Executive Chef Robert A. Fasce, Jr., CEC, has taken Genesee Valley Club’s long-standing culinary requirement to new levels.
Genesee Valley Club in Rochester, N.Y., is a five-star platinum city club that celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2010. When the club was incorporated, it was established that four essentials should always be in place:
• a reading room supplied with periodicals
• a supply of books and bound magazines
• a restaurant to serve simple food, properly prepared, and available at convenient times
• a supply of wines, liquors and cigars
Taking the third requirement to new levels is now the charge of Executive Chef Robert Fasce, Jr., CEC, who came back to his home state earlier this year after working at some of the best clubs in the U.S., as well as at the renowned Inn at Little Washington under Chef Patrick O’Connell. Chef Fasce was kind enough to share with us some of his vast knowledge of what it takes to consistently deliver culinary excellence in a club setting.
|Robert A. Fasce, Jr., CECCurrent Position: Executive Chef, Genesee Valley Club, Rochester, N.Y. (January 2014-present)
Q: Chef, give us your thoughts regarding the need for young chefs and cooks to learn and perfect the fundamentals of the culinary arts, before dabbling in things like transglutaminase powder to make meat glues.
A: Hah! That’s funny. First of all, by you and I saying “young” chefs, that means we’re being referred to by them as the “old” chefs.
Having said that, there is a level of responsibility at this stage in my career where I feel the need to pass on the importance of proper, fundamental cooking. I really love the enthusiasm that young cooks have in regard to different techniques and more modern creations and approaches with food. In fact, we are always adding new methods to our dishes and presentations, and the members seem to enjoy seeing new things.
I promote an inclusive environment to drive our success. However, I strongly feel that cooks must have an instinctive connection to fundamental practices, flavor profiles and the basics of living and surviving successfully in a kitchen, well before they get into things like sodium alginate, calcium chloride, soy lecithin and maltodextrin. When I want a braised veal shoulder as a component of a new entrée, I expect that to be met with the same enthusiasm as if I ask for someone to do olive oil powder (however they do that) for a burrata.
I also feel there should be a deep connection and reverence for the history of cooking, as well as embracing its evolution. When we “old” chefs cook, we always mentally reference our classical training, and that way of thinking needs to be passionately passed on to the younger cooks.
Q: You speak often about simplicity in flavors and ingredients. Can you explain?
A: My thoughts on simplicity apply to more than just ingredients and flavors. It also applies to a thought process. We, as chefs, must be constantly striving to improve—but we must also be careful not to have that quest for evolution cloud our main objective: to make food and experiences that are well-received by our guests and members.
I think cooks coming up in the business really need to concentrate on the simplicity of things—like eating a perfectly ripe, warm, out-of-the-garden tomato; or being able to balance sweet and sour properly; or being committed to how those two more drops of lemon in the hollandaise will make the acidic level perfect; or paying attention to the proper amount of fat and heat for sauté; or carefully skimming your sauces.
The “simple” list goes on and on. All too often, I see cooks trying to make dishes that have 752 ingredients; their stations are a mess, and there is no shining star in the dish.
Just try simply taking that ripe, warm, garden tomato, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, a drizzle of good olive oil, and eat it. Now, add a smear of a goat cheese mousse to the plate with some crunchy semolina croutons and some micro basil. That is how simplicity works in my kitchen.
Q: Patrick O’Connell at The Inn at Little Washington had a tremendous impact on your career. What did he instill in you that still resonates today?
A: Patrick taught me about the whole experience that a guest has, and how it’s far more than just the dining—it actually extends from the moment someone begins thinking about coming to the Inn to far after their visit. We as chefs have a huge impact on that experience. The energy level he created was contagious, and I immersed myself in the experience and what he was teaching.
The level of detail of every aspect of his operation taught me how much everything matters and how hospitality was the prevailing factor, even over the food. Chefs are so very influential at the property where they work. We need to always be promoting the member and guest experience by paying attention to everything, from the light bulbs and bathroom cleanliness to the table setting, service staff and clean windows, as well as the duck. Our technical skill in producing a perfectly prepared meal will not create lasting memories and success on its own.
If you analyze the Inn’s cuisine, you will see that it has continued to evolve over the three-plus decades it has existed. But it has kept its identity of having a well-executed, simple approach, with little surprises and unexpected twists, and with an extreme focus on product sourcing. This is how I develop my menus.
Q: Team building and mentoring has always been a large part of who you are. What types of things have you done in your short time at Genesee Valley to light a fire and create a buzz?
A: This is a team business, and I want everyone on my team to feel part of something remarkable. This requires not only communicating effectively, but listening as well.
I initially required my entire team to provide three professional development goals and three personal goals, to see what drives them. It is important that they are shooting toward something more than where they are. I also recently had six members of the culinary crew attend two ACF competitions. They were all nervous, but brought home medals.
I initiated a weekly culinary meeting every Thursday, standing at our banquet table, so that everyone feels included in the development process. We also conduct training, demos and inspirational talks at the meeting. We have held our meeting poolside and on the terrace, and passed out watermelon in the summer. We recently did a fun team-building potato salad contest, with the all the entries judged on creativity, flavor and presentation. The staff loved it, and we decided to make it an annual event.
Another positive addition is ordering new, top-notch products for the cooks to experience. We receive whole fish flown in daily, locally raised ducks, local cheese, top-quality Angus beef and wonderful products from Chef’s Garden. I teach them to respect all of these ingredients.
We are constantly talking about the connection to the food and building the team to work together in clearly defining goals and working toward the mission of the club. Genesee Valley Club has also recently revamped its orientation program and requires all employees to attend, so everyone is brought on board in the same way. It has been a great success.
Q: Sometimes, implementing something as simple as a banquet production board or an enhanced prep list system can take accuracy and organization in the kitchen to a new level. What have you done along these lines to become more efficient?
A: I am a system and method-focused chef, as probably most of us are. There is always too much going on to see everything, so I’ve set up a “command center” on my office wall. I monitor all of the opening and closing checklists and the station prep lists. There’s a place for menu development ideas, a product must-use board, a place for reviewing new menus, and a place and procedure for monitoring/approving invoices.
We have started a banquet prep board lettering system that corresponds with a lettered storage spot in our coolers for efficient execution. We also have a communication log book, for kitchen information and needs. That allows me to delegate and monitor more effectively.
Q: You are renovating your casual venue and the kitchen will more than double in size. What are some of your goals for equipment placement and work flow?
A: The Armstrong Grill was originally built as an alternative to the club’s traditional fine-dining experience. It was a very casual restaurant, designed to feed simple fare to our members. It was a hit in particular with the racquet sport enthusiasts and served the pool window in the summer. The menu was burgers, sandwiches, wraps and salads.
Over time, the popularity of casual and upscale casual dining has increased, and the menu has evolved. Still keeping the traditions and casual offerings, the Armstrong Grill now also serves more “foodie-centered” items like sushi, foie gras, wonderful seafood preparations, game, Asian noodle dishes, curries, etc.
The facilities are not adequate for the business growth and menu changes, so we will be adding a lower terrace with a fire pit and a full pub/lounge area, updating the interior dining room with a fireplace, and enlarging the kitchen.
Currently everything is prepped in the main kitchen and transported to the Grill. My goal is to create an efficient, safe space with proper storage. I will be adding a walk-in cooler, prep area, slicer, combination oven, and proper line-holding refrigeration and warmers. This will be in addition to a soft-serve ice-cream machine and a merchandising area at the pool window, along with a better ware-washing area and storage.