As Director of Culinary Development for the CBIGG group of clubs and Executive Chef of Eldorado CC, Chris Smith continues to drive innovation through collaboration.
Chris Smith is anything but ordinary. He is the Director of Culinary Development for CBIGG Management, LLC, which operates 26 clubs across nine states. Simultaneously, he’s the Executive Chef of CBIGG’s Eldorado Country Club in McKinney, Texas. Mostly, he’s just really passionate about food and cooking.
Even with two titles on his business card, Smith makes it a point to be accessible to the chefs he manages and the members he serves. He is gracious and passionate about what he does. He’s creative, too. Not many chefs would think to use a toy popcorn machine or an oversized rat trap as a plate.
When he was offered the promotion with CBIGG after only one year at Eldorado CC, Smith was surprised, because he knows he doesn’t look the part.
With a long, curly beard and dozens of tattoos covering most available space on his body, Smith is not clean-cut, nor is he traditionally corporate. But his skills set him apart. And his impact on Eldorado was powerful.
“[Smith] is not your typical chef,” says Dale Folmar, Vice President of Operations for CBIGG. “This guy loves motorcycles and he wears dark glasses. But he embodies exactly what we want for F&B at our clubs.
“He’s willing to take calculated risks,” Folmar adds. “And he is constantly coming up with better and bolder ideas to improve his food, menus and himself. He also makes a hamburger taste better than a hamburger should.”
Building a Better Burger
When Smith came to Eldorado CC, the food was more fast-casual chain than creative culinary destination. Menus were stagnant. Members were coming, but they weren’t hooked.
Smith, who had worked in restaurants, chains and clubs previously, saw so much opportunity. But he needed to gain the members’ trust first. He decided to start with a universal dish he knew would get people talking: the burger.
“Every club has a burger on its menu,” says Smith. “But I wanted to reengineer ours so it would become a conversation piece and something to get people engaged. I wanted a dish that would make members get up from their tables to see what it was.”
The result is a nearly half-foot-tall “Bagel Bro” burger. Between two halves of a fresh-baked jalapeno cheddar bagel, Smith stacks ground brisket and beef tender. Then he layers Loco Cowpoke bacon maple apple jam, Swiss cheese, and Shiner Bock onion strings. To hold it all together, he drives a steak knife through the center.
The Bagel Bro (see photo, cover) has had the exact impact Smith was going for. And now Eldorado’s menu features an eclectic mix of traditional and non-traditional dishes, such as fried cheese curds, lobster empanadas, and “totchos” (a delicious mashup of tater tots and nachos). There’s also catfish, a Brussels-sprout Caesar salad, a jambalaya pasta and a pork osso bucco.
“The idea is to create options and to put flavors and dishes in front of our members that they won’t find anywhere else,” Smith says.
Smith was already at Eldorado CC when Chris Stewart, CCM, Corporate Director of Strategic Development and Regional Manager of Central Texas for CBIGG, came to the club to serve as its General Manager. The two bonded immediately.
“[Smith] was making changes, but he was still a little nervous about going too far with members,” says Stewart. “He was really only doing unique things at wine dinners. I told him the shackles are off. I said, ‘We need to see you in the a la carte menu.’”
That push inspired the first truly “crazy” dish, says Smith—the PB&B, a peanut butter and bacon burger.
“In clubs, you’re used to variety, but your hands are still tied,” says Smith. “[Stewart] told me, flat out, your hands are not tied at all. He said, ‘Try it. Put crazy things on the menu. If they don’t work, try something else.’”
The PB&B burger was a hit. It led to PB&J wings and a Cuban sandwich served in a cigar box. Then there was popcorn shrimp served in a popcorn machine (see photo above), and chicken in waffles served in a toaster.
There was also a “mouse-lover mac and cheese,” served with a three-cheese béchamel over carnitas. It was plated in a cast-iron skillet sitting on a rat trap, next to a radish carved to look like a mouse.
Smith’s latest “crazy” dessert featured a series of cake pops plated to look like teed-up golf balls, and placed on a box covered with samples of turf grass that had been sent to the club for a renovation project.
“CBIGG pushes for what we call ‘nontraditional innovation,’” says Stewart. “And Eldorado has become the epicenter for culinary nontraditional innovation, because of Chef Smith.”
Spreading the Message
As CBIGG’s Director of Culinary Development, Smith spends a sizeable chunk of time with the other chefs in the company’s portfolio of clubs, working on menu development, kitchen efficiencies and operational management.
“Each of our clubs is unique,” says Stewart. “They have different memberships, different tastes and different chefs. We do not want to be cookie-cutter.
“At the same time, not all chefs are as creative as [Smith],” he continues. “So by having him work alongside other CBIGG chefs, he’s able to help with ideas, menus, costing and presentation.”
Every few years, CBIGG hosts a workshop where a dozen or so chefs come to discuss ideas and strategies. At this year’s event, which was held at Sweetwater Country Club in Sugar Land, Texas, Stewart and Smith covered sous chef development, equipment upkeep, member events, numbers and guides, as well as a la carte menu development, drink pairings, and catering-director collaboration.
The workshop culminated with a ‘Taste of CBIGG” member dine-around, where seven of the CBIGG chefs each prepared a dish to share (see photo, pg. 10).
“CBIGG is great about hiring chefs and letting them be chefs,” says Smith. “Because of that, I am able to help them evolve and grow. What my members like, another club’s members won’t like—so we start with a concept and get member feedback. We learn and we adapt.”
Ten tenets to live by
Dale Folmar, Vice President of Operations for CBIGG Management, doesn’t believe in mission statements. He much prefers tenets that can be referred back to frequently. “If you ever question whether you are making the right decision, here are ten ways to check yourself,” he says.
These tenets are universal to CBIGG and especially apropos for the culinary team:
- Details Matter
- Be Adaptable
- Hire For Attitude, Train For Skill
- Be Clean and Organized
- Best-in-Class Course Conditions. Every Day.
- Be Non-Traditional/Innovative
- Fix It Now
- Encourage Our People
- Communication Is the Key
- Be Better Today Than Yesterday
“If you follow the tenets, and you are process-focused, the results will follow,” says Folmar.