Q&A with: Chef and former rock musician Steven Wells

Steve Wells, former member of the local ‘70s band Rush started playing the guitar at age 11, but didn’t start cooking until much later on in life. A chain of events that Wells describes as “a natural push in the right direction,” transformed him from rock star to chef and opened many doors to extraordinary experiences along the way.

Rush was playing five nights a week at the Hillwinds, a steakhouse in Franconia, when the disco craze hit. Clubs were no longer hiring bands and were purchasing sound systems instead. As work became scarcer and scarcer, Wells began waiting tables at the Hillwinds in order to pay the bills and soon found himself filling in for the chef in the kitchen.

“I told him, ‘Teach me how to do the steaks and you can take a night off,’” says Wells. When the chef eventually had a falling out with the owners, Wells had proved himself enough to fill in as chef while the owners looked for someone else to fill the position. Their lack of luck in finding someone secured the position for Wells for almost three years before he left and moved on to bigger and better things.

A recommendation by a friend landed him the job as chef of a French restaurant — food and a menu he knew nothing about, but with practice and patience, was able to perfect very quickly. Soon Wells was taking jobs all over, at a restaurant in the Caribbean, as chef on a dining car around Lake Winnipesaukee, country clubs in New York, Mistral, a fine dining restaurant in Vermont, and finally back to New Hampshire at the Sunset Hill House in Sugar Hill.

Q. How did you get the job at Sunset Hill House?

A. I came here by way of (owner Nancy Henderson’s) former chef, Joe Peterson, who is a friend of mine. When he decided that he was going to leave, he gave me a call and said that the job was opening up. I fell in love with this area when I came up here back in the ‘70s, and for the last five or six years I’ve really been feeling a longing to come back.

My first interview with Nancy was so great, by the end of it we were finishing each other’s sentences. It’s one of those things where you say, “This was just meant to be.”

Q. You came in right at the height of foliage season. How did you handle that?

A. We were really busy, there was so much to do between the parties that had been booked and the general people staying at the inn. Of course, there was a new staff and a new tavern menu right away. Because of the volume of what we’re doing, I instituted some changes — for example, a breakfast buffet as opposed to doing a la carte for 60 people.

Q. How have the challenges posed by the economy affected the inn?

A. Like most places, we’re probably 30 to 40 percent off of what we would normally be. However, that’s true pretty much anywhere. Even the town that I was in over in Vermont — and it was a pretty affluent area — even their restaurants were hurting. The only guys that aren’t hurting are the McDonald’s — they’re doing well. But anywhere you go for real food, I’ve heard it’s normal to be anywhere from 25 to 50 percent off. Foliage season, for example, was off from past years, but we still did quite well.

Q. What are some changes you have in mind for the menu and the inn Sunset Hill House in general?

A. What we’re trying to do is build a menu around all locally sourced ingredients, or ingredients that go along with New England. Lobster, haddock, maple syrup — those types of things. Then in the tavern, we’re doing a small plate menu. It’s small plate, but substantial enough that you could take two of them and make a dinner for yourself. I also do each night two- or three-course specials in the tavern. If you come in and you’re hungry, especially on nights that we don’t open the main dining room, it gives people a chance to have a more upscale type of dining experiences without spending a lot of money.

We also have a banquet facility downstairs that has a deck that in the summertime can be used for cocktail hours. It’s just absolutely beautiful — it’s the same view that you get from the dining room – 180 degrees of mountains. It looks down over the valley and towards Franconia Notch, and then further off in the distance you can see Mt. Washington and the whole Presidential range. It’s a really impressive thing, and the grounds themselves are beautiful as well.

Q. Did you ever expect to be head chef one day back in your rock ‘n’ roll days?

A. No! First of all, I was a pretty wild child back in my 20s, I didn’t expect to live much past 25. I figured if drugs and alcohol didn’t get me, a jealous husband would. But here I am, quite a few years beyond that later. But I grew up in a family where my mom and my grandmother were great cooks, especially baked goods. My grandmother could make homemade baked goods like you wouldn’t believe. I’m still trying to make them as good as she could.But even waiting tables seemed foreign to me when I was playing at the Hillwinds. Things have happened in my life that just naturally pushed me in the right direction, and this is one of them. I came to New Hampshire on a whim and ended up falling in love with it.