By Jerry Schreck, Executive Chef, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.
Executive Chef, Brookside Country Club, Macungie, Pa. (2012)
Sous Chef, Brookside Country Club (2008-2012)
- Adjunct Professor of Culinary Arts, Community Programs Dept. (2008-2011)
- Member, Lehigh Valley ACF
- 1st Place, PA Taste of Elegance, Sponsored by the Pork Producers Council (2008)
Robert Iannaccone is not the first chef to start as a dishwasher in high school, move up to line cook, then sous chef and eventually be promoted to executive chef before he was 30 years old. But what is impressive is how much natural culinary talent he possesses, given his age. This is obviously a credit to his absolute passion for the profession.
In just four years, Chef Iannaccone has ascended to be the top chef at Brookside Country Club, a club just outside Allentown, Pa., that was conceived by two sporting goods store owners in the 1920s. Chef Iannaccone leads a culinary team that produces cutting-edge cuisine for a very food-savvy membership. It was good of him to take time in the midst of a busy holiday season to tell us about his experiences and interests.
Q Chef, tell us what challenges you’ve faced over the last year after you were promoted to Executive Chef, to steer Brookside’s culinary program to where you want it to be.
A The club has gone through a huge restructuring over the last year and a half. A new General Manager, Golf Pro, Tennis Pro, Director of Catering and Chef were hired or promoted. The biggest adjustment, which I’m sure a lot of other clubs go through, was having to do more with less. As I was settling into my role as Executive Chef, I was trying to balance being a full-time line cook, a banquet cook, the sous chef, and administrator.
Once we started getting into the heat of golf season, things started to click. My cooks stepped up in a big way. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have a team that is so dedicated. I’m not an emotional guy, but the kind of support they’ve shown, especially to make extra contributions during our busiest times, makes me a little warm and fuzzy anytime I talk about it.
One thing that’s been important to me, as well as my team, has been to do more in-house, such as salad dressings, making mozzarella cheese and flatbreads, and growing an organic garden out beside the loading dock. We aren’t quite where I want to be, but it’s only been ten months, almost half of which was an incredibly busy golf season. And I know we’re on the right track.
Q Brookside’s membership has taken to your contemporary modern Italian style, and this has offered you the freedom to create interesting menus for Chef’s Tables and a Wine and Beer series. Is this because you have a younger membership, or are there other factors besides that they like what they taste?
A The support we’ve had with our Chef’s Table and Wine and Beer series has been driven by our membership, which I would say is predominantly 55 and under. We strive to make these dinners an event. We start with more lavish decoration of the dining room, place settings, and high-end beverages and ingredients for the dinner. I also come out to personally introduce each course and explain why it is part of the meal and how the dish came to be. This is a much higher level of interaction than just a normal à la carte dinner.
C&RB CLUB RECIPE
For the Pasta:
|1 cup||semolina flour|
|1/2 cup||all-purpose flour|
|generous pinch||kosher salt|
|1/2 cup||gorgonzola cheese (crumbled fine)|
|2 tbsp.||extra-virgin olive oil|
For the Filling:
|2 cups||pulled braised shortrib|
|1 cup||mascarpone cheese|
|2 tbsp.||Italian parsley|
|1/4 cup||truffled glace de veau (in cold, gelatinous state)|
- Cook tortelloni in salted, barely boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, until floating.
- In a sauté pan, melt equal parts truffled glace de veau and butter.
- Add caramelized King Oyster mushrooms and tortelloni; toss to coat.
- Add baby arugula, and toss one more time to incorporate.
- Slide into serving vessel; finish with chiffonade Italian parsley and curls of locatelli cheese.
Submitted by Robert Iannaccone, Executive Chef, Brookside CountRy Club, Macungie, Pa.
By making these events special, I think it helps people decide to come back no matter what the theme, even if it means acquiring a babysitter or juggling other commitments. On a larger scale, these events are beneficial on two counts. First, they have created a palpable energy that was absent from Brookside for a time. Second, they push us to do more in the way of making the event more creative, pushing the limits with the food, etc. If we’re constantly trying to one-up ourselves from the last time, we know the membership is getting our absolute best.
Q As someone who has stayed involved with Culinary Arts students and as a fairly recent graduate yourself, what do you see as culinary schools’ biggest shortfall in preparing students for the field?
A The biggest problem I see when meeting recent grads coming out of culinary school is a lack of understanding about how the business actually works. Some go to culinary schools for the wrong reasons; they want to have a TV show or fame and fortune. I think it’s difficult because they are taught in school that this degree will move them ahead of the pack, which to a point is correct. But at the same time, graduates should not expect to come out of school and be the sous commanding a brigade and making $45,000 a year.
The other point I always drive home whenever I get to talk to culinary students is that to get ahead in this business, you need to be willing to make some big sacrifices. This includes working nights and weekends, sometimes twenty days or more in a row. You will also miss birthday parties and nights out with friends. As someone just shy of 30 who has been going in this business nonstop since high school, I know the hours are not optimal. I’ve missed a lot of family events and trips with friends, but I wake up every morning, sometimes earlier than I want to, and get to open up my kitchen and do something I love with a crew of people I respect and who think about food as much as I do. I get to try new food, cooking techniques and experiment constantly. There’s nothing else I would want to do. If you don’t feel that way, think long and hard about what your future will be in this business.
The other big hurdle I think students face is not being brought up to speed on contemporary techniques. Sous vide, the incorporation of molecular cooking, and modern trends should be part of the curriculum. These techniques aren’t going away. Even if you get a job in a kitchen that does not use these things, you’ll still have the knowledge and will be well-rounded.
Q A passion for cooking was instilled in you as a boy; I assume there were no shortcuts when making filled pastas and other specialties with your dad. How did that help you move up the ladder?
A You certainly assume correctly—but I only seldom got to get my hands on the dough myself! I usually watched in wonder as those little yellow squares somehow became the tortellini I knew and loved in my father’s hands. For as long as I can remember, I knew that one day I would do that, just like he did.
My dad came here from Italy at 16 not knowing a word of English, yet was fluent when he graduated high school a year-and-a-half later at an English-speaking school. He felt that working hard to be successful was just what you did to succeed, and you did it until you achieved your goals. My mom started as a floor nurse in the early ‘70s and is now the administrator of a hundred-bed facility. To say that took drive and hard work is an understatement.
Having inspiration like that taught me to not stop until I achieved what I set out to do. I think having a knowledge of food beyond just what we were taught in school made it easier for me to branch out and experiment with new things and grow as a chef. I believe my drive for success, which translated into always learning new things and being creative, is what stood out to people and made my climb up start a little sooner than it does for some.
With that said, once I became a sous chef for the first time, it made me set a goal to work as hard as I could in that position for four years, and then try to make the jump to take over my own brigade as Executive Chef. I was a bit over the four-year mark, but I wouldn’t change a thing in my journey to get there.
Q You compete regularly in cooking competitions and have won some prestigious awards. What was your dish that took first place in the Pork Producers Council’s “Taste of Elegance”?
A It was a pork loin stuffed with a confit of baby back ribs, truffles, and manchego cheese. It was served with a sweet potato gratin layered with pork belly, and a Perigoux sauce. It was a fun dish to prepare, although labor-intensive. I just missed the mark at Nationals, taking fourth place. I still think about it, and I know my pork was a little overdone. I feel things would have been different if I executed the dish properly. At the time, I was only three years out of school and at a national event, so I was proud to be there and to make it to the finals. It was also on that trip I tricked my loving and understanding wife into trying sweetbreads (now one of her favorites) for the first time, so it wasn’t a total loss…