year was definitely down," Dave said. "It's a little premature to guess what's going to happen, but I'm cautiously optimistic for next summer."
Dave, JoAnn and their sons will travel to New York in May to accept their award at the annual James Beard Foundation awards ceremony. The decoration will include no cash award, but the inn will receive a medal, a certificate, a lot of publicity and bragging rights.
The Leshes plan to keep the public informed of their happenings while in New York via Twitter updates. But when they return, they'll be back to baking, basting and broiling-the work they enjoy in the wild place that they call home.
"With our food and everything, we've almost created a monster," Dave said. "Every single day you have to get up and be on your game the entire day."
Their days are long, but Dave and JoAnn find their reward in their interactions with guests.
"Our guests are very diverse and from all over the world and the James Beard Award is an example of that," JoAnn said. "They have a high level of appreciation for local regional food."
"We just treat our guests as we would like to be treated ourselves," Dave said. "It's pretty simple, but I guess it's not that common anymore."
Visit the Gustavus Inn online at http://www.gustavusinn.com/.