When Lee Woolver was a political science major in college, he paid his way through school by working in restaurants as a cook.
At some point, however, he realized his work experience was much more educational and practical than anything he might learn in the classroom.
"About the time I was about to finish college, in the mid '80s, I had decided that I had some talent in this field," said Woolver, an Ilion native who has been head chef at the historic American Hotel in Sharon Springs since 2001. "So, from that time on I've been cooking. I had been a professional college student and working in restaurants was a great way to pay the bills. But then things changed. Cooking became more important and I ended up never finishing college."
A 1980 Ilion High graduate, Woolver went to Mohawk Valley Community College and got a two-year degree in mechanical engineering. Then he headed to Texas to pursue a history and political science degree, but got too busy working, and too good at it, to concentrate on academics.
"When I went to East Texas for college I started working at a little family-style restaurant in Dallas," remembered Woolver, who worked at McDonald's and then a Pizza Hut growing up in Ilion. "My first high-end place in Dallas was called the Atlantic Cafe. I learned how to cook by working at restaurants, and I learned under some very knowledgeable and skilled people. Dallas had a great restaurant scene back then, and cooking isn't really rocket science. As long as you apply yourself, it's up to you how much you can really learn."
Woolver returned to upstate New York in 1989 and began working at the Raindancer Restaurant in Amsterdam. After a few years there he signed on with the Aramark Corporation and began working at the College of Saint Rose in Albany.
"Working in restaurants, you never have weekends off, so I took a job with Aramark because it was a job with more regular hours," said Woolver. "After a couple of years I realized I wasn't that attracted to the institutional side of cooking, and I also realized I hadn't been missing that much working weekends. I did learn some things, like how to cook in large quantity, but it was time to do something different so I started working at Melody Lodge in Speculator."
Back when he was at the Raindancer, however, he had become reacquainted with his cousin Garth Roberts, who in the early 1990s opened a small cafe in Sharon Springs with Doug Plummer, his life partner and business partner. Plummer had been an actor in New York City and Roberts a musician, but they headed to rural Schoharie County with a dream nearly three decades ago now, and ended up buying and renovating the American Hotel.
"I was in the Raindancer and the owner came through the kitchen with these two gentlemen who were looking to buy some used restaurant equipment to open up a little cafe in Sharon Springs," remembered Woolver. "I looked, and then I looked again and it was Garth. I probably hadn't seen him in 10 years or so because he went to college and was out on his own and so was I."
When Plummer and Roberts decided to move on to bigger and better things in 2001 and bring the American Hotel back to life - it had been vacant for 30 years - Roberts contacted his cousin.
"We had kept in touch after seeing him in the Raindancer, and when I was working up at the Melody Lodge he called me up," said Woolver. "He said, 'we're serious about this. We're going to reopen the American Hotel.' Well, yeah, I thought they were nuts. I came down and checked out the place. There was a tree growing up out of the kitchen floor. There was a hole in the ceiling that went up to the third floor. The plaster had fallen off and some of the kitchen equipment looked like it was from the original hotel of 1847. I kind of looked at it and laughed. 'Well, one coat of paint and it'll be fine.'"
Woolver was very happy at Melody Lodge, but despite that and his concerns about this new adventure, he jumped in with both feet. It wasn't a mistake. His contributions in the Sharon Springs kitchen have been a key part of the American Hotel's success.
"I think part of what people like about this place is that the product is consistent, and that's because it's the same person doing it," said Woolver. "The way we operate here it's usually me and three other people in the kitchen, and part of the reason for my success is that I buy the best product I can and try not to do too much with it. Our menu isn't particularly trendy by any means, but I have very good purveyors. Like I said, I buy the best I can and treat it nicely ."
The American Hotel seats about 50 customers comfortably. Reservations are encouraged. The hotel is currently closed for the season and will reopen in April. For more information visit americanhotelny.com.