Executive Chef Bernard Pilon infuses a spirit of fun and adventure, and strives to provide “hip and trendy” touches, to the culinary scene at Norwood Hills CC.
Norwood Hills Country Club has long been a popular golf destination in the St. Louis area, with two challenging championship golf courses. In 2005, Norwood Hills was placed on the “National Register of Historic Places” and underwent a $7.5 million clubhouse renovation.
The kitchen at Norwood Hills has been under the watchful eye of Executive Chef Bernard Pilon, CEC, since 2000. Besides overseeing a complete renovation of his kitchen after he arrived, Chef Pilon has completely changed the way his membership eats, implementing his very upscale contemporary cuisine while injecting a spirit of adventuresome fun throughout the club’s F&B operation. With the peak season in full swing, Chef Pilon was nice enough to offer insights into how he calls the culinary shots at this very active Midwestern club.
Current Position: Executive Chef, Norwood Hills
Education: Montreal Institute for Tourism
Q: Chef, when you arrived at Norwood Hills, you’ve said that seafood was very limited on your menus. Can you describe how over the last ten years you literally changed what your members ate, and also what your fish program looks like today? How are you getting top-quality seafood to the St. Louis area?
A: Seafood has always been essential to my success as a chef—it is one of the reasons I cook the way I do. I was told when I first arrived here that it was impossible to get good seafood in the Midwest. That is, of course, completely false. I simply researched the proper and reliable purveyors, and off we went. In St. Louis, in fact, I am now kind of known as being “the fish guy.” I teach many classes on fish in the local community, so it was just a natural progression for me to bring it to the club. Also, I have this thing for sustainable fish and educating everyone about it, so it just works for me to continue that trend. We shop for product from all over the country, because I want to provide the best that I can for our membership.
Q: You said you always had a goal to run your club’s restaurant like a “hip, trendy public restaurant.” What specific steps have you taken to attain this goal?
A: This theory hit me several years ago, when I was vacationing in my hometown of Montreal and went to a country club for dinner. The menu was pretty antiquated and I just started thinking, “What if we started thinking about making country club food that was not ‘country club food’?” In other words, what if we really examined what was going on in restaurants, and started playing around with, and introducing, dishes that real, self-standing restaurants serve? Wow, let me tell you—what a relief it has been to be able to do that at Norwood Hills. Now, our membership can really feel that their club is not only a club, but a hip and trendy restaurant as well. It’s totally cool and also a natural progression, as many of our younger members have demanded this type of food. Some examples of the types of dishes we now have on the menu to help create this feeling include braised short ribs with pepper and brown sugar, a local pork jowl with pancetta, mashers with maple syrup, and a 65-degree egg.
Q: The wok station you built into your renovated hot line also fits into this concept. What are you making there that you’re having the most success with?
A: The wok station was certainly an interesting addition to our hot line; it really taught us a brand new way of cooking. Of course it can help us with speed of service, but I was more interested in seeing how it could help us improve the diversity of the menu. Yes, of course it can do stir-fry, but it can also fry, boil and create flavors we had not yet introduced to our memberships. For example, we use it to prepare items like noodle dishes with chili, and rubbed yellowfin tuna. It is a tool we continue to learn from.
Q: Your “Chef’s Table” concept is also quite unique, as it is not in an out-of-the-way location; instead, it is right near where the expeditor is positioned on many of your busiest a la carte dining evenings. What are the benefits of having it in this location? Does a full table of members and guests have an impact on the kitchen atmosphere?
A: The dynamic of the chef’s table is very interesting. It allows us to think outside the box and create an experience for our membership that they would not normally have. We purposely put it in the heat of the action, to really give it an authentic feel. Does our temperament change when it is in use? Of course—how can it not! But we are a pretty cool crew, and you’d love to hang with us anyway. I take care of all the food that night and really have a lot of fun staging and creating unforgettable memories for our guests. There is always a good vibe going on when the chef’s table is in use.
Q: Bernard, it has always been my strong belief that a good intern experience can often speed up the process of finding top line chefs and sous chefs. What has your retention rate been like, and can you offer any tips on making the intern’s experience a productive one?
A:We have become a hub for interns in the city, it seems. We love educating these young chefs and helping them with their careers. We try to make their experience be memorable in that we rotate them around through all of the stations and give them the full experience. I can truthfully say that every single one has asked us to employ them, which of course I would love to do but cannot, for obvious reasons. But yes, almost every one of our current employees is a culinary grad and has interned with us.
Q: Chef, you yourself have gone for continuing education at CIA Greystone all ten years that you’ve been at Norwood Hills. What courses of study have been the most valuable to you, and what ones do you feel you could have passed on?
A: All of them have helped me in my ongoing education as a chef, but in particular the classes on Sous Vide Cooking, Charcuterie and Flavor Dynamics still remain my favorites. And believe it or not, I could have passed on the Advanced Seafood class—the curriculum for that one was just not there. But overall I am a huge believer in education, which is what I believe the culinary arts are all about.
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