An Arizona chef dives head first into Carolina cuisine
What do you get when you put a west coast boy smack dab in the middle of a Southern kitchen? Seasonal world cuisine with a side of mashed potatoes, as it turns out. In another attempt to explore the chefs within the prestigious country club industry, I got to know Chef Francisco Villalba (lovingly known as Chef Frankie). At The Reserve Club at Woodside in Aiken, SC, he takes on everything from down-home cooking to themed events to one hell of a July 4th party for over 400 guests. Though his passion for the culinary arts has taken him far from his roots, he’s becoming grounded (and quite well-versed) in making meatloaf and mingling with shrimp boat captains. This is his story.
Chef Francisco Villalba | The Reserve Club at Woodside | Aiken, SC
What was your journey to getting where you are today in your culinary career?
Chef Francisco Villalba: When I got out of high school, I had a very different path. I was at a regular college where I had received a full ride for soccer, and I was in the Nursing Program. I started cooking at a bar and after a while—realized that it was my thing (but I didn’t want to be a grill cook).
I wanted to be a professional chef. I studied at the Art Institute of Phoenix and got my Associates Degree in culinary as well as Hotel and Restaurant Management. While I was in school, I was hired at a 4-diamond hotel in Arizona. I was in over my head, but I stuck it out and developed my culinary repertoire. If you want to be good at something and do something you love, you educate yourself along the way and learn quickly.
I was the Executive Sous Chef at the country club I came from in Scottsdale, AZ. The company who manages them is responsible for properties all over the world, and an opportunity for the Executive Chef position opened up here. I applied and was given a shot on a big leap of faith.
What drew you into the country club environment versus working in a regular restaurant?
Chef Francisco Villalba: When I was working in the hotel industry, I was the chef of the conference center and was feeding anywhere from 300 – 2,000 a day. Customers started to just feel like numbers. Now I get to work directly with people and cater to them. I fell in love with the private club aspect through being able to have a more personalized relationship with the members. In this field, I get to listen to our guests, provide them with what they want, tackle any obstacles, and keep people happy.
Do you operate and create menus for both dining areas—the main dining room and Latitudes? And, is there one where you feel more comfortable, or that fits best with your culinary point of view?
Chef Francisco Villalba: I do operate both. In the main dining room, we serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and that’s our comfort food zone (like fried chicken and meatloaf). Since I’m from Arizona and still learning about Southern cuisine, that’s an exploratory area for me. Latitudes is only open Friday and Saturday for dinner and it’s a la carte service as well as higher-end entrees. At Latitudes, I get to play a little bit more and use more elevated ingredients.
My culinary style is seasonal world cuisine. I’m first generation Mexican American so I grew up with that Latin flair. I love to use different ingredients with different culinary techniques, make beautiful dishes, and please palates. From that standpoint, Latitudes is more challenging in a good way because it’s more rewarding. And, I get to have more fun than just putting down meat and potatoes.
What local ingredients and resources from the area do you enjoy using most in your kitchen creations?
Chef Francisco Villalba: I source my meats locally, as well as from Atlanta, and my pork comes from in town. I get my seafood from the coast. My salmon comes from Florida, and I have a good relationship with a shrimp boat captain from Louisiana. Since I came from the desert and am not used to having fresh products so readily available—it’s really nice! As far as produce goes, my menu cycles are based on what’s being harvested in the area.
What other fun culinary events have you created for Woodside members, and which one seems to be the hit?
Chef Francisco Villalba: We had a great 4th of July event where we fed over 450 people. It was a miracle that we pulled that one off! We had fireworks on the lawn, live music, and everyone ate well and had a great time. For Halloween, we did a murder mystery dinner and I just made a super fun menu where we used items like beet juice to mimic blood spatters! For the holidays, instead of doing a Thanksgiving buffet, we do pick-up orders. That way, people who don’t want to cook or dirty up their house (but want to entertain) have easy access to the luxury of having someone else cook for them.
Your recipe is very fall-centric, so I’m assuming you enjoy cooking your way through the seasons! Strictly speaking food, what’s your favorite time of the year (and what ingredients do you love most from that season)?
Chef Francisco Villalba: I would definitely say the summer. Fresh and light seafood is my go-to! I’m a fan of freshness and I cook with a lot of fruit and citrus, so the summer is the perfect time of year to brighten up the palate.
Last year we took a peek into the daily lives of the executive chefs pulling the strings in the kitchens of some of the coast’s most celebrated country clubs. I chatted with Chef Robert L. Daugherty—at the time, a newcomer to the country club world after retiring from the hotel business—who expressed his excitement and anticipation for relocating to the heartland of America. A chef with a strong draw toward the Portuguese-influenced ingredients of his New England roots (not to mention the righteous lobsters and clams), Robert was ready to take on the warm climate, beach weather, and all the edible bounty Millsboro, DE, had to offer. His first full season watching the fields grow was 2017, so I decided to check in and see how he’s grown into his role at The Peninsula Golf & Country Club in Millsboro, DE. From the innovative American regional cuisine he serves daily at the club to his poolside Cabana Bar dishing out oysters and garden fresh mint mojitos to smoking a whole pig in La Caja China (an enormous roasting box that results in crispy skin), there’s nothing this imaginative chef won’t do to keep his guests happy.
How has your culinary skillset grown over the last year?
We’re growing all of our own herbs—exotic varieties like pineapple sage and opal basil—and doing containers around the club house. We’re running out quickly and harvesting them every day on the porch and patio. We also have a huge bin of mint that we’re using in cocktails like mojitos, as well as for desserts. We’re really having fun trying to involve our team in the dining room with members.
Did this past year bring about any new food trends that you’ve incorporated into your style?
I’m still very passionate about New England cuisine and, of course, fish. I’m a fanatic about fish and that’s continued to evolve. I sent my executive sous chef up to Foley Fish School (the oldest fish house in Boston). She did a three-and-a-half-day intensive training on the fishing boats, went to the fish auctions, and got to see what really fresh fish is. I also found a way to bring a truck down here once a week, so on Thursdays we get a truck full of oysters and fish from Georges Bank where the Labrador current meets the gulf. The water current is so rough, the fish actually have the most developed muscle structure. The halibut, cod, and scallops that come from there are amazing.
Over the warmer months, what did your kitchen team do to keep things interesting?
The pool area is new for our chefs. We didn’t pay much attention to it last year, but this year we built an outdoor lower cooking area. This “Cabana Bar” is part of our raw bar and poolside burger bar which we do on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. We’re bringing in Wellfleet oysters and local ones from Moonstone Bay and Rhode Island. We share them with members (along with specialties like my New England clam chowder). We also do Angus burgers right off the grill and when people smell that charcoal, they start to crave it. We do portobellos and chicken on the grill, but the burgers are the hit. We served over 220 burgers around July 4th.
Speaking of July 4th, what other special events did your team put on for the members this past year?
For July 4th, the club was filled with extended family and friends and we had everything from bouncy houses to live music to the poolside burger bar. Everybody enjoyed themselves! Another special event is the sunset celebration we do every Thursday. We do a special raw bar by the Cabana Bar and folks get to enjoy the sunset on the horizon with a complimentary champagne toast. It’s our salute to the sunset and we also have a yachting cannon we fire off. This sunset celebration has grown to about 80 to 90 people.
People also still love our Wednesday night Iron Chef Battles where two of our chefs go head-to-head with one ingredient and everyone in the dining rooms gets to taste the dishes. Recently, one chef made salmon cakes over quinoa salad with a roasted red pepper coulis, and the other did a 28-hour brined and marinated roasted chicken with a cider vinegar reduction. It’s our way of developing the younger culinary talent, and it’s proven to be a busy night.
Are you still preparing wine and beer dinners, and how do you put your own spin on them?
We have a fantastic wine room (pictured in the photo) and we just finished an event for homeowners there. The room seats 34 people and it’s where we do our Chef’s Table events among other special celebrations. We recently hosted one themed as “foods from Greece” and the menu was filled with items like grilled octopus, a “Mezze Table” with stuffed grape leaves, falafel, spanakopita, etc. We have a lot of fun beer dinners, and we’re gearing up to do one with Heady Seas Brewing soon. They’re bringing their beer master in and instead of just one meal, we’re having an entire festival with tastings. It will be an outdoor event and we’ll definitely roast a whole pig there too and get a pirate to fire the cannon!
We also feature great themed wine dinners. We have 190 members who are part of a wine club and there is an event every month for them. Last month, our executive chef helped put together the “Rosé by the Pool” menu that was three courses all paired with rosé. This month is BBQ and wine by the pool.
I know you’re focused on healthier cooking techniques for members who are more conscious of their nutrition. I’m sure that’s easier to do in the summer. How do you incorporate that into the winter months when folks want hearty comfort food but still want to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle?
I have to get very creative. We have a strong following of a low carb club who dines with us every two months. It’s about 30 to 35 people and they challenge our staff to come up with a carb-free menu. The last challenge was an Italian dinner, and we prepared items like Carpaccio, roasted vegetables, aiolis, and different appetizers. We actually made risotto out of cauliflower rice and did a brunoise (fine dice) of root vegetables—similar to how you would prepare risotto with whine wine, cheese, and onions. It was a hit. We also made zucchini noodles and squash and carrot bundles that resembled pasta. There was veal braised with prosciutto, sage, and mozzarella in a pan sauce. They thought they were in Italy! Our next one is a luau and we’ll be preparing Kalua pig and a number of different things from Hawaii. I have a great chef from Spain who worked for seven years on The Big Island. For this event, we just bought a La Caja China box and plan to go whole hog. What aromatics do you suggest folks to use at home to incorporate flavors, sauces, etc.?
I’m a big fan of toasted seeds like cardamom and coriander and I love to crush them to make rubs and marinades. I also enjoy using fruitier oils (like grapeseed) that bring out the flavors in proteins. For lighter proteins like fish, I go light and mild with ingredients like dill, lemon zest, or other types of citrus rubs. For meats or heavier items, I like robust herbs and flavors like rosemary, thyme, and garlic.
When we spoke a year ago, you mentioned this was your first country club experience and was all new to you. What have been your biggest learning curves that have helped you to grow in this position?
It’s all about continuing to learn what our members want and what style of cuisine they’re enjoying. I want to feel like I’m taking them on my path of my experience with cooking. I want to introduce them to things from my past and my history of food. Learning our membership and getting them to trust us and have confidence in us and our events is important to me. It’s certainly blossomed because many of our events now sell out regularly!
The personal preferences of members is also very important to us. There are quite a number of people who are gluten-free and conscious of what they’re eating so for us—yes is always the answer. If they want something off of the menu, we never say no. That’s our attitude. Our biggest learning curve right now is managing reservations and the dining room. We need to make sure we’re maximizing our numbers, but also making sure that the flow into the kitchen is executed properly. It’s all about restaurant 101 and making sure the dining room floor is managed effectively. If you’re doing 220 to 230 covers on a weekend night, you gotta be on point!
How do you get feedback from your members on what’s working for them and what they’d like to see improve?
We have a notes section called 4 Ts (which is the Open Table of the club house world) and customers can comment on what they like or want. We’re doing an in-house baking program now because we’ve had so many requests for celebration cakes. Folks also put down their dietary needs and table requests, so all of this helps us customize members’ experiences in the dining room.
You were in a New England setting for three decades and used to lobsters, clams, and a Portuguese influence on the food. Last year was your first full season watching the fields grow. What regional ingredients have you really grown to love?
Crab season is coming around so I’m definitely enjoying working with the local crabs. I also have a guy working with us whose dad has a farm, and this year we’re buying his tomatoes and corn. We’ve developed this menu item called “3-hour Corn” where the idea is that the corn is picked and on your table in just three hours. Its will be in the form of a fresh corn salad, street corn, etc. The tomatoes are also coming in and they’re just simple, beautiful, vine-ripened tomatoes that are sweet and deep red in color. Nothing compares to them!
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When creating memorable experiences for members and guests, a world-class dining program is essential. The opening of the new clubhouse at Quail Ridge Country Club in Boynton Beach, FL, provided the perfect opportunity to reimagine that dining experience, from training staff to providing impeccable service, to managing every aspect of successful food and beverage operations. Leading efforts on the culinary side of service, Executive Chef Reza Adhitiya shines with his fresh take on club cuisine.
Freshness and quality are evident in every dish Chef Reza and his team prepares.
“All menu composition and development are driven by seasonally-sourced foods, emphasizing quality over price, and simply-prepared,” he says. “We’d like our members to savor and taste the quality of the foods without masking them too much with unnecessary ingredients … less is more.”
To capture that freshness and quality in each dish, many of Chef Reza’s dishes celebrate local seafood and other regional ingredients. The menus often feature mahi and swordfish from just off the coast of Boynton Beach and the Jupiter Inlet, grouper from Islamorada, soft shell crab from Jacksonville, and yellowtail snapper from Key Largo – just to name a few.
“Florida is known for its seafood – from the Panhandle to the Keys. We’d like to take advantage of that here at the club. It makes sense for us to support local fisherman and farmers by hiring our own fisherman and farmers tied to our produce supplier and seafood vendor. This ensures simply the freshest seafood available. We insist on sourcing our products from the local Florida market as much as possible,” Chef Reza said.
It’s more than just the ingredients that are fresh. Keeping the menus new and exciting through frequent revision is also imperative. Chef Reza works collaboratively with General Manager/COO Bill Langley, and Director of Operations, Carl Horace, to feature a wide array of cuisine throughout the year that highlights the best of the season. With an ever-changing menu, he also says that setting up recipes which everyone on his team must follow and adhere to, helps to guarantee that the kitchen consistently delivers the utmost quality at every meal.
One of the keys to keeping things fresh, is doing away with the old style of stock-piling inventory in the kitchen, opting instead for the “just in time” method of short-term storage.
“My father used to work at an assembly plant for a car manufacturer,” says Chef Reza. “There, demand drives production. Taking notes from that idea, we only purchase food for what we need, driven by the forecast for two days ahead of time. That way our product is always fresh, there’s less waste and spoilage, and most importantly, we can turn the products on a daily basis which saves money in the long run, and assures the highest quality of our cuisine.”
Chef Reza would like to thank the club members for all of their patience, and feedback this season, which has helped him and his team to continuously improve. He says he is constantly researching new recipes and developing innovative ideas for food, plating, and presentation.
“We have a great team in the back-of-the-house that worked tirelessly this season to get our clubhouse open and kitchen operations rolling, and we look forward to the exciting future of cuisine at the Quail Ridge club.”
From the Chef’s Kitchen
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup lime juice
1 cup lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
10 oz of fish (snapper, grouper, corvina, shrimp, calamari, etc.), cut into half-inch cubes
1 tbsp tomato, seeded & finely diced
1 tbsp jicama, finely diced
1 tbsp cucumber, finely diced
1 tbsp red onion, finely diced
½ tsp jalapeño, seeded & finely diced
½ tsp cilantro, chopped
1 ½ limes, juiced
Salt and black pepper to taste
Method of Preparation
In a non-metallic bowl, combine the marinade and the fish. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
In another bowl, combine the marinated fish and vegetables together. Add salt and black pepper to taste.
Garnish with fresh cilantro and fresh corn. Make it Peruvian style by adding boiled, cubed sweet potato.
This is a traditional ceviche recipe, with ingredients you can find at your local market. The possibilities for this dish are as wide as your imagination! You can work with vegetables you have in the refrigerator, and be sure to get the freshest fish you can from your local fish monger.
Golf may be king at Quail Ridge, but nature is queen. The Golf Club may boast more than 100 single digit golfers, but the Garden Club boasts more than 100 green thumbs. Novice to pro, we've got a game for you.
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