From Top Gun to Top Chef

By | March 13th, 2018

Fiddlesticks Country Club, Fort Myers, Fla.

After four years in the Air Force that included flying combat missions during two tours in Afghanistan, Ryan Daniels has brought a new sense of teamwork and an attention to detail to the kitchens of Fiddlesticks CC.

Along Florida’s Southwest Coast lies Fiddlesticks Country Club in Fort Myers. Fiddlesticks is a residential community featuring a sprawling clubhouse with tons of amenities, 36 holes of championship golf, and a 7,000-sq. ft. fitness center, all on 600 gorgeous acres just a stone’s throw from beautiful beaches.

The club got its name when the original investment group was perusing a map of Scotland to try to propose something that would appeal to the primary lender. In frustration over not finding anything that would seem to work, the story goes, the wife of one of the founders uttered, “Oh, fiddlesticks,” and the group immediately decided to see if that term would fly. It did, and the club has since embraced both the Scottish theme (its logo features a bagpiper, and its two golf courses are called the Long Mean and the Wee Friendly) and its catchy name (a current marketing slogan proclaims: “Unusual Name. Exceptional Place.”).

Ryan Daniels

Current Position: Executive Chef, Fiddlesticks Country Club, Fort Myers, Fla. (2017-Present)

Previous Experience:
• Executive Chef, The Greenbrier Sporting Club, White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. (2016-2017)
• Executive Chef, Hammock Beach Resort, Palm Coast, Fla. (2015-2016)
• Executive Chef, TPC Jasna Polana, Princeton N.J. (2008-2014)

Education: Associates Degree, Hospitality Management, University of Phoenix (2016)

• Employee of the Year, TPC Jasna Polana, 2008
• Certified Hospitality Supervisor
• Air Medal, U.S. Air Force, Completion of 10 or More Combat Missions
• Air Achievement Medal, U.S. Air Force

Where there are happy members utilizing such a spirited club and calling it home, there is also a great food-and-beverage program, which is now led by Executive Chef Ryan Daniels. After heading back to Florida last year from The Greenbrier Sporting Club in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Chef Daniels has begun to transform the club’s menus and entire food program to provide the cutting-edge, innovative cuisine that a property like Fiddlesticks deserves.

Chef Daniels leads his team by utilizing many of the mentoring and organizational skills he learned in the Air Force before starting his culinary career. He was kind enough to take the time to explain how one man can’t do it alone, and how when chefs and cooks are well-trained, great things happen.

C&RB: Chef, can you tell us how your two tours of duty in Afghanistan and four years total in the Air Force made you a better manager, teacher and trainer?

Daniels: I was very fortunate in my four years of service to have had the opportunity to learn not only great leadership skills, but extreme attention to detail. After both deployments, I have a greater sense of appreciation for the little things in life, and that allows me to look at things in a completely different way.

C&RB: Along the same lines, how did your years in the service help you as far as teambuilding, collaboration, and creating synergy in the kitchen?

Daniels: I believe I try to carry the same philosophy from the service into the kitchen: We succeed or fail together. It is certainly a collaboration among the team. The more success we achieve, the more apparent it becomes. And with more success comes more buy-in from the team, allowing ourselves to open up and become more vulnerable and try new things. Once the success begins to occur, it becomes consistent and evolves into a culture.

C&RB: We talked about how each of your dining outlets has its own identity. Can you explain your strategy on how you give the Fiddlesticks membership a different look wherever they dine?

Daniels: In private clubs, we strive to be everything to everyone. When I arrived here there was no identity to any of the outlets. We decided to try to give the membership three very different dining experiences while maintaining the integrity of the food.

We now have our main dining room, where we feature upscale, seasonal cuisine utilizing different techniques and unique flavor profiles. We have our pub, which is a great place to
dine casually after a round of golf or to enjoy an impromptu dinner. We offer upscale pub fare, such as our house-cured, lamb-bacon BLT, or salmon Provencal.

Before starting his culinary career, Daniels spent four years in the Air Force and served two tours in Afghanistan, earning an Air Medal for completing 10 or more combat missions and an Air Achievement Medal for overall service.

Finally, there’s The Cabana, which lies just across the street from the main clubhouse and has its own full-service kitchen. It offers fresh and quick offerings that pair perfectly with the resort-style setting, whether members are watching a game at the bar or lounging by the pool.

C&RB: How do you go about ensuring the quality and consistency in each outlet?

Daniels: I firmly believe in conveying an expectation, and then empowering my chefs to uphold it. I have a group of fantastic chefs and we have created the culture to consistently provide the best possible food and strive to create a memorable experience for each and every diner, regardless of which outlet they are visiting.

C&RB: For other chefs who are just arriving at a property, as you did last year, can you tell us where you focused first, in an effort to improve the overall quality?

Daniels: For the first year, I mostly focused on improving the overall morale of the staff, creating a scratch kitchen, and improving the overall food offerings and presentations. I believe that being present and consistent is the best way to achieve these results. So, I made sure I was in the kitchen consistently, to contribute, observe, and hold everyone to the highest standards.

The club’s unusual name was coined while its founders were perusing a map of Scotland for inspiration, and a Scottish theme has been embraced on the property from the beginning; in addition to the logo and special rituals, the two golf courses are named the Long Mean and the Wee Friendly.

C&RB: Your food is contemporary and extremely upscale, as it has to be when trying to get members to dine at Fiddlesticks and not elsewhere in a region with so many great restaurant options. Where do find your inspiration?

Daniels: This is quite a complicated question. The instant gratification in making a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and having the ability to change a mood or feeling through food, is the most rewarding part of being a chef. I try to gain inspiration day in and day out, and then grow on that.

I am extremely over-analytical—almost fanatical—about everything we prepare here at the club. Some may see this as a fault, but I view it as part of always evolving, tweaking, improving, and learning. Whether it is a simple canape, dinner service, or high-end wine dinner, we strive to perfectly balance each bite in regard to salinity, acidity, texture, and flavor affinities.

In short, I look at each day as an opportunity to possibly change someone’s life—whether it’s an employee who is getting ready for the next step, a member who may have had a hard day, or the guest who is walking through the doors of Fiddlesticks for the very first time. We aim to deliver exceptional food and service, and look forward to creating once-in-a-lifetime meals.

Coffee-Crusted Venison Loin
Alaskan Halibut

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