Santiago “Jimmy” De La Cruz, Executive Chef of The Woodlands (Texas) Palmer Course, has 37 years of experience in clubs, resorts, conference centers, convention centers and standalone restaurants. Still, like all the best chefs, he’s always learning about new ways to take his recipes to the next level.
Earlier this year, De La Cruz attended an event at Ansley Golf Club in Atlanta with a group of chefs from clubs across the country to learn about the latest dining trends as well as Australia’s sustainably raised, grass-fed beef, wagyu and lamb.
It was a great learning and networking experience, says De La Cruz, plus an opportunity to put his skills to the test using the products at hand and a few the chefs picked out themselves.
De La Cruz opted to make a deconstructed tamal: masa polenta, lamb pastrami with pico de gallo, queso fresco, lime jalapeño honey, diced avocado and sour cream (see photo below).
“For the tamal, I used regular masa and added some bacon fat to it,” he says. “I then added a little chicken stock and just cooked it polenta-style.”
For the lamb pastrami, he made a honey chipotle guisado, or stew, with some Southwest and Southern flavors. He then paired it with the jalapeños.
“I sliced the jalapeños, added a little honey and lime, and soaked them for a couple of hours before using them to make the pico de gallo,” he notes. “I added fresh avocados, queso fresco and crema. Then I finished it with a crispy sundried tomato tortilla.”
A Well-Balanced Dish
His dish stood out among the others.
“Everybody was doing plated and small things,” says De La Cruz. “I decided to do something way different.’”
The spice from the guisado paired nicely with the sweetness of the lamb and the creaminess of the polenta, he notes, plus the freshness of the condiments and the crunch of the crispy tortilla added some texture.
“It’s a well-balanced dish,” he says. “The feedback from the [member committee] was great.” And some of the chefs who tried it said they were going to try to replicate it for their members.
Ultimately, De La Cruz is all about doing things a bit differently, demonstrating new and innovative ways chefs can showcase a staple ingredient like lamb or beef.
“Not everything I do is different, but when I do something different, I just want it to be out of the park,” he says.
Choosing Australian lamb that ticks all three sustainability boxes—environment, animals and people—is an easy choice. Not only is Australian lamb climate neutral, but it also contains 13 essential nutrients, including iron, zinc, omega-3 and B vitamins. And it’s free of artificial additives and hormone growth promotants.
Because they graze on pure, natural grasslands throughout their lives, Aussie lambs are lean and low in cholesterol compared to other animal proteins—yet full of flavor. Plus, Aussie lamb has that great, quintessential lamb flavor, says De La Cruz: “You just have to taste it.”
The event at Ansley GC was De La Cruz’s first time using Aussie Beef and Lamb products, but he’s already incorporating these proteins into menus at The Woodlands, starting with an appetizer on the a la carte menu: Australian lamb and veal meatball with apricot glaze, tabbouleh-style Israeli couscous and toasted, salted pistachio.
At a club doing $4.8 million in F&B with 3,500 members and two kitchens, it stands out as a fast favorite.
“First, I’ll make the meatballs, and then I’ll quick-fry them just to get a sear on the outside,” says De La Cruz. “Then I poach them in beef stock until they’re done. Then I cool them and hold for service. When it’s ordered, we bring them back up to temperature and toss them in an apricot glaze.”
The dish is served in a skillet with an herb tabbouleh, Israeli couscous and garnished with toasted pistachios (see photo, below).
“It’s been a popular appetizer,” says De La Cruz. “Our members enjoy it.”