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Cooking for the governor

Chef Stefani Marnon takes to Juneau's eagles, if not its basil

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

Being chef to Gov. Tony Knowles and first lady Susan Knowles is as laid back as salmon steaks on the griddle, according to Stefani Marnon, who has held that position for the past two and a half years.

"It's not like the film 'The Contender' where the president, played by Jeff Bridges, keeps trying to stump the White House chef by asking for shark sandwiches," Marnon said with a laugh.

Knowles family members make their own breakfast, with the governor sometimes dipping into his personal supply of brown sugar, kept in an apothecary jar over the six-burner range.

Marnon works Monday through Friday, preparing lunches and dinners - and any other edibles required. For instance, Marnon already is baking and freezing goodies such as chocolate peppermint crinkles for the annual December open house.

Politics seldom enter into the menus, but Alaska ingredients do.

"If we entertain the Canadian prime minister, they might specify more courses, and I might do several courses with salmon as an ingredient, such as lox and caviar as appetizers and a salmon entree" to showcase state specialties, Marnon said.

She is clued in if a VIP is a vegetarian or a diabetic, but otherwise menu choices remain largely in her hands. "It's a wonderful job because it's very varied. Kids' receptions are fun because they are always celebrations."

She serves salmon entrees pan-seared but varies the accompaniments, which range from sticky rice to spinach salad to black beans and a mango-mustard glaze.

Her culinary influences are eating food cooked by others, watching cooking shows and reading food magazines, she said. "If I am getting a little stale, I go out and eat and fall in love with the process all over again."

Marnon has been a decided asset, said Karen Newton, manager of the Governor's Mansion for more than 10 years.

"Stefani has been wonderful. She is very easygoing, and you have to be flexible to work here." Newton and her two assistants share culinary prep work for formal dinners and receptions.

Because the Governor's Mansion is fairly small as official residences go, formal dinners usually are limited to 20 guests. Receptions may serve 200 or more, Newton said. But VIPs from Outside are few and far between.

"The only seated president who has ever visited the Governor's House was Warren Harding in 1923," Newton said.

Marnon's kitchen contains seasonings that Harding would not recognize, such as Thai chili paste, whole grain and Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar. However, old-fashioned lemon curd pie is one of her specialties.

Marnon, 35, grew up in New York City where she attended art school and worked as an art director.

"I always loved baking, but I thought of it as a hobby. Still, when I was art directing I would cook all the time. Now that I am cooking, I paint," she said.

Marnon changed career direction by returning to school and graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in Essex Junction, Vt. Then she cooked at Zoe's in New York, Gautreau's in New Orleans and Campagne in Seattle. She has "been fortunate enough" to cook for Julia Child twice. "She just walked into Campagne and I got chills. She ordered our grilled French pizza, and of course we couldn't serve her just pizza, so we kept sending out fois gras and oysters."

Cooking for the Knowles children - Devon, 22, Luke, 18, and Sara, 16 - has given the chef lessons in culinary reality. It's not realistic to serve fois gras or try out new lamb recipes when the diners would rather eat macaroni and cheese, Marnon said.

Marnon originally ventured to Juneau in 1977 to help the owners of Silverbow Bakery. When she saw the condition of basil in local supermarkets - and the price - she was ready to head back to Seattle and the herbs of Pike Place Market. But she decided "eagles flying overhead made up for it," was convinced to stay and cooked at the Summit for 15 months.

Marnon met her future husband, Scott Marnon, here, and they enjoy hiking together. Scott works at Johnson Youth Center, and the couple now has a 9-month-old son, Jake.

"Juneau is an amazing place. It's magical and it has been good to me," she said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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