Big Canyon CC needed a new executive chef who could meet the challenge of directing at $4.2 million F&B operation in a new $60 million clubhouse with two full-service restaurants and 9,000 square feet of meeting space. Thomas Ryan was up to the task, and then some.
When Big Canyon Country Club, located in Newport Beach, Calif. between Los Angeles and San Diego, needed someone to direct a culinary program that would befit the impressive new buildings it was preparing to open in January 2009, the club turned to Thomas Ryan.
Founded in 1970, Big Canyon’s original clubhouse lacked adequate dining and fitness space, and was razed in October 2006 to make way, at a total cost of $60 million, for a new clubhouse and related facilities that would encompass 9,000 square feet of meeting space and two full-service restaurants. With impressive experience that included executive chef roles at the Beverly Hills Hilton and several Ritz-Carlton properties, Ryan’s distinct knack for balancing a la carte menus and high-volume catering made it easy for Big Canyon to entrust its new buildings—and $4.2 million in food and beverage business—to his care.
Current Position:Executive Chef, Big Canyon Country Club, Newport Beach, Calif.Experience: Ritz-Carlton Hotels, Aspen, Colo., Coconut Grove, Fla. and Atlanta Restaurant and Hospitality Concepts, Las Vegas Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas Omni Hotels, Denver Beverly Hills (Calif.) Hilton Hotel
Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., Associate of Occupational Sciences Culinary Institute of America, Continuing Education, Management Training with Hilton Hotels Chef Certification, ACF-guided CEC program to be completed 2010
Professional Affiliations: Slow Food, Orange County, Board Member American Culinary Federation, Orange County Chapter James Beard Foundation, Chef Host and Member Chaine des Rotisseurs, Newport Beach, California Balliage CIA, Hyde Park, N.Y., Alumnus Sponsor of Educational Development and Mentorship
Chef Ryan came on board in September 2008, and quickly showed he was unfazed by the challenges that come with an operation of this size. C&RB thanks Chef Ryan for taking the time to provide insights into how, even on such a large scale, he has helped to take F&B at this exclusive, high-end club to impressive new levels, while still finding opportunities to become even more hands-on
and passionate about his craft.
Q Thomas, the menu at Big Canyon has a very interesting variety of food offerings. What have you done over the last year to try to help satisfy the needs of the 950 families at the club, and how have you successfully introduced upscale, restaurant-style dishes into a private setting?
A Expanding and improving the food and wine program at Big Canyon was an important part of what was behind the building of the new facilities. My experience opening all types of properties, and developing menus for them, helped to set the stage.
Getting to know our customer was the second most important element. The tastes of Big Canyon’s members have evolved from the stereotype. Our members and their guests watch the Food Network, shop in the best retail stores for food, and read everything we chefs don’t have time for.
To properly serve these customers, I’ve learned that it is crucial for us to stay up with trends, yet provide consistent, recognizable comfort food that is right every single time. We must serve the best product that’s out there to them, so they don’t want to dine elsewhere.
To do this, we explore the local culinary community to see what the competition is delivering, private or public. Then, we simply do it better.
|Big Canyon’s banquet facilities are elegant and functional, with outdoor venues, multiple configurations and the capability of accommodating 325 guests for a served dinner with dancing.|
Q Your exhibition kitchen in The Grill at Big Canyon does between 400 and 500 covers over three meal parts every day. What are the pros and cons of an open kitchen, and what recommendations would you have for other chefs who might be considering one?
A There is definitely a “wow” factor associated with an open kitchen. The energy level—and sometimes the noise level—is considerably higher than with a more traditional, closed-kitchen setup.
The atmosphere prompts more interaction between the member and the chef, which is always a plus. One of your main considerations should be its sensory appeal. We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner in the grill, so we have many opportunities to showcase our culinary talent.
That said, to make it inviting to have the dining room “in the kitchen,” you will want to make your most visually appealing cooking processes—anything with flames or artistic or fun culinary processes—visible to the member.
Q Your practice of customizing every catering event at Big Canyon takes more time and effort in the planning stages, compared to standard packages. What’s the philosophy behind this?
A Catering sales have fast become the outlet to save the ever-growing costs associated with food and beverage programs. As the industry of private clubs seeks to grow the areas that create better profitability, I believe we are pioneering an industry trend to provide choice menus, a la carte-style catering, and restaurant-quality execution, all using product at its peak freshness.
Q When putting together your post-construction management team at Big Canyon, why did you feel it would be beneficial to have both tenured managers and new blood on the staff?
A I think it is imperative to find the most diverse and multi-talented culinary brigade you can bring together. Members crave familiar recognition and comfort. A tenured manager can help maintain that level of consistency year after year.
However, today’s new members require a careful blend of classic ingenuity and sharp intuition. New, fresh, energized staff members, mixed with long-time employees, can give your club a cutting edge in a competitive world.
|Big Canyon’s new facilities cover nearly 60,000 square feet. While the main clubhouse (left) is used for dining and other club amenities, the adjacent building (right) houses the fitness facility and spa. Yet another building (not pictured) is home for offices, childcare, wine storage, and golf bag and golf car storage.|
With the team we have in place, we now have a strong culinary—and financial—structure. We’ve created seasonal menu changes, developed a flexible and functional dining room concept, and have an emphasis on quality that is second to none.
Q Finally, Chef, how important is it for the next generation of culinary talent to get the same training and structured learning that you received during your time with Ritz-Carlton?
A Members of the next generation can set themselves apart by diversifying their education and working in several different types of kitchens and restaurants. They need to attend educational seminars, pursue continuing education opportunities as often as possible, and read the multitude of industry publications. Most importantly, they need to cook and experiment with all different types of cuisine. All of these things are essential for growth.