Penelope Wong started at Glenmoor Country Club, Cherry Hills Village, Colo., as a pantry cook and prep hand in 1998. She quickly rose through the ranks of garde-manger, pastry chef, and sous chef, before stepping into her current role as Executive Chef at the age of 29.
As Glenmoor’s youngest—and first—female executive chef, Chef Wong is one of the few women in the country to head the kitchen at a major country club.
Chef Wong didn’t go to culinary school, earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She draws her passion for, and knowledge about, food from her family background. Her parents owned a restaurant in north Denver for well over twenty years, and through her mother, aunts and grandmother, she learned to combine the cuisines of her cultures (Thai and Chinese) while developing an interest in the craft of cooking.
1.You’d be surprised to learn that I love cheap grocery-store sheet cake with fake sugar frosting and that I’ve been a vegetarian for the last 10 years.
2. If I could trade places with one chef it would be Gordon Ramsey. I admire his desire to get to the point, and envy his gumption to do it without human resources people breathing down his back!
3. One of my most memorable meals was a on a trip to Thailand with my mother. We came across a 10-year old boy who was going door-to-door, selling Kaoh Maan Gai that his mother had made. It was a fragrant, foil-wrapped pouch of ginger-scented rice with boiled chicken and an incredibly delicious hot-chili sauce made with more ginger, chilies and soy beans.
4. My go-to drink is coconut water or hot tea.
5. My last meal would start with my mother’s Saku Sai-moo—a traditional Thai dumpling filled with seasoned ground pork, spices and roasted peanuts, then wrapped in tapioca and steamed. It’s served wrapped in red leaf lettuce with fresh cilantro, mint and a whole bird’s-eye chili. Then I would move on to my mother’s tofu larb (a bright Thai salad, mixed with chilies and herbs). I would finish with a HUGE stack of blueberry pancakes.
6. My worst culinary creation was an artichoke and roasted red pepper bread pudding. There was nothing good about it except that it only lasted about a week on my menu.
7. My favorite junk food is tater tots with any one of these five different dipping sauces: ketchup/sriracha mix; yellow mustard; Glenmoor’s Green Chili, which has been on the menu for 25 years; our Thai BBQ or a ketchup/mayo mix. (I like to have the different dips available so it feels like I’m indulging on more than one item.)
8. If I weren’t a chef, I’d love to be a writer and a food critic.
9. I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was 11. Whenever we’d have family parties, we’d host them at my parents’ restaurant. I would always gravitate toward the kitchen, where my mother and aunts were cooking all of my favorite Thai dishes and my grandmother was whipping up all of my favorite Chinese dishes. I enjoyed cooking with them more than running around and playing with my brother and cousins.
10. You’ll never see split pea soup on the menu at my club, because it’s just wrong.
11. The most ridiculous member or guest request I’ve ever had was when I was told that I couldn’t prepare any yellow food for a holiday party for 45 guests. The host was adamantly against yellow food. I couldn’t use Yukon gold potatoes for whipped potatoes and the Christmas bûche de Noël had to be made with white cake (which proved a struggle without egg yolks).
12. I love being a club chef because it’s great to showcase ability in variety, when you’re feeding the same members day in and day out. Variety keeps the mentality of my cooks lively, too, and teaches them a lot about how to satiate so many different palates.
13. When I’m not in the kitchen, I’m hiding out in matinée movies with a large bucket of popcorn mixed with peanut M&Ms and a large Diet Coke that I don’t have to share.
14. My biggest mistake when I first started as a chef was trying too hard. I was so deathly afraid of failure that I tried to do it all. I failed by trying too hard with my menu items, and I failed by not letting my staff be a part of my team.
15. If I were stranded on a deserted island, I’d want these five foods with me: Rice Noodles, Mango Hi-Chew Candies, Cheddar Almond Nut Thins, Boursin Cheese and Sriracha.
16. I cook congee (Asian rice porridge) with spicy fermented bean curd at home, but I’d never cook it at the club.
17. If I could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, it would be Julia Child, so that I could ingest large amounts of butter and have someone justify it to me.
18. The most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever received was, “Build the right team by hiring those stronger and better than you.”
19. My favorite celebrity chef is Anthony Bourdain, because he appreciates food with integrity and doesn’t require the spotlight or a studio audience to showcase it.
20. Six words to describe your food: different, simple, spicy, layered, real and fragrant.
21. Ten words to describe you: different, simple, spicy, layered, real and fragrant—no joke—abrasive, kind-hearted, honest and original.
22. Ginger is my favorite ingredient, goat cheese is the most overrated ingredient, and vinegar is the most undervalued ingredient.
23. I hate stinky cheese, but I couldn’t live without carbs.
24. My most embarrassing moment in the kitchen was when a staff member slipped on a strawberry on the floor and fell flat on his back right in front of the health inspector.
25. I would like to see more ethnicity and fusion in club cuisine, especially because it’s so easy to incorporate many of the latest health trends this way.
26. I would like to see less pretentious food in clubs. Just because your clientele may be higher-class doesn’t mean your menu has to be “blinged out” with caviar, shaved truffles and foie gras.