In every field of study, specific traits fare better than others. Archeologists, for example, must have passion, drive, curiosity and critical thinking skills. They must be team players and have a good sense of humor.
The qualities that make a great club chef are similar to those of an archeologist—and James Allen, CEC, Executive Chef of Blackthorn Club at the Ridges (Jonesborough, Tenn.), is proof.
Allen graduated from Auburn University with a degree in archeology. He joined a crew digging for Colorado State in Alaska, serving as a “shovel bum.” He began cooking for the crew because no one else wanted to.
“One of my colleagues told me I was a good archeologist—but a much better chef,” says Allen. He decided he would try culinary school under the assumption that if it didn’t work out, he could always advance his archeology degree with a master’s or doctorate.
“I fell in love with culinary,” says Allen, who completed the program at Le Cordon Bleu and then did an externship in Ireland at the Michelin-rated Chez Hans. “I love the precision of fine dining.”
After Ireland, Allen worked in restaurants in the south before landing his first club gig at Old Overton Country Club (Vestavia Hills, Ala.).
“I worked under Executive Chef Jae Mackenzie, who gave me a ton of freedom with the menus, which we changed weekly,” says Allen. “The membership was adventurous and eager to have the culinary team try different foods and techniques. I learned a ton.”
But Mackenzie had no plans at the time to leave the club, so he helped Allen find his first Executive Chef role at Tupelo Country Club in Belden, Miss.
Two years later, Allen caught wind of the opportunity at Blackthorn Club at The Ridges. He decided to apply.
“When I went for the interview, I walked into the dining room, and it reminded me of Chez Hans,” he says. “The atmosphere and membership felt like a perfect fit.”
He nailed the cooking interview, and they offered him the position. Twelve years later, Allen has impacted Blackthorn’s culinary program immeasurably. He has increased F&B revenues from $350,000 to $1.4 million annually. He’s made the club a dining destination for the membership equal to golf. He’s also created an environment where line cooks become chefs.
“Being named one of the 2022 Club + Resort Chefs of the Year is an honor,” says Allen. “It’s a reminder that life is a process, risks are worth taking, and opportunity is everywhere.”