Interview with Chef Philippe P. Reynaud
Senior Director of Culinary Operation
Ocean Reef Club, Key Largo, Florida
Located on the northern tip of the Florida Keys, just under an hour from the busy metropolis of Miami, the legendary Ocean Reef Club began in 1948 as a remote yet exclusive fishing camp. Over time, the club added amenities to suit the desired lifestyle of its members. Today the member-owned club includes a 144-room inn, private residences, two 18-hole golf courses, multiple tennis courts, gyms, a marina, a private airport, medical center, cultural center, library, art league, private school and, yes, some of the world’s best fishing and golf.
While food was a part of the Club’s history, it was not until 2000 and the arrival of Chef Philippe Reynaud that the focus shifted from food and its related services toward a much broader array of dining options.
A passion for food and assisting in his parent’s restaurant at age twelve influenced Ocean Reef Club’s Executive Director of Culinary Operations, Philippe Reynaud, to pursue a career as a professional Chef. Interested in all aspects of the culinary arts, Reynaud has seen his cuisine develop throughout the years, through extensive training in various French regions, California and Florida.
Chef Philippe is French-born and classically trained, following a formal three-year apprenticeship at France’s Casinos in Cannes, Deauville and Antibes. He graduated and became certified from the esteemed Culinary Academy of Nice in 1979 at the top of his class.
Chef Philippe then worked in several provinces of France under reputable chefs to learn their cooking styles, techniques and knowledge of regional cooking. In 1981, he began his professional life in the U.S. and served seven years as Executive Chef at the award-winning Westwood Marquis Hotel in Los Angeles.
He later opened and ran the kitchens of the renowned Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California, and the luxurious Stein Ericksen Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah.
In 1991, Chef Philippe returned to Los Angeles and dedicated eight years to running the culinary operations of the exclusive Jonathan Club.
Since joining the Ocean Reef Club, Chef Philippe has been a member of Ocean Reef Club’s Senior Management Team. He is responsible for the culinary operations of 12 restaurants, conference banquets, member’s catering and special culinary events within the Club. Chef Philippe oversees every menu development, hosts many visiting celebrity chefs, oversees and mentors extern students from various top U.S. culinary schools, and manages over 120 culinary associates and chefs in season. Chef Philippe likes to create many original menus for special events and celebrations and thrives on being challenged. He prides himself with participation in local events and fundraisers for the community.
Chef Philippe is a member of the American Culinary Federation, The Euro-Toques, La Chaine des Rotisseurs and the James Beard Foundation. He, his wife Lisa, and their children reside in Key Largo, Florida.
THE FOLLOWING IS MY CONVERSATION WITH CHEF PHILIPPE
What was your educational background that led you to become a Chef?
PR: While growing-up in Cannes, France, my parents ran a seasonal restaurant on the beach from May to September for 17 years. I was fascinated by the kitchen’s organized chaos during lunch time. I knew that if I helped, I could perhaps get a little reward anything I wanted from the kitchen, and so I did it for many more summers! When the time came to choose a career path, my first choice was cooking because I liked cooking then – I still like it now. I always felt attracted to cooking and loved to be in the kitchen because it felt like I could do very well at it. With my parent’s blessing, I took on a three-year apprenticeship at the Casino of Cannes and Deauville, Normandy in the summer. My education was hands-on and continues to be to this day. In culinary, you never stop learning and everyday there is something new to learn. At times your comfort zone is challenged or put in question, so there are times you need time to adjust and continue to develop yourself.
Did you start out wanting to be a chef, or did you start in a different job which led you to your current field of expertise?
PR: At the age of 15 I started my career as a culinary apprentice, I really liked it then and I still do now. Since then, I never looked back. I have never filed for unemployment and always worked in kitchens, I guess it was meant to be.
Did you have a mentor who guided you, as an apprentice, to work in their kitchen, or did you pick up your skills while in school and perfected them later while on the job?
PR: Since I apprenticed in casinos composed of large culinary brigades, I was able to work along with many great chefs getting trained in many different areas of the kitchen spectrum. When I started my three-year apprenticeship, I went to school once per week to learn the academics and worked five days per week.
What type of continuing education are you required to take to maintain your professional licensure, if any?
PR: None is requested to maintain your chef status unless you are a certified Chef by the ACF. However, once you become the kitchen top chef, you should NEVER stop learning or think the you have “arrived”; young chefs have to learn how to manage a team, develop and mentor new cooks. They need to be proficient in financials and communicate well. Chefs should, as well, go out and dine in other restaurants, experience dinning, see the new trends, attend fundraising events and meet other chefs. When you are a chef, education never stops!
Here is my favorite question I like to ask other chefs: If you were to be invited to create a State Dinner, say for The White House (symbolic for the purposes of this interview only, as a remarkable place which serves as host to remarkable and influential people from around the world), what would your menu be?
PR: First and foremost I would need to find out who is coming and who the Guest of Honor will be, what they like, what is the budget for this dinner and, how many courses they would like to eat, and how much time they have for the dinner. Then, there are many other things that would come into play – for instance: (a) can this dinner be made out of all locally grown or outsourced foods? (b) Can this dinner have a theme like an all-truffle dinner, etc? I guess I would do a five-course meal, pairing it with different wines from the same region, using only fresh locally grown foods. It is really difficult to give you a specific meal until you narrow it down to a certain style or flavor for your patrons.
What types of character traits and skills do you feel make for an outstanding chef?
PR: Outstanding chefs, besides being great cooks in all aspects, must always be organized and have a plan. This plan (opening a restaurant, the launching of a new menu, training a new cook on a recipe, or even meeting a bride and groom for their wedding dinner) should always be well communicated. Chefs must have good communication and planning skills. To me, success comes with passion, research and persistence. Outstanding chefs have eyes for the “big picture” – they not only should have great business aptitude but also become great mentors and teachers in fostering new generations of chefs. Successful chefs never rest, they do a lot of research, and they are always thirsty for more knowledge and remain curious about the industry.
Your position working at the Ocean Reef Club, a members-owned Private Club, is pretty much a solid career path for you, especially when the Club has had such an extensive and prominent history serving its membership who hail from all over the world and has become a multi-generational home for so many. How does this job compare with your prior work experiences in terms of production, oversight of employees, and management of the various F&B operations?
PR: My last position was Executive Chef at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles where I spent 8 wonderful years with the current ORC President, Mr. Paul Astbury. We catered an average of 200+ special events per year and it all came from the same kitchen in one building. Here at Ocean Reef Club all the restaurants are independent from one another and located in different buildings, so we have many more chefs and menus to manage in this kind of setup. It takes a good deal of organization and planning to get it all done.
What was your most complicated special event project?
PR: The one at the Jonathan Club in creating a celebration to mark the Millennium. Here at Ocean Reef the New Year’s Eve event remains the highlight of our preparations.
When you and your team from Ocean Reef Club participated in the James Beard Foundation’s Hidden Chefs Series dinner last spring, how did you arrive at your menu selection for “Taste of the Tropics? How was your team selected for this recognition event?
PR: We picked the Caribbean because we are in the tropics and one of our ORC chef team members, Chef Nelson Milan (a native from Puerto Rico) is very talented with Caribbean cuisine. We, of course, picked the team based on each chef’s talent and deciding who would benefit from such exposure and deserved to go. Then, once the team was identified, we sat down to review the menu, created some samples we were all happy with, and planned the trip. Manda Hudak, our Food and Beverage Director and CIA culinary graduate, came along for that dinner as well as Mr. Paul Astbury, ORC President.
Have you ever had a request from a guest/client that you simply could not fulfill (exactly as requested)? How did you handle it?
PR: Special requests happen – for example, some can be a special diet, duplicating an heirloom recipe or another restaurant dish, some are on getting specific ingredients like White Truffles from Alba, Italy, or getting fresh Nantucket Bay Scallops (which is difficult to get). When we were not able to honor a specific request, we have tried to come very close to preparing the real thing. The customer has always walked away happy with the results knowing that we tried our best to honor their request.
What is your most unusual – exotic ingredient that you had to use / obtain?
PR: Swiftlet Birds nest; I had to make birds nest soup.
Did you bring any of your former favorite recipes to Ocean Reef which have received great response from the dining patrons and membership? What are they?
PR: Yes, recipes and techniques do follow me. The Club members like Southern French food at times, so I do my favorite Bouillabaisse recipe for them. I have many simple recipes like Fresh Tomato Gazpacho, and Soufflé Potatoes, which always impresses everyone. I like to work with game meats, lamb, and at times have created some pretty nice Truffle Lamb Saddles. Many of my recipes have evolved at Ocean Reef Club to suit the members’ palates. There is no single item that I can say has remained original to the moment it was created, except for very precise recipes used in baking, most all recipes evolve with every chef.
I am assuming you have the benefit of an expanded team to work with you in your current position at Ocean Reef. What do you look for in your culinary team members in accomplishing your duties overall.
PR: In a Chef, I look for those chefs that have passion for their craft and, of course, some experience managing multiple cooks in busy and successful businesses. Once you have picked the Chefs for your team, leading them to succeed can only be done by being transparent about your goals and expectations. You need a good amount of trust and teamwork from one another. Every ORC chef is different – they all have their weaknesses and strengths, and managing them has to be progressive and consistent with your goals.
When you prepare for the “high season”, what sort of activities do you schedule to get your kitchen and staff ready? I would imagine you have an action plan set for your vendor deliveries. What is the most complicated planning activity you have to deal with during this time?
PR: We first identify reopening dates or new meal periods for the various restaurants at the club. We then send our seasonal culinary staff their job offers with the time of arrival to match their training/reopening dates. We review last season’s Member & Guest feedback and formulate an improvement plan. Then we review all training standards and adjust them to match the improvement plan. This improvement plan includes full menu review for each restaurant, steps of service, equipment review and uniforms. Food outsourcing and cuttings take place late summer when we finalize all menus, write up the menu descriptions, produce new daily specials for our restaurants, train cooks and servers and perform the new menu launch. Many more activities take place during the off season as well. We visit our local farmers and decide on what they will be planting or producing for us. We visit other restaurants as well to see what is out there to keep our fingers on the pulse.
Do you have a favorite event for which you like to prepare: weddings, special events, outdoor catering events for corporate get-togethers, competitions?
PR: I like all unusual and challenging events – we get to create new things or refine old recipes. Events which incorporate action (cooking) stations are very popular at the Club.
As you, I am sure, recognize that your particular field of expertise is influential in providing a visually attractive dining experience, what can be the most challenging of your activities? How do you provide training for staff who need to attend to a higher level of service, respecting the expectations club members have for a private club?
PR: One of the most challenging “activities” in my position is to fully trust someone else to do the cooking. I am heavily involved in menu development; however, being Ocean Reef Club’s Director of Culinary, I focus on the big picture and try not to get bogged down in cooking everything myself. The challenge is how will the idea or recipe be passed on to other chefs, how well will it be reproduced? Very clear directions must be given to those responsible for the final product. The better you are at communicating your requests, the better you are at succeeding. I often get called to taste the food dishes we have talked about; we adjust them and finalize the product.
Has your kitchen been affected by budgetary constraints in the current economy and how have you made changes to accommodate?
PR: Yes, we have been affected by the recession. A reduction in group conference business made us scale down some of our kitchen operations, but we also stepped up F&B amenities. Our operating costs are being very well managed; we are very efficient in delivering a top product, while keeping expenses down. Watching operating utilities and maintaining a good recycling program helps as well. I must say that Chef Damian Gilchrist, Ocean Reef Club Executive Chef, has done a superb job assuming the responsibilities of our conferences banquets, our members’ catering functions and special events in the absence of a Banquet Chef and Pastry Chefs.
Do you keep a written journal with photographs for each step of your special recipes and one-of-a-kind creation for future reference?
PR: Yes, we do. I take many pictures of our special events, menus dishes and other special occasion foods we produce. We take many pictures of the many wedding cakes we create and use them to inspire the brides-to-be. Our recipes are kept electronically and in a recipe software. Every ORC restaurant here at Ocean Reef Club keeps an updated cookbook of their own menus.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
PR: My Chef Saucier when I was an apprentice at the Casino of Cannes, France. He was an incredibly detail-oriented man, very steady in his daily work and recipe production. He may have been strong-minded in his conversations with us all; however, his craftsmanship skills were some of the best I have seen. I was glad to have experienced my apprenticeship with him as I learned a lot from him.
What do you enjoy most about your position as Senior Director of Culinary Operation?
PR: The variety of things I am involved with; our culinary spectrum here is very large. I love to organize, plan things and look at the end result. I love to see our Seasonal Culinary students grow and become confident in their craft. I love to put teams together, observe how they work together and coach them along.
What was your greatest career success and biggest setback?
PR: I have many career successes which I am very proud of as well as some setbacks. One of the most memorable, is actually a combination of a momentary (technical) setback and a success in the end. This took place when I was preparing to cater a five-course gourmet dinner for 300 guests with dining on the rooftop of the old Macy’s building in Los Angeles. This dinner was prepared for the Jonathan Club members following a private viewing of the Van Gogh paintings collection which had been flown in from the Netherlands museum. We had only electric-residential stoves to work with which were set up on the roof level. The electrical power went off while the Veal Racks were roasting and… dinner was “slightly delayed” – we were expecting complete controlled kitchen chaos when we finally had the electricity restored 20 minutes later. At the end, our event became a complete success.
How important is it to create and maintain relationships within the culinary profession? If it is, how do you do it?
PR: If I “click” with a fellow Chef or anyone in the industry, I try to stay in touch and maintain a good relationship with them. It is very important to stay in touch with those you respect and lookup to. You should at least send a Christmas or birthday card every year or look them up in Facebook to stay in touch. There are ways you can stay in touch, make the effort to call and call again if you don’t get through the first time. Take the time to visit them if they can’t visit you. Many opportunities I had in my career were because of a fellow chef friend, a past boss, or someone whom I had a mutual respect for.
In your opinion, is it crucial to always network with chefs from around the world?
PR: Networking with other chefs is part of developing yourself; you get inspired or get ideas that may influence your product. I have a friend who lives in Ireland and I always like to call him to ask about some Irish recipes for St Patrick’s Day. He calls me for Bastille Day. Networking is also a good way to stay in touch.
How much and what kind of work is done outside of the kitchen?
PR: I do plenty of work outside “the gate”. Every year I go on recruiting trips to interview culinary students. We hire an average of 10 students every year and they do their externship with us for our 7-month winter season. I travel as well to food trade shows to see what is new in the industry, taste new foods, and check out new equipment. Before the planting season, I visit the local farmers and develop a plan to get fresh produce, cheese, fish, etc. At times I take a group of chefs with me from ORC and we visit hotels and restaurants to see what they are doing. In many ways we are inspired by these trips, so this is very helpful to us. Work outside of the kitchen is important, you need to get out and see what is out there, and it gives an opportunity for others to see you as well. ORC Executive Chef Damian Gilchrist and Clubhouse Chef de Cuisine Dominic Gorton did a Research and Development trip to Bangkok for 4 weeks. They went there to study and learn Thai / Asian foods. This season we are infusing our menus with new Asian dishes.
What are some trends that you see in the field that might help prospective students?
PR: Local farming, and farmers’ markets are trends that have taken chefs and students out of their kitchen to field trips. Many young students get to understand how vegetables are grown, how cheeses are made. They learn how weather can influence food quality and prices. These days restaurant customers want to know where their fish, meat, and produce come from. You need to know this kind of information to pass along to your fellow chefs as well as the guests who have an interest in learning where their foods come from. Also, student education is key to their success; we used to say that practice makes a perfect chef, but a chef is not perfect until he/she has perfect ingredients knowledge.
What factors did you consider when choosing a school of culinary arts or culinary department?
PR: The single factor which influenced my decision to be an apprentice at the Casino of Cannes, France, was the large variety of cooking and quality chefs working in that kitchen. Imagine the art of cookery as a tree trunk – every branch of that tree is a profession related to cooking. At the start of your culinary career, your knowledge should be rooted in basic cookery skills: with practice comes confidence, creativity and slowly the branches of the tree start to grow. Now imagine developing your skills “branch” as a food stylist for magazines, or becoming a chef teacher, or working as a nutritionist, or cooking at the White House. Whatever you decide you are going to be, students must have a good knowledge and understanding about how food is handled, prepared, displayed and where it comes from.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the culinary arts?
PR: Going to culinary school can be expensive. Before signing up for culinary school, spend a day or two in a busy kitchen if you can and see if this is really what you want to do. Go to a culinary school and speak to a few students to get some feedback. Ask to speak to a chef. At times I get calls from prospective students asking me how hard it is to be in this profession. I always say, very hard if you want to be successful at it.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious culinary schools in the world that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?
PR: Many successful chefs have graduated from the CIA. Other star chefs have no culinary school background but have been mentored by a great chef. It all depends about the passion you have for the craft and how great you want to become. To me the best school is practice, cooking your heart out, being thirsty for knowledge, being curious, asking questions, knowing where the great chefs work, seeking them out and trying to work under them.
Has your purchasing of oysters and other seafood been affected by the recent Gulf oil spill? If so, where have you been selecting your seafood and shellfish?
PR: Yes, our oysters purchasing has been affected this summer. We have relied on East and West Coast oysters for a while, however, oysters are only a fraction of the total seafood we purchase. We get a lot of locally caught seafood down here in the beautiful Florida Keys. We are surrounded by pristine waters and have many options from which to choose.
Do you have seasonal favorites you try to create based on prior demand? What are they?
PR: Yes, our members love the local field & Heirloom Tomatoes grown in the Redlands, about 18 miles away. Near Thanksgiving our local farmers start harvesting their first tomatoes, beans, bell peppers, etc. The local Stone Crab season just started this past October 15th and will end May 15th. The Club is several miles from the deep Gulf Stream where swordfish, tuna and other delicious fishes travel. We are lucky to be on the only North American Coral Reef Barrier and we get many varieties of snapper, spiny lobster, and grouper. We cook a lot of yellowtail snapper, tuna and mahi mahi – all locally caught and very fresh. Our members love fish simply prepared and seared with a light sauce or salsa. I am very lucky to be working as a chef at Ocean Reef Club where we embrace traditions, care for our food and celebrate the seasons like no other place.
I wish to thank Chef Philippe Reynaud for his time on this interview, especially as the busy winter season is about to commence. His insightful responses have given us an educated point of view into the world of culinary management and cooking skills, in particular how he was positively influenced at such a young age to love working in the kitchen. He followed his training and persevered to gain his current command within his profession. When you learn of the involvement by so many culinary team members taking place behind the scenes of a successful kitchen, then you can identify this orchestration as excellence in management. Chef Reynaud has channeled the student-teacher effort where everyone benefits with on-the-job training. As he elicits so eloquently: “Success comes with passion, research and persistence. Outstanding chefs have eyes for the “big picture” – they not only should have great business aptitude but also become great mentors and teachers in fostering new generations of chefs.”