James Satterwhite, Executive Pastry Chef of Charlotte Country Club, has developed a core pastry philosophy focused around taste, cleanliness, teamwork and service.
On Monday March 16th, I was told there was an emergency meeting at the club to discuss the pandemic. I was told about this at 7:45 am and the meeting was to start at 8:30 pm. I had just woken up and it takes me about 35 minutes minimum to get to work. I said I would be there. I threw on clothes and drove to the club. (I may have exceeded the speed limit as I got there at 8:25.)
I ended up being there until after 6pm that day as we all were trying to figure out what was the best thing for the club. There were so many things to consider and no one really knew this early or what any of it really meant.
My first thought was the safety of the staff and the members. My second thought was what could we do to help our membership given that so many parts of the club and the city were closing. We immediately started a takeout program and tried to figure out what to do with the team. Looking back now, I still can feel how much uncertainty there was in the air, and how much disbelief at reality.
We decided to send most of the staff home, and it was only supervisors and above, in the kitchen. The first weeks we were overwhelmed with work and there were so many decisions that were made so quickly that there were gaps and then this made things difficult as we were finding our way forward.
I immediately changed my schedule to begin work at 5:30 am. This allowed me to work mostly alone for hours and I was able to maximize both safety and production. There was a week I was alone but for most of the lockdown I had my two senior chef de parties who came in the afternoon.
I soon realized this was not going to be a matter of weeks but realized this could be with us for much longer. I was alone for many hours each day and my thoughts turned to my mentors, the great chefs and friends who have shaped who I am as a chef. I spent a lot of time thinking of Francois Collett and Jean Banchet. I thought of Xavier Salomon, my first chef in the Ritz Carlton company, I thought of Norman Love, Joel Antunes, Fredric Monti, Frederic Morineau, Celine Plano, Eric Branger, Lawrence McFadden, Sean Woods and many others.
In 2000, I was the opening pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, Eric Branger was the Executive Chef and the two Pastry Chefs who were assigned to help train and get the team ready were Frederic Monti and Norman Love. I had just been at the Ritz Carlton Naples and had one of the great experiences of my life, I shared an office with Norman Love and I worked for Executive Chef Lawrence McFadden, CMC. The entire team in Naples was extraordinary and I cannot overstate the positive effects knowing and working beside these chefs have had on who I am today.
The experience of working with the team at New Orleans continued this amazing growth. Frank Brunacci, Daniel Bausa, and many others created an amazing 5 diamond hotel and added to my experience and knowledge. While I was there, I developed the first part of my philosophy as a chef. I decided that I wanted to emulate something I had seen Christophe Mengel create and that was a culinary handbook for his hotel in Singapore. So, in 2001, I wrote with the pastry team my first version of the pastry handbook that I still use today. The version of the handbook used today has changed and evolved considerably, but one thing is till fundamentally the same, and that is my “Pastry Motto” which focuses on the following:
- Taste: This is the most important point of creation and production of all pastry.
- Cleanliness: Taste is impossible to achieve without surgical cleanliness.
- Teamwork: Cleanliness is impossible without all team members contributing.
- Service: Service is the foundation of everything we are. We strive to provide superior service to our colleagues and the membership.
I wrote this with an amazing team in New Orleans, including Simone Faure, Zac Miller, Kenny Broussard, Yvette Duplechin, Ann Sullivan, and Kimberly Varvel. The motto was inspired by all the chefs I had worked with and learned from. The drive to create this was really driven by my time with Lawrence McFadden and equally influenced by Joel Antunes, Arnaud Berthelier and Xavier Salomon. Joel used to talk with me in the mornings at the Ritz Carlton, Buckhead, before he would start in the dining room. He used to always talk about taste and how in France, this is point zero, the beginning of all dishes and once, when I was making some tarts, he commented on the floor, and how I had spilled flour, and his friend, the pastry chef at The Savoy in London, would have gone crazy seeing this.
I have never forgotten these two moments, and from that moment to this one, whenever anything falls on the floor, I clean it up immediately. I also was able to see Joel run his 5 star/5 diamond kitchen. He constantly talked about cleanliness and each cook was heavily engaged in this. In Naples I worked with Arnaud Berthelier, and he would tell me about working at Ducasse and how twice a day, they stopped everything and cleaned the kitchen as if they were finished for the day.
All these Chefs and many more were laser focused on taste and cleanliness and how they were linked. I realized quickly that cleanliness could be achieved through high levels of teamwork. If it only fell to me, then my kitchen would not be clean. And if it was not clean, I could not achieve the taste that was needed. So, the motto, kind of wrote itself, Taste, Cleanliness, Teamwork. That was the way it started life. And when I came to Charlotte Country Club in 2011, I realized that I needed to add another part, and this is the why. Why does it matter? Why is it important? The answer is simple: It’s important and it matters because of the members and guests we cook for, and because of our colleagues both in the pastry and in all other areas of the club.
As I was alone in the mornings during the early days of COVID, day after day, making pastry and trying to comprehend the new reality, having this core philosophy, kept me grounded, moving forward, and pushing myself to create, work, and continue to be as I always have been.