After achieving success at several top restaurants, Aleksiy Shalev wasn’t sure the club life was for him—but a few minutes visiting Omaha Country Club quickly changed his mind.
Chefs struggle at times transitioning from trendy public restaurants to the club environment. And as he tells us in this interview, before Aleksiy Shalev took over this fall as the new Executive Chef of Omaha (Neb.) Country Club, he too had some reservations over whether moving to the club side would be the right move for his next step on a remarkable career path that began with his working at a Waffle House and a Hooters restaurant after first coming to the U.S. from his native Bulgaria.
As he told the members of Omaha CC in an engaging introductory letter that he wrote after accepting his new position, Shalev eventually settled in Chicago and helped to advance that city’s culinary scene with his work at several top restaurants. But fortunately for the club world, his wife Katie is a native of Omaha, and that helped him decide to give our side of the business a try.
Current Position: Executive Chef, Omaha (Neb.) Country Club (since fall 2016)
It’s already proving to be another great marriage, both for Shalev, who’s quickly discovered how preparing club cuisine can be just as challenging and rewarding as at top restaurants, and for Omaha CC and its members—as the club’s General Manager, Jon Davis, says, “Aleksiy has made a big splash!”
Understanding and learning the dining habits of members is essential to club success, and Chef Shalev gets that. He is up to the challenge that Omaha CC has offered him, and has already started to line up local beef, pork and produce specialties to bring to his kitchen.
While C&RB usually features club chefs in these interviews who have been at their clubs for longer periods of time, Davis reached out to us right after Shalev started at Omaha CC, because he was excited to put his new chef in the spotlight. A chef who’s new to the club industry can’t have a better promoter. We thank both Chef Shalev and his General Manager for wanting to share the great things they are cooking up at Omaha CC.
C&RB: Chef, you are one of the many young club chefs new to our industry who have helped to change the negative connotation that clubs have tired cuisine. Can you talk about what reservations you had initially about the Omaha CC opportunity?
Shalev: To be completely honest, I was not very interested in the opportunity when I was first approached. I have dined at many country clubs in several different states—and I was actually hired to consult at one in Michigan a couple of years ago—and my experiences were that the food was outdated and stale. In the restaurant industry, where I have spent most of my career, the country club chef position is perceived to be a bit boring and comfortable, and something that chefs switch to when they are looking for a slower pace.
Regardless of my reservations, when I arrived at Omaha CC to tour the facilities and meet Jon Davis, the General Manager, I recognized immediately that Omaha CC is a special place. The golf course is stunning, the clubhouse is beautiful, and all of the facilities are top-notch. After a brief conversation with Jon, I knew I wanted to create a culinary program to match and complement the country club, and offer something different that the members would look forward to and be proud of.
C&RB: You have already changed things for the better in a short period of time at your club. What have been some of your biggest challenges thus far?
Shalev: Any time you take over an existing program, you are there to make changes, and each of those changes is challenging in its own way. To make a big impact in a short period of time, I knew I had to quickly mold the program to suit my expectations and style.
This meant introducing new systems and routines to a kitchen that was used to doing things a certain way for years. I had to research and discover local purveyors, to ensure that our current product is the best available; making these new connections and testing product can be time-consuming. I also knew I needed fresh blood in the kitchen, and not really knowing anyone local in the industry, I got incredibly lucky with my two talented and driven sous chefs.
Last but certainly not least was the menu. I wanted to make a great first impression, and the menu had to be changed to reflect my fresh take on club food.
C&RB: The club’s a la carte menu was quite large when you arrived at Omaha CC. What process did you use to streamline it, and at the same time give it a contemporary feel and look?
Shalev: We went from a huge menu with over 30 items to a much more concise one, for two reasons. First and foremost was the feedback we got from our members. They wanted fresh, well-executed food. The only way to produce the quality of food that suited our club was to reduce the variety of choices. Now, all of our products are freshly sourced and prepared, and we use local purveyors whenever we can.
The second reason was simply economics. Now, everything we bring to the club is being used, and not thrown away.
C&RB: You came from a high-end, fine-dining background at restaurants that did a lot of parties. For the banquet side of Omaha CC’s program, how did this help you as you got acclimated to the club environment?
Shalev: I helped to build and run high-end, private dining and banquet programs in several of my former restaurants. In every one of those establishments, we refused to accept the status quo as a standard. We strived to provide the same quality of food and service in our private rooms as our main dining room.
The same goes for the club—we can produce awesome food and service, regardless of the format or size of the event.
C&RB: Can you talk about how you have replaced buffet attendants at time, and have them fixing and replenishing buffets, to eliminate some unproductive service periods?
Shalev: The whole concept of a buffet attendant doesn’t make much sense to me. You build a station outside of your kitchen with portable equipment and try to produce a quality product—but most of the time whatever happens doesn’t look clean or professional.
I prefer keeping my cooks in the kitchen, where they are the most productive. Just as an example, if I have someone at a carving station for two hours, all he or she does is slice meat for two hours. But if I have them in the kitchen, they could produce not only meat for the event, but multiple plates of food that look and taste great.
C&RB: Can you share what you’ve done to attempt to phase out chafing dishes, to enhance the look of your displays and maintain the quality of the dishes over time?
Shalev: It didn’t take long for me to realize that the food I like to cook doesn’t hold well in chafing dishes, as they produce too much heat. Try keeping a perfectly cooked salmon in a chafing dish for more than 10 minutes and you’ll know what I’m talking about—it’s impossible. The same goes for any kind of roast, steak, chop, meat skewer, finfish or shellfish.
We prefer using heating lamps for most of our proteins. It’s a simple statement, but there is a lot of work that goes into executing it properly. We put out smaller batches and replace them much more often, to maintain proper temperature and appearance. It’s my preferred way of repurposing the carving attendant.
Pork Chop with cippolini onion, squash, pork caramel and fall apple salad
Seared Nebraska Trout with eggplant puree, peperonata and dill