Susan Nelson, Executive Chef at Anglebrook Golf Club in New York’s Westchester County, spent much of her early adult life chasing the dream of being a singing star. She sought a recording contract and won several high-profile karaoke contests while working in hotels, restaurants and B&Bs as a housekeeper and cook to help pay the bills.
When Susan saw her career at a crossroads and realized she was also hooked on cooking, she enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America. Soon after her graduation, she was offered a sous-chef position at Anglebrook; just one year later, she was promoted to the head position.
A nglebrook, owned by The Kajima Construction Company, is a very exclusive (180-member) non-equity club that opened 10 years ago in the Manhattan suburbs. Its golf course, ranked among the top in the state for the challenges presented by its rugged terrain, proved to be the legendary designer Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s last project.
While Susan is now fully immersed in her culinary career, she hasn’t abandoned her first love. Whenever her duties as a club executive chef start to get especially challenging, singing is a great stress reliever, she says. “There is nothing like singing at the top of your lungs to give you that full-throttle, ‘shout it out’ feeling,” she reports.
Chef Nelson was kind enough to stop cooking—and singing—long enough to share some of the interesting ideas she’s been implementing at Anglebrook since being promoted to Executive Chef:
Q Susan, what changes have you made to F&B at Anglebrook since becoming head chef?
A The most significant have been to the menu itself. It hadn’t changed much in the past ten years, and when it had, it was only to take items off—not add new ones.
Now, I’m trying to change as often as the seasons, to have spring, summer and fall menus. We’ve also come up with an all-new catering menu, as well as a new one for our halfway-house snack bar.
On the beverage side, I’m pushing out old inventory and bringing in a whole new wine list that will also change regularly. And we’re putting special emphasis on supporting New York state—bringing in beers such as Ommegang from Cooperstown, and holding tastings from the Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville.
Q After coming to a situation where members were noticeably tired of what was being offered, how have you tried to make things fresh?
A While I was sous-chef, there were many days when I would see members finish their golf rounds and then leave, or just sit at the bar and only have drinks. When they were asked if they wanted to see a menu, they just shook their heads no. It was frustrating, to say the least; clearly they were bored with what was being offered.
I’ve always felt, though, that if you can keep a fresh face on F&B by focusing on quality, big flavors and variety, plates will fly out the door. And that’s certainly proved to be the case here. The members are now eating everything from our panini and chilled spring pea soup to lamb and soft-shell crab. The changes have extended beyond the menu, too; our waitstaff now also has an elegant new look, and overall we are doing all the things needed to provide five-star quality food and service, while still in a mostly casual setting.
Q What are some of the ways you’re making flavors “sing” more, if you’ll pardon the pun?
A For starters, we’re now making our signature Anglebrook Club Sandwich with serrano ham, cracked black and red pepper-crusted bacon, heirloom tomatoes and Boston bibb lettuce, nestled between toasted, slow-fermented and slow-baked Italian bread. And we serve it with chipotle aioli to really set off the serrano ham. We also now do our soft-shell crab with mole and chorizo. And we’ve “beefed up” our steak offering to feature a 24-ounce, bone-in rib-eye with horseradish and fingerling potato gratine (recipe at clubandresortbusiness.com). We also have a trio of fried cheeses: fresh mozzarella with house-made marinara, goat cheese with herb pesto, and huntsman with a cherry chutney.
Q As at many new clubs, I know you have to operate with a tight labor budget. How do you keep yourself from getting stuck when catering, outings and a la carte business all hit at once?
A Last year as sous-chef, it was myself and a prep cook putting out all of the food for a la carte and special functions. There were some long days, but we got it done. I have a small, but reliable, staff in my kitchen. We are open from late March until around December 10th, so we work hard for those short months, and then, finally get to breathe in the winter.
The big difference for me is that I’m now the Executive Chef, F&B Director, and partial Clubhouse Manager. As sous-chef, my duties didn’t go beyond the food and some staff. Now I’m pulled in many directions. But we have a good team and my GM, Matt Sullivan, has been very helpful in my transition.
The other thing we’re trying to do to ease the pressure is on the pricing side. When I got here I encountered pricing from ten years ago. So we’ve changed to what is still fair, but now more accurate and up-to-date pricing on all beverages and food items.
Q Speaking of sous-chefs, they never get the full credit they deserve. How important has yours been to you since your promotion?
A My Sous-Chef, Joseph Mortelliti, is my eyes and ears, and also sometimes my “hit man.” We met at a catering company I worked for prior to joining Angle-brook. He is confident—and man, can he cook! He is very important to me and I know he can handle everything I give him. But, as is the case for many chefs who move up to the top position, it was still a difficult transition for me to let go and hand management of the kitchen over to him, so I could focus on the people and the paperwork. There are still days I have to stop myself from trying to take over and do it all myself.
Q Susan, kitchen management has been a man’s world. What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman working your way up to executive chef?
A The biggest challenge as a woman chef was actually the first time that I cooked professionally. It was probably three weeks before anyone talked to me. I later found out that it was because I was the first woman to ever work the line in that restaurant; the only women who had ever been there had all been in the front of the house. The men in the kitchen who wouldn’t say anything to me later told me it was simply because they didn’t know how to act.
But thankfully, that’s all changed a lot since then; I’ve never encountered that again, and have since been in many kitchens where there are both men and women. In fact, at Anglebrook, I am the second woman to be Executive Chef (Editor’s Note: Chef Nelson’s predecessor,
Sheilah O’Leary, was featured in C&RB’s “Women Make Their Mark” article in the May 2006 issue). I really feel that women are accepted equally now and that what determines success for everyone, male or female, is whether they do their absolute best.