Howard Coffin is known in the automotive world as the Father of Standardization, because of the work he did in the industry’s early days for Oldsmobile and the Hudson Motor Car Company. Hudsons have long since disappeared from American roads, but Coffin’s passion for unwavering standards of quality and excellence lives on at Sea Island Resorts, the premier tourist destination off the Georgia coast that he and his young cousin, A.W. Jones, began to develop in 1928 when they built The Cloister, the grand hotel that remains the cornerstone of the property.
The Jones family still owns and operates Sea Island, and in the 1990s, Bill Jones III began a $500 million initiative to bring Sea Island Resorts to where it is today. As part of that project, Rees Jones and Tom Fazio reinvented golf at Sea Island in 1998.
For the past seven years, Executive Chef Todd Rogers has been at the helm of the resort’s food operations, which now includes four dining venues at The Cloister, as well as two world-class restaurants at the Lodge at Sea Island. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who previously worked at Ritz-Carlton properties and at The Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, Rogers has advanced Sea Island’s award-winning distinction, with The Georgian Room at The Cloister being selected as a Best New Restaurant by Esquire magazine in 2006, and The Lodge being rated “#1 for Top Dining” by the Zagat Survey, in 2004 through 2006.
C&RB thanks Chef Rogers for taking time to provide insights into how he now directs a 17-kitchen, 13-outlet, 180-person culinary operation that measures up, in its entirety, to standards Howard Coffin would be proud of.
Q Todd, you have 40,000 sq. ft. of kitchens, including a 24-hour pastry operation, butcher shop and a general commissary, at Sea Island. What are some of the interesting questions that come from industry professionals as they tour your facilities?
A The main questions are: How many chefs do you have, and how many cooks? How many pounds of tenderloin, shrimp, and eggs, among other ingredients, are used? What brand names do you endorse, and why did you select the equipment that you have?
We have 17 different kitchens in which to prepare food, and 13 different areas for our guests to dine or purchase food. Our guests on tours are always impressed with how clean and organized the kitchens are. With the same standards throughout, it is easy to maintain consistency. Tour participants are also impressed by the fact that we operate an old-style, scratch kitchen. Since we are located on the Georgia coast and not in a large city, we are required to make a lot of things on property from scratch.
Q With 15 sous chefs and a total staff of 180, you must have a busy cell phone. What tips do you have regarding how to delegate responsibility?
A I try to work with the philosophy of moving people up through the ranks. To make this happen, goals must be clearly defined and achievable, and constantly emphasized. Each chef and cook is involved in a daily lineup that involves the “DSQ”—an acronym for Delivering Service Quality. This is when all aspects of our service vision, along with our guiding principles of financial responsibility, are addressed.
I believe in coaching and holding people accountable while helping them to achieve their goals. This involves constructive criticism and encouragement—not just telling everyone what is wrong all the time. I also like to use the acronym PRIDE, which stands for Personal Responsibility In Delivering Excellence.
As mentioned before, our standards of cleanliness, organization and how work gets done are the same in every kitchen, so everyone knows the rules. I do not shy away from confrontation, and I address people professionally and directly. Done in a professional way, the criticism is not taken personally, but instead is presented in a way that can help all parties achieve their goals.
Q Todd, you’ve done many high-end plated dinners, such as for the G8 Summit and the “We Are Marshall” premiere. What advice can you offer chefs to eliminate errors in execution, especially in high-profile and high-pressure settings?
A From the start, do what you know how to do; do what’s in season; pick the best product you can find. Pre-planning also includes diagrams of buffets and/or plates that are linked to an agenda and worksheets for each chef, with deadlines and timelines on how every step will be met—who will be doing what, where, when and how.
Where appropriate, a cost-benefit analysis is also a good idea, to make sure the dinner or event will be profitable. Make sure you are using the best people you can find who have been trained and proven themselves under pressure. Finally, think ahead of what could go wrong, and have Plans A, B, and C in place—and don’t forget to use all of them if you have to!
Q Finally, Chef, your food has received national recognition after seven years of building a solid foundation. Can you close by telling us what you feel are the key components for success in all of your outlets?
A First, consistency and standards. Consistency must be driven daily, along with the standards. There is no compromise; there are no excuses. It is all results-driven, and I empower the culinary staff to deliver the best they can, and to never settle for less.
Second, continuous improvement in our people, ourselves and our product. We pick only the best products to serve at the peak of perfection—whether it is the tomato that must be ripe before it is served, the bacon that must be perfectly crisp, or the cole slaw that has to be consistent. We define what is the finest, so that everyone can reach this goal.
Third, do the basics perfectly, so you can elevate to the higher standards of cooking. Most of my journeys at different jobs have brought me back to teaching the basics—from knife skills to sauce preparation to proper cooking of proteins.
Fourth, as a chef, you should eat in your restaurants to “inspect” your product on a regular basis. Chefs must be the example of quality on a daily basis.
Fifth, you must practice constant self-evaluation. After every plate or dinner I question, “What could I have done better?”
And finally, I would recommend that when hiring people, you look for the ones who have a true passion for delivering excellent food. That is a key component. I concentrate on people, product and profit.
Q Chef, please share with us how you built a spa cuisine program and assembled a team whose sole focus is creating healthy cuisine? Also, how has it all been received by the guests and residents?
A I have been challenged to provide healthy cuisine throughout my career, from macrobiotic to spa to conscious cuisine and now wellness cuisine. As a resort, we are dedicated to making this happen. We have our own Wellness Chef, who assists our guests and with our menu development, depending on an individual’s health requirements.
Each seasonal menu change, including room service, has pre-approved items based on caloric content, carbohydrates, and wholesome ingredients. Some items are Certified Organic, and we use as many unrefined products as we can find.
Guests and residents are most surprised that they can eat larger portions and that the flavors are so exciting and not at all bland. Fresh ingredients, including herbs and spices, help to elevate this experience.
Offering a new 65,000-sq.-ft. spa has increased the number of destination spa guests visiting Sea Island. The spa features a lifestyle kitchen where we teach our guests some of our techniques that we’re using, so they can then go home and cook the same food we prepare here.
Q Todd, few of us have the leverage you have when you approach a grower or local purveyor. Can you talk about your relationships with them and how they tailor products to meet your needs?
A A relationship with local purveyors starts with a simple introduction and understanding of needs. Inevitably, this relationship will then grow into a network.
In our case, we started with a local family farmer…who introduced us to other sustainable growers…who introduced us to a source for organic, unfiltered honey…who introduced us to another person who is cultivating clams on nearby Sapelo Island…who introduced us to other local fisherman and shrimpers.
This network of purveyors now allows us to get the freshest product, including fruit, vegetables and protein, we can find.
We build our menus around these items, with the idea of regional, seasonal, and sustainable products. Although it takes time to develop the relationships, in the long run they are so much better than ordering produce out of a box. Slow Food (www.slowfood.org) is a great place to start to try to find vendors who can help fill these needs.
Q Chef, many resorts struggle with their approach toward renovations. Sea Island recently completed a $500 million renovation project. Can you explain how you seem to be a step ahead of other properties as far as service and amenities?
A Our 10-year master plan was the vision of Bill Jones III, Sea Island Company’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. This was the first step in the right direction, to keep building the company for the future. The 10-year plan was then consolidated into six years, which required us to move further and faster. As an 80-year-old, family-owned property, we are unique because we maintain a commitment to some of our oldest traditions. This is unusual in today’s resort industry. Bill’s unwavering vision permeates all areas of the resort, from design, to amenities, and finally, to the people that make the high levels of service a reality. For my operation, I have also been very involved in the kitchen design and purchasing the equipment. It is not always this way—the chef who begins the project isn’t always the one who finishes it. But I have been lucky to be here throughout the process, which is now going on eight years.