One of the most interesting aspects of analyzing what it takes to be a professional chef lies in the uniqueness of each operation. Each chef has his or her own set of challenges and opportunities that would lead one to quickly understand that not every chef “fits” in every operation. Certain chefs are geared towards fine dining, others find a comfortable home in banquet houses or high volume family style restaurants. Clubs, resorts and convention hotels may provide some of the most interesting challenges for chef managers due to the complexity of facilitating such a broad variety of outlets and unique food requirements.
On any given day, a resort, club or convention hotel chef might find it necessary to address dozens of banquet meals, coffee hours, cocktail receptions, tastings for anxious wedding planners, and the ongoing operation of multiple venues from a breakfast restaurant to family style dining; from a fine dining outlet to special wine dinners and the never ending onslaught of room service orders. It is a jigsaw puzzle that demands that a chef spend the vast majority of his or her seventy hour work week in meetings, constantly changing staff schedules, designing custom menus, interacting with clients looking for guidance in arranging menus for their groups, insuring that enough of the right product is in house, staying on top of equipment maintenance, and staying in tune with a looming budget that requires constant monitoring of all associated costs. Time spent cooking is often times rare and always treasured. The chefs job to is to set the stage for the kitchen staff to execute food production at a consistently high level of quality.
Phillip Flath is the Executive Chef at Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club in Brewster, Massachusetts. He has agreed to an interview that sheds some light on his responsibilities, his career track, offer some words of advice for young culinarians and open the door to understanding what drives him on a daily basis.
What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen?
“I would have to say that my first job in a small restaurant in Saranac Lake, NY provided me with the opportunity to pursue a career that I had no idea existed. I was a dishwasher as a 16 year-old kid trying to make a few bucks for gas for my car. One night, the owner asked me to go work in the kitchen as one of the cooks called out. I was completely lost, he gave me the confidence to just listen to the other cooks and follow orders. Basically, I was a puppet for the evening, a set of hands being moved by another cook. I never washed another dish in that restaurant. I continued to learn basic aspects of cooking giving me an avenue to pursue an education at Paul Smith’s College (my hometown) and eventually a career as a Chef.”
Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“ I would say that Paul Sorgule has been the biggest mentor and supporter in my career as a chef. His knowledge, passion, experience, and sense of humor are all traits that I have tried to emulate through my growth and experience as a chef. Getting to know him personally and building a friendship is something that I treasure each day I come to work.”
“I would also like to mention the team of chef educators who taught at Paul Smith’s College who were also very influential. They made learning the technical side of this business fun and exciting – Chefs John McBride, Dave Gotzmer, Curtiss Hemm, and Bob Brown to mention a few…”
What style of cooking best portrays your passion?
“Growing up in the Northeast and working in Boston for 10 years and now on Cape Cod for the last 6 years, I feel that autumn is the best for cooking. The slow cooking methods of braising and roasting, the wonderful root vegetables that can transform flavors depending on how you cook them and the hearty harvest of truly “new” potatoes makes for a wonderful meal, not to mention the wide variety of apples that can be utilized for any style of dessert.
Since I have had the opportunity to travel for recruiting my culinary intern team each year, I have found a strong passion for the street tacos and authentic food of Mexico; both Mexico City and Puebla, the “Culinary Capital” of Mexico.”
Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“With multiple outlets, menus vary. There are different food styles and customer bases which dictate how each menu is created. However, we utilize the freshest ingredients, make almost everything from scratch and stay current with culinary trends in each restaurant.”
Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“I would have to say that the two weeks spent in France in the Summer of 1991 sent me well on my way to understanding what it would take to become successful, a challenge that I was ready for. A few notes regarding that period of time stick out in my mind:
*A 10 course luncheon with Marc Meneau at the Three-Star restaurant: L’Esperance – a Life Changing Meal, not to mention how clean and organized the kitchen was
*Cooking with Paul and Sharon Sorgule and my Mom for the dignitaries of Entrains, France
*The dinner at a chateau – I ate escargot for the first time and I believe we closed the place – the kitchen looked like every other kitchen – used, but not abused
*Eating fresh baguettes and charcuterie in the car traveling through Burgundy visiting various wineries from Daniel Chotard in Sancerre to Pascal Jolivet in Poulliy.
*As a young American kid, having Coca-Cola served to me at breakfast with fresh croissants and Danish pastries
*This trip and all of the associated experiences gave me insight to many of the different aspects, challenges, and rewards of a career in restaurants.”
What is your pet peeve about working in restaurants?
“I’m not sure I have a pet peeve about working in restaurants; I have pet peeves about individuals that may work in restaurants. People that don’t have the respect for the business, passion for our guests or each other, desire to be the best all of the time, want to work hard, or be part of a team are things that bother me.”
Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant where you currently work?
“In this environment, my most valuable players are my sous chefs. With five different restaurants and banquet operations that are spread over 429 acres, I have to trust and rely on my sous chefs to carry my message to the team while delivering a consistent food product. This team of eight is essential to making sure each restaurant service and banquet function is executed with excellence by providing the necessary knowledge and tools to their immediate staff.
Two other positions that are critical in any hotel/resort environment: breakfast cook(s) – life is so much better if there is a solid breakfast cook that is reliable, fast, and efficient.
Stewards – They make all of us look better. An efficient team that works hard to clean up after us and take care of moving equipment all around allows me to focus on all aspects of cooking and presentation.”
If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks looking to make their mark in kitchens, what would you tell them?
“I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with young cooks each season as I employ 20-25 culinary interns from across the globe; Mexico, Philippines, Ireland, Chicago ILL, Providence RI, and Burlington VT, to name a few. There are two messages that I tell each “student:
1. Speak Up and make yourself known – your work ethic and habits, efficiency will only get you so far; you need to get the chef’s attention and show him/her what you have created and how it was prepared and be persistent in asking them to taste it. You also want to get face time with the chef to talk food, life, or just chat.
2. Have Fun – this is a grueling business with a lot of hours spent in the kitchen away from family and friends; make the best of it. If you can’t laugh through many of the challenges faced each day, the stress will overwhelm you.”
When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for.
“I look for individuals who are passionate, have a strong desire to work for me, act intelligent, are reasonable, have a sense of humor, and a knack for creativity. I believe that one doesn’t have to possess the strongest technical skills as long as they have these other traits.”
If you were not cooking, what would you choose to do for a career?
“If I had not chosen to be a chef, I would have pursued my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. I am fascinated with flying, airplanes, and the freedom goes with it.”
What would you like people to know about your current restaurant and the food that you produce?
“Ocean Edge Resort and Golf Club, Brewster, MA is host to multiple restaurants that are open to the public, not just our Club Members or Resort Guests. Our website contains sample menus and current hours of operation for each restaurant. This is a great spot for destination weddings. I offer a take on New England cuisine throughout the resort, whether in our restaurants or as part of banquets and other special events. “
I had the privilege of working with Chef Flath while he pursed a culinary education at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During his time in the program Phil was selected as a member of our student culinary team competing in Boston. After graduation, Chef Flath continued his education at Elmira College where he earned a baccalaureate in business and a master’s degree in adult education. I have admired him since he was a teenager and have followed his career with great pride. Throughout his time in the food industry he has been able to earn the respect of his employees, peers, supervisors and guests. Without exception he has been able to balance the strength of leadership with the temperament of a perfect gentleman.
For those who are interested in learning more about The Ocean Edge Resort and Golf Club, visit their website at: