It’s the busy season for Jason Palmer, director of food and beverage at Okemo Mountain Resort, where he oversees all culinary operations year-round. Okemo offers visitors a dozen dining options during the winter that range from grab-and-go cafeterias to full-service, fine dining — and everything in between.
Now in his second year, Palmer arrived at Okemo with a ton of industry experience, having served as beverage manager at the Mount Washington Hotel; food and beverage director at Burke Mountain, Trapp Family Lodge and Mount Snow; and regional sales manager with U.S. Foods. He also owned a restaurant called Allium in Waterbury, Vt.
A Vermont native, Palmer grew up outside Burlington, learning to ski at Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond when he was just 5 years old and going on to race while in high school. “Ironically, I skied a lot more prior to working in the business,” Palmer told New England Ski Journal as he graciously stepped out of the kitchen to talk a little shop.
New England Ski Journal: What do you love most about going to work every day?
Jason Palmer: The people first … but also the simple act of turning the lights on in any one of our kitchens and seeing the sparkle of stainless surrounding me.
NESJ: Sounds like you were born to be in the kitchen. Has food and beverage always been your career path?
Palmer: I never intended to join the industry. I went to school with an interest in the arts and got my degree at the University of Vermont in English literature. I spent most of my 20s pursuing the arts in various forms, mostly in writing.
NESJ: How did the transition from English lit to the kitchen come about?
Palmer: I worked in restaurants to pay the bills — worked really every position in both the front and back of the house. Sundays became the day where friends and I would hike in the morning and cook fanciful and elaborate — and often improvised — meals in the evening. Something about winter and food and the coming together of friends and the nature and art of the meal all wove together somehow, cementing what would become a career that feels more like pleasure than work.
NESJ: How have your cumulative industry experiences shaped the way you approach your work today?
Palmer: I’ve worked in really every manner of food and beverage, from luxury properties to family-oriented resorts to historic inns — even at one point owning my own place, a 125-seat modern American brasserie. Maybe the best analogy comes from the restaurant itself. If you’ve ever watched a really good server scan the floor or an experienced line cook survey the board, you are seeing the behavioral accumulation of so many different rooms, menus, techniques — all with food and beverage at the base. I would say the resort environment is the common thread, and the varied properties give a bit of nuanced perspective.
NESJ: It feels like you’ve found a way to combine your love of arts with your work at Okemo.
Palmer: I love the dynamic in a resort environment — we have really every manner of food offering here at Okemo, from après ski bars to food courts to fine dines to pop-ups. I love reinventing — reimagining — the dining experience. Resorts have allowed me many opportunities to use that lens to rebrand spaces.
NESJ: How do you know when those spaces are clicking on all cylinders?
Palmer: When the ticket printers rage furiously with orders and the adrenaline spikes in the kitchen, and things begin to crank — the hiss as the grill fills up with quality meat as the expediter coolly calls ticket after ticket. When it goes well, nothing is more satisfying than watching the dance of a busy service.
NESJ: How are you working to make dining one of most memorable experiences guests have at Okemo?
Palmer: I’ve been with Okemo for about a year now. Last year we opened the Okemo Tap House, a craft food and beer bar. This year we are opening two new restaurants and have rebranded a third. Robin’s Roost is located at the summit of the mountain and will feature a southern-style chicken and biscuits menu and feel. The Mud Room is a kid-centric buffet spot at mid-mountain. 43° North is a 300-seat casual French alpine concept located at Solitude Lodge. Ultimately, the intention is to transform the ski dining experience. I want, when people are asked why they chose Okemo, one of the first things they say is the food and beverage program, not just the exceptional job the mountain ops team does managing the snow.
NESJ: What are your biggest day-to-day challenges when it comes to overseeing a dozen unique dining facilities at the resort?
Palmer: Food and beverage is one of the most difficult industries to find staff, and the seasonality of the ski resort business makes it even more challenging. It means that you are hiring hundreds of new people each year. This is an absolutely tremendous challenge, and in many cases, you simply can’t find enough staff. This combined with the extremes of midweek business versus weekend business means that in order to operate effectively, you have to be very nimble — cross-train people in ways you would almost never have to in other lines of business.
NESJ: Tell us about the team you have in place at Okemo that helps make it all come together.
Palmer: Well, it truly takes a dedicated team because every day presents challenges you just can’t predict. The team I have here at Okemo is extraordinary — absolute professionals with a true love for the business.
NESJ: Is there something about the food at Okemo that might surprise us.
Palmer: Although we are diversifying our menus and really looking at rethinking our food courts so that they each have their own sense of style and personality, people love their chicken tenders — over 134,000 pieces last year!
NESJ: I’m guessing it’s not the tenders, but what is your personal favorite on the many menus?
Palmer: Either the fried green BLT (new this season) at Robin’s Roost (North Country Smokehouse bacon, garden leaf lettuce, green tomato relish, smoked pepper mayo) — simple, nostalgic, delicious. Or from 43° North, also new this season, is the forever-relevant French classic cassoulet — deep, perfectly hearty and soul nourishing on a cold winter day.