Q&A with Executive Chef of The Lodge at Pebble Beach
The 9th Annual Tiger Woods Invitational, presented by USLI, is an exclusive and unique event in a setting unmatched in golf, along the Monterey Peninsula in California. One of the most popular aspects of the event is the dining experience, thanks to our events staff, along with Executive Chef Ben Brown and his team at The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Chef Brown shared his experience with us on how he ended up on the Monterey Peninsula as well as his insight on cooking for incredible events and creating food experiences that leave a lasting impact on guests.
Question: When did you discover your love for cooking and how did you become the Executive Chef at The Lodge at Pebble Beach?
As any career story would have it, it started when I was young. As both of my parents worked long hours, I spent time with either grandparent. One from Italy, one from El Salvador, enjoying the little flavor differences and “secrets” that made up a particular dish, I was subliminally intrigued. Once I was in high school, I was told to get a job during the summers (this is before cool video games and iPhones). I worked at a number of local restaurants, starting as a dishwasher and being promoted to prep cook towards the end of the summer. In my junior term in high school, I was presented with an opportunity to work a double shift, with one of the shifts being on the beloved hotline for a local Italian restaurant. From that moment on, I knew that this is where I wanted to be. Long hours, fast-paced, multitasking and, of course, the lifestyle…As a teenager, looking up to the more experienced line cooks, I felt that I can, if I work longer and harder, one day be better than them. At the beginning of my senior year, I was working full time in the evenings and going to school in the day with the 200 percent certainty that I was going to go to “chef school.” I ended up in Monterey as my college roommate had moved down here, told me that this place “Monterey” was awesome, and my great grandmother had a home here as well. I came to Monterey in 1992 and first worked for another hotel. I left for 5-6 months to Vail, Colo. to open a restaurant, while my roommate was still hounding me to come back to Monterey. He informed me that there was a job opening in the bakery at the hotel where he was working at called The Lodge at Pebble Beach. I called the bakery directly, only to discover that the Executive Pastry Chef was my Advanced Pastry instructor from my culinary school. She remembered me from my “Final” showpiece, a dark chocolate 1/16 chocolate baby grand piano with white keys and a rolled fondant rose…Needless to say, I was on the next flight to Monterey from Colorado. From there I continued to work up the “corporate ladder.” After two years in the bakery, I moved to the former Club XIX as Sous Chef, then over to The Beach & Tennis Club as Executive Chef. In 2008, I was promoted to Executive Chef at The Lodge.
Question: When it comes to curating a menu, what is the process like? Where do you start with the concept, the planning, etc.?
It is all about the mood, and almost an impulsive decision in the beginning. Seasonality and locality are first and foremost, but the inspiration often comes from a “what if,” where flavors are combined or totally unique from what is trending. As this is a form of art, I like to build my menus like a good author would a book. A beginning, supporting story and then circling back to tie in the ending with a bit of the beginning. There is not one menu item that is on any menu that comes from an exact point; it is tried and tried again until the flavors balance not only with the dish but the menu altogether. It all must be balanced with flavors, textures, and colors. It is fun to brainstorm with my guests to see what their goals are with their events, be it a lunch, dinner or reception with close friends. Finding what their likes and dislikes are upfront sets up a good foundation to build a great menu. From there, it is all about previous flavor combinations and how to tie it all together to make not only the meal balance but the experience, as well.
QUESTION: How do you go about pairing your delicious meals with the amazing wines of the region?
Luckily, I work with several local vendors that embrace the idea of “keeping it local.” This helps to keep the food and wine paired for this region of Monterey and the surrounding areas. It has gotten a little easier over the years with the expansion of the local wine vineyards, but to keep it simple, it is often easier to try the wine first and pick out the obscure elements in the wine that can be tied into a certain meal. Of course, this is not always the way it works out, but there are little things that can be added to the meal to enhance both the meal and wine experience, making the end result a very unique pairing. Other times it is sheer luck!
Question: What is your favorite thing to cook? What is your favorite food to eat
Boy…this is a really hard question. Often heard in the house is, “what do you feel like having for dinner?” I love to experiment with new ideas and play with food pairings when I am home without the pressure of waiters asking for their meals or waiting for that one pan you need to complete a table to be handed to you from the dishwasher. Oftentimes you will find me by the smoker or BBQ – slow, low and lots of flavor. I consider myself a “meat and potatoes” kind of person, but it’s the preparation and presentation that is fun. I love to cook foods with lots of flavors and tie in health benefits to it all. I’ve been told my sauces and accompaniments such as dressings are always a hit, as well. Obviously, in the winter, it changes to slow cooking or long braising of items. Beef, fish, and vegetables are some of my favorite items to cook. My favorite food? That is a whole answer in itself. Depends on the mood, but the short answer is if I am faced with this decision I organically go to a beef product, seasoned only with salt and pepper. Some would say my favorite food is salt, but in reality, it’s the natural flavor that salt brings out of the food that really ties it all together. However, I really like to try new things or combinations or even learn a little about the history of the food and how it came to be in its culture of the food world.
Question: What is something about being a Chef that people may not know?
There are a few things that some people will never understand. Food TV has shed an unnatural light on this industry. It’s not all glam and lights; it’s a lot of hours, heat and standing on your feet. In some cases, it’s actually running in place. Any holiday is one of our busiest times of the year, so most chefs will want to be there for these events. Birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving – we’re typically in the kitchen using the holiday as a revenue opportunity.
Question: What do you love most about Pebble Beach?
The people! I’ve met some really great people that have become lifelong friends, guests, former employees or current. I personally love being in the position I am into where I consider all of my employees – all 118 of them – my extended family. I really try to get to know them and their families and bridge a gap. I also love the clout that Pebble Beach has with vendors and other hotels around the world. When I have “date night” I really try to go incognito! Finally, Pebble Beach Food & Wine is really an event that I love. YES, it is some of the longest days next to our Pebble Beach Concours event, but these are my people – fellow chefs and colleagues that I have known for years, and they are all here to reunite with us!