Executive Chef Gabriel Maldonado, CEC, CCA, holds himself to the highest standard while motivating his team to uphold The Gasparilla Inn & Club’s culinary legacy.
When you lead by example, you make it easier for others to follow. Look at Gabriel Maldonado, CEC, CCA, Executive Chef of The Gasparilla Inn & Club in Boca Grande, Fla. To evolve the culinary program at Gasparilla, Maldonado knew he had to open the lines of communication, refocus the dining experience and cultivate a strong team. So that’s just what he did.
“Some talented chefs have passed through this resort in my time here,” says Jon Reecher, General Manager, who has been with Gasparilla for 13 years. “I’ve worked with James Dyer, Peter Timmins, CMC, and Seth Shipley, CEC, CCA, who were all immensely talented culinarians. But somewhere along the way, the experience became too complicated. We lost touch with our guests, our members and one another.
“When we were looking for a new chef three years ago, [Maldonado] stood out for two reasons,” Reecher continues. “His culinary skills were unmatched, and the way he planned to manage the operation to build up the team was pivotal. We knew he would
confidently lead us into a new era.”
As Executive Chef, Maldonado has done just that. He is both the “big picture” and the “details” person. He is creative, strategic, and visionary, while simultaneously conscientious, planful, and exacting. He’s also a very strong cook.
His team is equally capable and includes a dynamic lineup of strong and smart leaders, including Pastry Chef Kassandra Pimentel, Beach Club Chef James Music, and Food and Beverage Director Brad Schoem.
Maldonado does not like heroes.
“Heroes get defeated,” he says. “They behave as though they are above or beyond the rest of the team. Heroes are dangerous and destructive.”
If a member of the team is running short, or feels like they can’t do their job, Maldonado does not want them to be a hero. He encourages his crew to communicate with the team so a solution can be found. “We can fix problems,” he says. “We can’t fix failure.”
Maldonado is a relentless team player and communicator. He encourages and trains his cooks to pay attention to the details. He wants them to be excited about cooking and being part of the Gasparilla crew. He seeks new hires who are willing to learn. He comes in early and stays late. He is not above cleaning, organizing or scrubbing floors.
“There was a mentality of ‘that’s not my job, that’s someone else’s job’ when I first started here,” says Maldonado. “It was the biggest challenge I faced. The best way to build trust and show my team what I expect is to get my hands dirty.”
In three years, the mentality of Gasparilla’s team has shifted dramatically as a result of Maldonado’s leadership.
“Chef is approachable and accessible,” says Schoem. “His food is incredible. He is interested in upholding the history and traditions of the resort while fully understanding the membership and guest dynamic. He makes each one of us better and holds us to the same standards he holds for himself.”
Beach Club Makeover
Located directly on the Gulf of Mexico, The Gasparilla Inn’s private Beach Club is reserved for members and guests of the hotel, serving them on a private beach and focusing on lunches and beverages.
James Music, Beach Club Chef, oversees this part of Gasparilla’s operation, which is in the midst of a renovation that will open up the front of the house and expand the kitchen while modernizing the dining room and creating an updated experience for members.
New equipment, including a charbroiler and a six-burner range and stove, will be added to the kitchen, while the front of the house will benefit from a fresh coat of paint, new furniture and a more open and COVID-friendly layout.
The menu will also change to meet new member demands.
“Last season we took our first stab at simplifying the menu, while still offering the type of food members have come to expect from Gasparilla,” says Music. “We are primarily a lunch option for members as they dine by the pool, so they aren’t looking for food they have to eat with a fork and knife. They want good quality [food that’s] simple, healthy and flavorful.”
The most popular dishes at The Beach Club include the shrimp tacos—made with ancho chile, marinated shrimp on a flour tortilla topped with a citrus and cilantro slaw, guacamole, salsa and pico —as well as the house-made crab cake.
New this year—and thanks in large part to COVID—will be a made-to-order salad concept where members can tick off what ingredients and components they want from a list of fifty or so choices. The salads will then be composed in the back of the house before being served.
“Being organized is critical at The Beach Club,” says Music. “In season, we’ll see 500 covers at lunch in a three-hour window. That’s a lot of people to move through an operation, so we have to be prepped and make sure that everyone on the team knows the expectation and to hustle.”
The Outlier Outlets
Gasparilla’s F&B operation has a lot of moving parts. There are six dining outlets on the island, including The Inn’s Dining Room, BZ’s, the Gazebo, the Beach Club, The Inn Bakery and an employee café. The resort also offers room service to overnight guests.
In addition, there are two other restaurants that are affiliated with the resort, but somewhat removed. The first is The Outlet Restaurant, located at Gasparilla’s sister hotel, and the second is The Pink Elephant, located in the Boca Grande Bayou. Both restaurants are open to Inn guests and island residents alike, and both have dedicated Executive Chefs and menus.
Maldonado’s team supports both restaurants to some degree with both culinary and labor assistance.
For example, Pastry Chef Kasandra Pimentel prepares the resort’s signature key lime pie in her dedicated pastry shop, and some of these pies are earmarked for The Pink Elephant, because the pie is a signature dish for the resort and consistency across the island is critical.
Schoem also works closely with these operations to cover service and staffing.
“A big thing for us is making sure that no matter what position it is—dishwasher, host or taking reservations—every person has a direct impact on the guest experience property-wide,” he says. “It falls on each one of us to make that experience positive.
“Chef shares my belief that no person is ever to be disrespected and by keeping the lines of communication open, we are able to create a lot of synergies between the different parts of the operation,” Schoem adds.
Schoem has spent his tenure with Gasparilla focused on creating a personalized experience for members and guests. “We want to make sure they leave happy and satisfied,” he says. “We have a lot of repeat guests in addition to our members, so if we can personalize that experience for them in big or small ways, we’re creating a lot of loyalty.”
Schoem and his FOH team are the eyes and ears of the operation for the back of the house, so they are as transparent as possible. Feedback is of the utmost importance and has become the foundation for Schoem’s relationship with Maldonado.
“In order to learn and grow, we need to know what our members and guests think, want, feel and need,” says Schoem. “The team is highly collaborative, and we’re always talking about how to do better and improve.”
Pimentel inherited the aforementioned key lime pie from the legendary Peter Timmins, CMC, who served as Executive Chef of Gasparilla from 2006-2012. It features a graham cracker crust, key lime custard, fresh key limes, fresh juice and sweetened condensed milk. It’s paired with a toasted meringue.
“There are desserts and pastries that are signature and perfect as they are—like the key lime pie and crème brulee—and then there are others that constantly change,” says Pimentel, who did her culinary externship at Gasparilla, then returned post-graduation and worked her way up the ranks.
The “perfect as they are” list also includes Pimentel’s yeast-raised donuts. “They’re big and traditionally glazed and amazing,” she says. They can be purchased at The Inn Bakery alongside breakfast pastries, desserts, brownies, bars and cupcakes. The Bakery also serves sandwiches, salads, smoothies and yogurt bowls.
“We just started to do popsicles there, too,” says Pimentel.
The “constantly changing” list includes a long menu of seasonal sweets and baked goods, including ice creams and sorbets.
“One of the most important things about our pastry program—and the culinary program, too—is that we don’t skimp on ingredients,” says Pimentel. “We focus on quality and use only the best we can source.”
Maldonado concurs. “My philosophy is to keep it simple,” he says. “We’re focused on local cuisine [and] fresh, elegant food. Simple flavors focused on main ingredients. We want that to be the center of attention.
“We would like to present food, but also give soul to the food, and give it flavor that members and guests are looking for when they come to Gasparilla,” he adds.