Talented club chefs make getting back to the basics an exercise in indulgence.
Classics are so named for a reason—they’re recognizable, delicious, simple and sound.
But with greater access to better quality and more seasonal ingredients, many club and resort chefs are taking inspiration from these dishes and retooling them to be more modern and more local.
Thomas Horner, Executive Chef at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa, Palm Desert, Calif., offers the perfect explanation for this trend.
“The beautiful thing about comfort food is that it resonates with every generation,” says Horner, who has been with the resort for a little over a year. “No one turns his or her nose up at an amazing mac-and-cheese. It’s familiar and approachable. They know it’s going to be delicious—and it delivers.”
Building Better Basics
For Horner, comfort food lends itself as a building block for many of the most popular dishes on his menus. The sliders in the resort’s Lobby Bar are a perfect example.
“We start by grinding beef tenderloin to make the slider patty—so it’s an upgraded cut over a typical burger—and we top it with caramelized sweet onions and Point Reyes blue cheese,” says Horner, who strives to cook seasonally, dubbing his style “plant to plate.”
Horner also does a comfort-style action station for banquets and special events that’s a riff on both mac-and-cheese and risotto.
“We use orzo pasta and cook it in the way of risotto,” he says. “The starches in the pasta make it super creamy. Toward the end, we finish it with cheese and allow the guests to customize to their own tastes from an extensive topping bar.”
The choices on the bar are super-indulgent. They include rendered bacon, sautéed mushrooms, wilted spinach, pulled pork, rock shrimp, pickled ramps, brisket and lobster. “We put out anything you can think of, and especially whatever’s in season,” says Horner.
Tapping the Team
At the Texas Tech Club (TTC) in Lubbock, Executive Chef Daniel Carrico also looks to comfort food—and his line cooks—for menu inspiration.
“I encourage my staff to cook from the heart, and then give them the freedom to do so,” says Carrico, who has been at the club for four years. “Some of the cooks will bring in family recipes and we’ll run them as specials. A few have been so popular, we’ve added them to the menu.”
TTC does $3.6 million in annual F&B, serving 2,015 members with menus that change quarterly. To keep members engaged, the club also offers weekly theme nights.
“Our busiest theme is ‘Deep-Fried Fridays,’ ” says Carrico. “We do everything from chicken-fried steak served with fresh vegetables and pickled okra to fried shrimp and grits.”
Generally, TTC’s chefs don’t deviate too far from the original recipes for these classics. Instead, they apply more modern presentation techniques and garnishes.
“Comfort food tends to be heavy, so by adding a colorful garnish that we’ve quick-pickled, for example, the acid helps to cut through the fat while adding color and interest to the plate,” says Carrico, who also elevates dishes by featuring smaller portions on unique china. “Comfort food is about simplifying really great ingredients and staying true to what works.”
Robert Burns, Executive Chef of Austin (Texas) Country Club (AAC), agrees with Carrico that there’s a fine line between reinventing—and ruining—a dish.
“It’s really important to consider what the member’s expectation of the dish will be,” says Burns, who has been with AAC for seven years. “Will your interpretation be well-received? Can you make it taste like they expect it to taste?”
Burns’ goal is to not only meet, but exceed, his members’ expectations with comfort dishes. Some member favorites at AAC include tacos, meatloaf (see photo, above), chicken-fried steak, wild game and soup.
“Any time we can tell a story on the plate, that’s a good thing,” says Burns, who runs a 37% overall food cost and does $3.25 million in F&B at AAC. “As more people become interested in where their food comes from, we have a unique opportunity to put regional and traditional dishes back on our menus. I grew up gardening, hunting and foraging for wild ingredients, so I believe strongly in this trend.”