An earlier-than-expected entry into the culinary world set Todd Sellaro out on a journey that has led him to top clubs on both coasts.
Todd Sellaro is the Executive Chef at the Elkridge Club in Baltimore, Md. Elkridge started as a fox-hunting club in 1878, but is now a full-amenity property with a Seth Raynor-designed 18-hole golf course and tennis and pool. The current clubhouse is a fully restored, former tenant house on the estate of Maryland Governor Augustus Bradford that survived a Confederate invasion in 1864.
Chef Sellaro has been honing his craft from coast to coast for the last 30 years—and as you’ll read, he is constantly pushing the envelope to provide Elkridge’s members and guests with new ideas and interesting dishes that are created through his very innovative “behind the scenes” processes.
Our professional paths have crossed a few times over the last decade, and I have always wanted to feature Todd in a “Chef to Chef” interview, because he has so much to share about his journey through our culinary world. I appreciate his taking the time to contribute some valuable insights into how we can all make the most of our roles as club chefs.
C&RB: Todd, I always ask for the chef’s resume when I start the process for these interview features, because It’s important to see someone’s professional history and background. Yours tells a remarkable story of learning, perseverance and hard work. Tell us how you got from dropping out of high school to being the chef at The Jonathan Club twenty years later, managing a culinary staff of over 100 with F&B sales of $15 million.
Sellaro: I don’t recommend anyone dropping out of high school, but my father passed away when I was 15 years old. I immediately went into the workforce, starting off as a dishwasher and then becoming a Garde Manger.
After a few years in the industry on a busy Saturday night, a sauté cook walked off the line. The next day the chef said to me “I’m going to teach you how to cook.” From there I worked at several restaurants in my home state of New Jersey. And then it happened: I was on an interview and the chef asked me “Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a little fish in a big pond?” All of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks…what are you doing with your life? You’re 19 years old and this is the only thing you know how to do? Might as well learn as much as I can! My reply to the chef was, “I want to be neither—I want to be a big fish in a big pond!”
Being so fortunate to live just outside the financial and culinary capital of the world, I decided to make my way into New York city. I was working at the Chemist Club and they decided to shut down for three months over the summer. Instead of laying me off, the General Manager called the GM at the Harvard Club of New York and asked if they could keep me busy during the shutdown. When it came time to reopen, the Executive Sous Chef at the Harvard Club left to become the Executive Sous Chef at the legendary Four Seasons. I applied for his job and got it. This was it, the big leagues!
But little did I know what I was getting myself into. Working at the Harvard Club was no joke. Eleven thousand members and the chef had been there for 14 years. Chef Angelo came to this country as a refugee with just the shirt on his back. He said to me “Sous chefs mean nothing to me. They become chefs and they come and go. The core crew is the most important—when you can do their jobs just as well or better, that is when you will gain their respect, and mine.”
That was so true…when you have someone making perfect cold canapés for 20 years and that’s all he does, it’s kind of difficult to tell him what to do. I worked my fingers to the bone! It took me almost two years to get that kitchen under my belt. I worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for seven and a half years in every station. Working under Chef Angelo was truly my culinary school. He was the type of chef who would go in for major surgery and come in the next day with 150 staples down his leg. Super hard-core and brutal, but he loved me because I worked my tail off for him.
One afternoon, the chef from the New York Yacht Club stopped in our kitchen. He said to me and Chef Angelo that he was just let go and in front of my chef said “Todd, you world be perfect to the job.” I looked at Angelo and he said, “Go for it—you’re ready.”
Not even 10 minutes later I called the GM, Mark Ferretti, and introduced myself. It just so happened that he and the GM at Harvard Club both went to Cornell together and were in the same class. I got a stellar recommendation and reference. I still had to go through the interview process, but nailed it.
The Yacht Club had two locations, one in Manhattan and the other in Newport, R.I. I was originally hired for the Manhattan location, but after several months Mark Ferretti called me and said the chef in Rhode Island had walked out three days before an event for 1,000 people and he asked if I could come up to Newport to help pull off the event. Three days later, Kent Johnson, the Manager of the Newport property called and said, “The sous chef just quit—could you come for the summer?”
Having a wife and three children, I told him yes, as long as they could come with me. I was situated on a 6-acre estate; I called it the summer of Newport. As my family enjoyed the summer, I was responsible for handling large regattas and international sailing events. As the end of the summer drew near, our New York location was hosting the Republican national convention. I took five chefs from Rhode Island and put them up in my house in New Jersey. We did an event for 500 people three days in a row. At that point I was given the option to stay as the Executive Chef in New York or relocate to Rhode Island.
After spending many years in New Jersey and working in Manhattan, I decided to relocate to Rhode Island. After almost four years, the General Manager and Newport Manager left within several months of one another. One left to be the General Manager of The Jonathan Club in Los Angeles, and the other to be the General Manager of The Elkridge Club in Baltimore. Both asked me to join them, but I chose the Jonathan Club. After three and a half years there, I decided it was time to come back to the East Coast, where my entire family resides. In the meantime, I had become friends with the chef at The Elkridge Club. I met him and his family for lunch in Washington, D.C. and he mentioned that he was giving notice. Because I had worked with Kent Johnson previously at the New York Yacht Club, that made it a no-brainer for me to seek and take that opportunity.
So what are the lessons to be learned from all of this? You need a few things to be successful after dropping out of high school: drive, determination, being at the right place at the right time, and connections. I don’t regret my decision to drop out, but look at it as if I just took a different path to get to the same place.
C&RB: Let’s talk about the menu-engineering process at the Elkridge Club, as 75% of your menu changes every six weeks. First, tell us about how you solicit ideas from your culinary team and come up with a menu draft.
Sellaro: First off, complacency is the kiss of death! At the Elkridge Club, the menu writing is very aggressive. It’s not just a la carte menus, but also coming up with different “outside the box” action stations for club events.
I get the entire culinary team involved in the brainstorming process. We meet in the boardroom and as a group go over the menu—what is selling, what’s not and what is coming in and out of season. Once we have a list of ideas, we play around with them and run some of them as specials. This gives us direct member feedback and also gives the staff a chance to see the plate and learn about it before it is considered for the menu. I can sit in the office all day long and write menus and hand them out to the cooks to execute, but there’s nothing better than when cooks come up with their own ideas and they make the menu. They take pride and ownership in their new dishes, and it also creates camaraderie.
Outside of the club, I have a large network of club-chef friends, from Florida to Los Angeles. We all utilize social media to post pictures and bounce ideas off of one another. Over the last five years, I have become friends with the surrounding country club chefs in the Baltimore area. We meet once every other month and go out to dinner at local restaurants. Besides being a social outing, we use these dinners to talk about current events at each club, share menus, talk about staffing, and what has and have not been working. This also gives us the chance to meet the chefs and owners of the restaurants we visit, which extends this network of culinary minds even further.
I am also lucky enough to be able to attend conferences, like Chef to Chef and the International Chef Congress (aka Star Chefs), each year; these provide a wealth of information and inspiration. I also have a sizable amount of culinary literature that I read through daily. Vendor newsletters are particularly helpful in sparking my creativity—they do a great job of telling me what is in season, what ingredients are particularly good this year, and keeping me informed about current trends.
Lastly, member feedback and requests are invaluable, and not just because they let me know what is working, and what’s not. Sometimes a member will mention a dish they had somewhere, or request something, that leads to a new dish.
Basically what it all comes down to is making sure I use all of the tools at my disposal—from my own staff, to social media, to classic and modern cookbooks, to the members. It’s important to always keep an eye out for possible inspiration, because it truly can come from anywhere.
C&RB: Now tell us about the way that you feature new items prior to the menu rollout, and also how you welcome feedback and ultimately gather a group of members for a tasting to fine-tune the dishes.
Sellaro: With every menu change, we create a menu packet for the front and back of the house that includes detailed descriptions of the new items, including potential allergies. Having run each new item as a special, everyone is fully trained and familiar with the new items.
On the day of the rollout, we e-mail the membership and invite up to 12 members to come to our pre-meal meeting. Every new item is plated up and tasted by the staff and members at the same time. The members receive a copy of the menu packet in advance and are given note pads to write down their feedback.
At the end of the tasting, the general manager collects the feedback from the staff and members. He comes into the kitchen and goes over the feedback. We make any necessary adjustments and then go to print. It’s definitely aggressive, but we find it’s a great way to involve the members in our culinary process.
C&RB: Chef, I’ve seen your dry-aging room. It doesn’t look that incredibly complicated and has inspired me to try something similar at my club. You mentioned that air circulation with a simple fan solved the issue of tackiness on the meat (which was incredible, by the way). Also, tell us about your homemade steak sauce and Worcestershire sauce that have helped you move away from demi.
Sellaro: When I was hired at Elkridge, the kitchen was already in the process of being renovated. In the original design it was slated to have a second freezer, but I requested instead to create a dry-aging room. It really isn’t that complicated; when I first tried it, I learned it’s all about air flow and circulation. We also put in UV lights that kill bacteria in the air.
We tried different aging times—four, six, eight and ten weeks—and decided that eight weeks was the optimal amount of time that the meat should age, based on pungency. Because we are dry-aging our steaks in-house, we decided that a homemade steak sauce and Worcestershire sauce would be great to go along with it. Since we implemented this idea, we have been going through less demi and get fewer requests for béarnaise sauce. There is some commitment involved with this, though; the Worcestershire alone takes two days to make.
C&RB: Most of us strive to make all hors d’oeuvres in-house. You have almost made that a position and can justify the extra payroll expense, along with also having a full-time pastry chef. How do you do this, and why is it so important that you do it this way?
Sellaro: We not only make our hors d’oeuvres in-house, but every morning we slice and fry fresh potato chips, punch French fries, and cure and smoke salmon. If we put pastrami on the menu, we brine, cure, and smoke it ourselves. We have a sausage press and make specialty sausages. We also purchased an Italian-made pasta extruder and make nearly all of our pasta in-house.
I cannot stress enough the value of having a full-time pastry chef. A lot of chefs say you can buy good bread, especially in New York and Los Angeles. But there’s nothing like walking into the kitchen when the pastry chef pulls fresh bread from the oven, tears it in half, and hands you half a baguette. Or being able to finish a wine dinner with a home-run dessert.
It’s a constant battle between food cost, labor cost, and doing everything in-house. But if you can make something better in-house than what you can purchase, that trumps all.
C&RB: Your pool menu at Elkridge has been upgraded drastically. Tell us about how aggressive you got with the prep and turnout in a satellite kitchen.
Sellaro: As in years past, the menu at the pool was designed to be more casual and faster-paced than the clubhouse menu. The culinary team and I worked hard on the taste, variety, and portability of the summer pool menu. Most of the items are prepared in the main clubhouse kitchen and transferred to the pool.
For example, the turkey breast is purchased fresh on the bone, then cooked, cooled and carved in-house. We make falafels, have a large selections of paninis and entrée-sized salads, and one of the most popular sellers are our ‘house-made” pretzels from our pastry chef. These are just a few more examples of our “homemade” touch.