After a whitewater rafting trip on the American River, Greg and Mary Kemp thought El Dorado County might make a good place to retire.
Mary laughs about the word “retire” now. With a successful restaurant and plenty of community involvement, retirement doesn’t describe her life at the moment.
From one wine region, the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara, to another, it took the Kemps two years to find a house in El Dorado County and relocate in 1991.
“When we came here, Greg worked at Intel as a chef and I worked at Folsom High School as the culinary arts instructor,” said Mary, 61. “We had a catering business, as well, but it was a big dream of ours to open our own restaurant.”
Dreams do come true
The dream took eight years to realize. The Kemp’s catering business was very successful, especially with the wineries that put on special events, so much so that Mary often brought her students in to help.
“I built a culinary arts program for Folsom High School, writing the curriculum and developing the standards and then I built the program for the El Dorado High School District,” said Mary.
Mary pulled from her 25years of experience in the food industry on cruise ships, as a food and beverage manager and from her experience with the culinary arts program at Santa Ynez High School.
“It’s not home ec and it’s not about getting to eat food in class — this is a career path,” said Kemp. “And some of the students that have gone through the program have become amazingly successful.”
In 2001, she also created the Foothill Grill at El Dorado High School to give students in the culinary arts program an opportunity to showcase their skills.
Despite their full-time jobs and the catering business, the dream of having their own restaurant intrigued the Kemps and, in 2003, they opened the Gold Vine Grill in Somerset.
“We looked around at a lot of places but decided to locate near the wineries,” said Mary. “We worked at our full-time jobs even as we opened — on Thanksgiving weekend.”
Mary wanted to be open by the holidays and the couple figured it might be quiet because people would be eating Thanksgiving left-overs.
“The line wrapped around the building,” said Mary. “Our servers were former students who didn’t have a lot of experience and we didn’t have our rhythm yet, but it all worked out.”
Gregory is a French-trained chef and focuses his energy on his passion — making wonderful food — while Mary manages the staff and restaurant and works on the business end.
The restaurant has weathered its share of challenges including the economic recession and a newer challenge — Mary Kemp’s health.
In October, Mary was diagnosed with AML, acute myoletic leukemia.
“My doctor ordered routine blood tests for my annual physical and they came back abnormal. I was given two days to put my business and household things in order and then I started chemotherapy in the hospital. It was a complete surprise,” she said.
Except for having ovarian cancer 18 years ago, Mary is a healthy, active woman who doesn’t eat processed food or red meat and who taught yoga for 14 years.
“I couldn’t believe it was true. I’ve been in the hospital more than I’ve been home for the past three months,” she said.
She has one more chemo treatment to complete and then a stem cell transplant.
“I’ve done fairly well with the chemo and my energy level has been good,” said Mary, “but I’m not looking forward to the stem call transplant because I’ll have to be away from the restaurant for three months.”
For Kemp, admittedly a control-type personality who thrives on stress, AML has forced her to slow down, educate herself about the disease and look at her choices and treatment options.
She’s also looking at how she lives her life.
“I’m learning to let go of things and get back to the things that nurture me. Usually, when I’m hustling, I’m happy, but I’m learning to handle stress differently and since I don’t have a lot of control with cancer, I’m learning to roll with things,” the restauranteur said.
Due to AML, Mary is taking her first break in 11 years from one of her favorite community events, the Future Chefs of El Dorado County Teen Culinary Competition.
Wanting to draw attention to good things the youth of the community were doing and to market the culinary arts program, Kemp and partners Jennifer Masse, Joanne Ferguson and Mary Beth Fahy created a culinary competition between teams of students.
“We give them a theme, a limited grocery list, one secret ingredient and 20 minutes,” said Mary.
The competition is in front of an audience who purchase tickets that include food and wine tasting and watching the final preparation process for the competition. Judging is by professionals from the culinary industry and there is a silent auction and a raffle.
“We’ve raised well over $100,000 and the money goes into scholarships for post-secondary education,” said Mary.
After the cancer is in remission, Mary wants to add working with kids who are struggling to her restaurant duties.
“I love working with kids — they have so much potential. With the lives some of them have, it’s really amazing that they get themselves to school each day. ”
For now, Mary relies on husband Greg and the women at Gold Vine Grill to keep the restaurant running smoothly.
“Greg is a very talented chef. The girls have been wonderful and I appreciate their love and loyalty but they can’t do it all,” Mary said.
The grill has cut back on lunches but Mary hopes to be able to add them back as she is able to be home.
The Gold Vine Grill menu reflects both Chef Greg’s skills and Mary’s health awareness.
“Greg is French-trained and he is great with sauces but I wanted to add a few items that were without sauces, low carb and gluten-free for people who are being health conscious,” said Mary.
The blackened salmon on sautéed spinach with sautéed mushrooms, garlic, feta cheese and toasted pine nuts is one of her offerings and so is the roasted half chicken stuffed and smothered with roasted fennel and garlic.
“We have eight or nine menu items that are gluten-free or can easily be made gluten-free,” said Mary.
“I’ve received so much love and support from our customers. People sent cards and notes — I had hundreds of them taped all over my hospital room. Pioneer Bible Church had services for me and I’m not even a member. Cancer survivors sent me information and encouragement,” said Mary. “Sometimes I feel I don’t deserve so much well-wishing but it goes a long way toward healing.” She added, “The restaurant is our big dream and it’s challenging but I love it.”
The Gold Vine Grill is located at 6028 Grizzly Flat Road in Somerset; open Wednesday through Sunday. Contact Mary at 530-626-4042 or visit the Website at goldvinegrill.com.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.