I got the opportunity to speak with Chef Shaun Stoothoff of Saddleback while he was in between catering two parties of about fifty people. One was a birthday celebration, the other a large pizza party.
He was in a surprisingly light-hearted and jovial mood. I could not help but mention it was not something I was expecting. Lots of chefs are a bit stiffer if you know what I mean, especially in between what some might consider a stressful Saturday. “No, I’ve worked with a lot of high stress chefs so I kind of do the opposite.”

“Chef Shaun” in action, and smiling as usual. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Stoothoff, who has worked as head chef at Saddleback for less than four months seems right at home on the mountain, but first I wanted to find out how he got his start as a culinary professional.
“I grew up in Standish and Gorham, Maine. My dad had a little seafood shack growing up when I was in elementary school to high school, and I ended up starting cooking at a pretty young age over there. About ten, my dad had me in the restaurant helping him out.”
As you will read, this is not to say he knew what he wanted to do from early on. “Pretty funny thing with that, I always told my dad, I was like ‘I am never going to cook professionally.’ I absolutely hated it growing up. I worked at a few Thai restaurants too when I was in high school and I was like, ‘This is definitely not for me.’”
So, what turned it around? As it was a skill he had, he did what many college kids would do and used his experience to earn some cash. Then he landed a job in Richmond, Virginia at a place called Osaka. It was his first fine dining experience. They served sushi and traditional Japanese cuisine. “There I was like one of the only English speakers in the whole kitchen so that whole experience really taught me a lot of lessons right there- working with different groups of people and really kind of sparked my interest in the culinary scene.”
He started at the bottom and worked his way up. “I started as a dishwasher there for about two weeks. It was my friend’s uncle’s restaurant. So, I actually moved across the country. And he said, you know learn some stuff and move your way up. I kind of worked my way up through the line and ended up being the sous chef there which was a wicked hard experience. We were doing hundreds and hundreds of people a day. It was a really good learning curve. From there I thought about going to culinary school after, but I decided that from my experience going directly to the source is a really good way to learn. So, after that I came back to Maine, I ran a little restaurant in my hometown of Gorham for a little bit- School Street Pub, which was my first like full chef job basically coming up with the menu and stuff like that and I did that at twenty-one. So I wa,s pretty young for being the chef in town. Then I decided to keep moving on and doing that, so I moved down to New Orleans and basically tried out a bunch of restaurants that I thought were good and then kind of begged them for jobs just to learn from them.” He laughed at the recollection.

Stoothoff at the Northwoods Gravel Grind pizza after-party held at Saddleback. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

It turns out he has travelled quite a bit. With that comes some humorous memories. One of the places he worked was a pizza place right on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. “One of the craziest experiences I’ve probably ever had. Our busy hours were 3 to 5 in the morning.” He laughed and added, “And I’m pretty happy to never see Mardi Gras beads again.”
Some of the places he worked that I was able to glean were Tahoe, Kennebunk, Portland and oh yes, he took a year off to go to art school. Specifically, Parsons School of Design in NYC. This had to do with Covid-19. Hours at the restaurant he was working at were being cut and the entire restaurant industry seemed precarious. Obviously, he is back to cooking but he still puts his art skills to use both in the kitchen and on the side. In his free time, he even makes clothing and runs a small clothing brand. “I like to take the art in any form and kind of apply that to cooking.”
So how did he end up on the mountain? While doing some stuff in Portland a friend convinced him to come up to Saddleback. “I was pretty hesitant, they were trying get a hold of me for about three months and then I came up here and was just won over by the beauty. I used to vacation in Rangeley and Oquossoc when I was a kid, so it was nice coming back up here and really feel like a part of the community.”
So far it is going well. “We brought some people back that were here in the winter and then hired a bunch of new people. We’ve really built a kind of a team and a family over here.”
Stoothoff, or ‘Chef Shaun’ as I have decided to call him, was excited about all the current and future Saddleback events. “We’re working on opening the mid-mountain sometime next year and that’s going to be a beautiful restaurant with more of a fine dining option and breakfast options on top of the mountain. So, we’re really excited for that.”
He also mentioned football Sundays with one of his favorite items on the menu- wings. The sports season specials will include raffles and grand prizes and the fun brews will also be a highlight of Oktoberfest. This is another event he is very much looking forward to. “I’m really excited for the German food because I traditionally haven’t cooked too much of it, but half my family live in Cologne, Germany, So I hope it lives up to their standards.” He bought some German cookbooks from Skender Liedl of the Red Onion and so I’m sure the dishes will be great. He started talking about the strudel contest, huge soft pretzels, bratwurst, and sausages and as I started to get hungry, I changed the subject.
I repeated that his friendly demeanor was a delight to see in a chef. He responded, “Some of those super high stress environments, you know, you can make diamonds out of it, but I really like to take my cooks and staff and kind of let them flourish and try out different ideas compared to like some of the restaurants I’ve worked at where it’s really, ‘my way or the highway.’ I’m really open to people’s interpretations and stuff like that. We like to have fun here. You know, I don’t want anybody freaking out over their job in a super high stress way. We like to keep it pretty nice and a really friendly environment for our staff.” He recalled fine dining establishments in Portland and recalled his time down south as well. “I’ve worked with some real classical French chefs down in New Orleans where something’s wrong they throw the plate at you and fights would break out and I was like ‘In my place I would never want that to happen.’”
“You really got to make a community out of your own place and sort of let that grow naturally.”

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