Chef Troy Tolbert takes full advantage of all that’s within easy reach from his central California location to provide fresh and contemporary cuisine at San Luis Obispo CC.
As the cover story in the January 2014 issue details (“Restoring the California Dream”), the turnaround at San Luis Obispo (Calif.) Country Club (SLOCC) was brought about through new approaches in all aspects of the club’s operation. On the food-and-beverage side, taking a successful new direction coincided with the arrival of Executive Chef Troy Tolbert in 2009.
Almost immediately, Chef Tolbert began to make an impact with his fresh, contemporary cooking style, which he developed under the tutelage of top restaurant chefs such as Bradley Ogden and Alice Waters. Once at SLOCC, Tolbert enhanced his experience and expertise by taking full advantage of the bounty of locally harvested food and wine available to him in central California.
We thank Chef Tolbert for being kind enough to take time during his extremely busy holiday season (56 parties in 22 days) to shed further light on how his culinary operation has contributed to SLOCC’s revival.
Q: Chef, can you explain your philosophy of menu engineering and how you utilized your background to integrate a “public restaurant” feel to the offerings at San Luis Obispo CC?
A: Our club is smack dab in the very popular Edna Valley wine region, with most of our dining views looking down or across vineyards. Driving to the club, you’ll always pass by vineyards and farms. During the spring as you’re turning into the club, you’ll see a field with waves of squash blossoms, and in the early fall that same field will have sweet red peppers or pablanos.
My whole career has been based on developing dishes from local produce, so it was a “no brainer” that I would engineer the menu here at the club around wine-friendly cuisine that utilizes the best our area has to offer.
I have to admit, the central coast of California can spoil the most creative chefs. A few minutes up the road, Shanley Farms grows finger limes; down the road, Finley Farms has awesome heirloom tomatoes and Padron peppers; and from the Mt. Olive Organic Farm in Paso Robles, I can get Turkish orange eggplant. The farms, and unique produce, go on and on, so I can just write from our terroir.
Q: Your desire from the start of coming to SLOCC was to get members as relaxed as possible when dining at your club. How have you been successful at getting them to eat different dishes than was the norm before you came in?
A: There was a bit of a struggle at first getting members to order out of their comfort zone. One of my philosophies has always been to create menu items you could identify without having to look them up in the “food lover’s companion,” yet in the presentation there would still be a wow factor, accompanied by “yummy!”
As a big part of creating that comfort level, I believe that “less is more.” For example, a two-day, sous vide short rib would be described as a 48-hour short rib, or an olive oil powder would just be described as an “essence.”
Getting our members to try new items and experiences on a daily basis was achieved through wine dinners and other functions that did not require circulating a menu before the event. An item such as wild boar or duck would be extremely well-received, and then voila—it was now included on our regular menu! We educated and impressed all at once.
Q: You’ve said that your training with some of the best chefs in the U.S., including Alice Waters and Bradley Ogden, has taught you some special approaches regarding farm-to-table menus. Can you explain how this philosophy has molded your cooking style?
A: Training through the years with well-known farm-to-table gurus has taught me to “respect your ingredients” and “preserve their integrity.” I love going to our local farmers market and “interviewing” all the flavors. By respecting the ingredients from start to finish with the utmost thought and care, and respecting the flavors of those products for what they are, this is another area where less can be more. By balancing a dish with the products in the way they were meant to be, they will shine brightest.
Q: Can you describe your “BYO Wine” program and how it has been a hit with the membership and become profitable for the F&B bottom line?
A: The BYOB night was my way of bringing together the club. We have extremely nice, down-to-earth and friendly members who have the San Luis Obispo vibe of “the happiest place to live in the USA.”
Besides the common holiday events, buffets and golf mixers, I wanted to insert a once-a-month wine dinner. I select the wine theme, such as cool-climate Syrah. We serve a three-course dinner at an extremely low price, and the members bring their own wine, with no corkage fee for the evening. We picked a night that was typically slow for the week, and boom—120 reservations! This event is sold out every month. Even better, the laughs and conversation that are going on during the event are addictive and heart-warming as you pass through the rooms.
As a chef, it is not hard to create a profitable menu when an event such as BYOB is executed virtually like a banquet, which elicits profit and good numbers to the bottom line. This is also the one event that has promoted confidence with our members in ordering new menu items. They trust that the food will be phenomenal, and therefore don’t inquire as to the menu for the event.
Q: Your fall golf tournament draws over 1,000 spectators a day. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced, and what opportunities have you taken advantage of with the locals who have never been to your club?
A: Our “Straight Down” fall classic is put on by Mike Rowley, a member who is also the owner of Straight Down sportswear. It’s a unique event that attracts many spectators who want to watch pro players such as Freddy Couples and Loren Roberts up close, and at the same time experience SLOCC, which would normally be open to members only. This is the very point I use and share with the staff in preparing for the event—this is your chance to “show off your abilities to the community.”
My biggest challenge is forecasting the numbers correctly, which have only come from my previous years with this tournament. There is some juggling between satellite stations the last day. My team is fairly small, but they work hard and with passion. We all get excited and look forward to the extreme push of this event.