Executive Chef Blair Cannon, CEC, oversees an extensive program at the Winston-Salem, N.C. club that has met all of this year’s challenges—including a kitchen renovation and shoulder surgery for Cannon, in addition to what the pandemic brought—with a measured and unified approach.
The year 1913 saw the official merging of two towns, Winston and Salem, in Forsyth County, N.C. It was also the year that a group of Winston-Salem sporting enthusiasts gathered to create a club and establish a facility outside the interior of the new city for the pursuit of golf and various recreational, social and dining activities. Forsyth Country Club (FCC) was officially founded on June 30, 1913.
The club features an 18-hole golf course that reflects the work of two legendary designers. Shortly after it opened, A.W. Tillinghast upgraded the original 9-hole course with sand greens to create a “real” 9-hole course, on the property that now contains FCC’s current back 9. In 1920, Donald Ross was hired to give the club a true championship, 18-hole course.
The golf course was renovated in 2018 and in 2019, FCC installed a new event lawn featuring electrical power, drainage, and land grading, to make hosting outdoor events more feasible.
In addition to Forsyth’s active golf program, other popular programs among its 962 member families (who account for a total of nearly 2,800 people) include tennis and paddleball, along with cycling and massage in the club’s state-of-the-art Wellness & Fitness Center.
Heading the club’s extensive culinary program—which encompasses The Pavilion restaurant and pool complex, The Forsyth Grill restaurant, The Forsyth Fieldhouse Café, eight banquet rooms, and a large ballroom with an outside terrace that overlooks the golf course from the main level of the clubhouse—is Blair Cannon, CEC, who became Executive Chef in 2019 after joining FCC as Executive Sous Chef in 2016. We appreciate Chef Blair taking the time to provide us with insights into his career and Forsyth Country Club’s impressive program, even while he and his staff were dealing with the immediate challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
C+RB Unfortunately, Chef, any conversation these days has to start with how the coronavirus outbreak has affected us. How has COVID-19 changed your operation the most so far, and what do you expect to be its most lasting effects?
Cannon Like all chefs during this pandemic, we have had to completely reinvent and evolve our operations based on the weekly changes and regulations issued by local and state governments. Being nimble and understanding of the need for spontaneous change, but also remaining calm, has been our staff’s main objective before anything else. I could not do my job successfully without the input, hard work and support of Chef De Cuisine Devin Brunelli, Executive Pastry Chef Jessica Shelton, Purchasing Manager Will Erickson and everyone else on our team.
Into the summer and hopefully into Phase 3 of our recovery effort, we are planning more outdoor special events and functions for smaller group gatherings. Really focusing on the themed member events and weddings is going to be key for revenue generation, because of how most companies have pulled back on expenditures.
Switching the normal on buffets to expanded seasonal plated options is going to continue to drive our banquet operations. Some of the “pros” for these kinds of plated events are reducing food waste, less potential error, and overall better plate-cost margins. Some of the “cons” are limitations with overlapping scheduled events, production and storage-space limitations, and labor cost increases for the hands needed to plate and serve the dinners.
We have already seen an increase in wedding inquiries this fall and into winter, because of how the outbreak has caused reschedulings and affected the availability of venues in the area. Our event planning team usually averages 10 weddings a year, but we are already forecasting 15 to 20 for the year, with more inquiries coming in weekly.
We are customizing the menus for these events on a case-by-case basis, while steering their choices with strategic suggestive selling and cross-utilization of products when applicable. We have found this to be more work on our side at the beginning, but better in the long run for the cost of goods and revenue generation.
Some of the member events include our annual “Taste of Forsyth” Culinary Action Station Competition, which showcases each culinary team member’s skills and includes judging by our members. We’re also continuing to schedule private chef’s tables and cooking classes in our banquet kitchen, while limiting the number of guests in the kitchen to ten members.
Our Fourth of July Fireworks Festival, which has always been one of the largest events we host at the club, with 300 guests for the Pool Bash and 700 for the evening festivities. did not look the same, This year, we planned to do the classic Fourth of July food offerings on a staff-served buffet inside, while also having “All-American” themed action stations at the pool complex, free popsicles for the kids, and a Neapolitan Picnic Pizza Bar on the back lawn, using our new mobile pizza oven.
Our Employee Mission Statement is to provide a warm, welcoming, and personalized experience to our member families and their guests. Making Forsyth CC their home away from home is the ultimate goal, while also making them feel safe and confident in our sanitary systems. This pandemic has prompted each department to focus even more on this topic. We have conducted thorough training programs, refined our Standard Operating Procedures, and have required all culinary team members to be Servsafe Certified by June 31st. Consistent and updated training will be constant in the future ahead, not only for our establishment, but for their families also.
In April we ran a food cost of 48%, May we ran a 41%, and June was looking better. However, the potential of this virus coming back and affecting the projections in revenue towards the later part of the year are very unsettling. Due to the lack of balance in revenue and market fluctuations with cost of goods coming from banquets, our sales mix and menu compositions are already experiencing inflation. Our desired food-cost percentage for an entrée was 35% average, but now we are having to adjust biweekly at around 32%. The true question is how this projection will look going into budget preparations for the 2021 calendar.
Everyone on our team, and especially Chefs Brunelli and Shelton, have been working hard to keep a consistent raving fan experience throughout the club. In the Forsyth Grill, Chef Devin has transitioned to a biweekly printed disposable menu. The menu has been cut back by 40% of the total offerings, while still offering weekly specials and weekend themed features such as Burgers & Brews, FCC Cantina Night, and Asian Take Out Night, for example.
C+RB During Phase Two of your recovery plan, you mentioned that your kitchen was being constructed, restaurants were opening again, sanitation training classes were being conducted, staff was returning from furlough, and during all that you had to have surgery on your shoulder. What was the key to setting up your staff for success through all of that?
Cannon These times are hard for everyone, but that was a sudden change for all of us. The original plan was for me to have surgery at the end of June, but I got a call in May to have the surgery in ten days. This was a huge surprise and challenge that my team handled tremendously.
We all met quickly to put our thinking caps together. The main focus was overcommunicating, setting the team up with SOPs, putting together the sanitation training manual, and putting everything in place before I left for quarantine before the surgery. We then assigned tasks and responsibilities for each FCC Culinary Team member to focus on daily, with checks and balances to fill in any gaps. It was essential that the three culinary managers discuss everything together as a team, and all would have to assist each other, even if it was out of their comfort zone.
My main goal from this was to challenge and empower these managers. This was their show now, and I did not want to shadow or hover over them while I was away. Learning from my past experiences with the Executive Chef going on vacation or maybe being sick, I knew that the next manager down would have to make important decisions they may have never encountered before. As the saying goes, it is truly “flight or fight,”—but no matter the outcome, they would learn from those experiences.
Whether they were good or bad decisions, they would come out of it with even more experience and look back at that time as period of accomplishment. Sometimes everyone on the team doesn’t see the other side of what we do behind the scenes as Executive Chefs. I still look back at experiences that were really hard times, but they made me better as a chef in the long run.
I cannot thank my chefs enough for all of their hard work and dedication to our FCC culinary team. Being confident in the team really allowed me to focus on healing and then getting back in the kitchen beside them again. That is why I wanted to feature and showcase their recipes on this article. They have been the true heroes during these hard times, and have really brought pride to our team and myself.
C+RB As you mentioned, you also had a capital project in motion for your banquet kitchen. What was the goal of the project, and how do you see it helping your facility going forward?
Cannon We originally planned a $2 million capital renovation that would run from July into September this year. The original plan was to renovate all banquet rooms on the main level, build a wine room with member wine-storage areas, repair/replace the roof and HVAC system above the ballroom, repair the pavers/roof on the outside ballroom terrace that was leaking on the restaurant ceiling below, renovate and expand the employee locker rooms, expand storage areas on the main level, and renovate the main-level banquet kitchen.
Due to the COVID pandemic, we really had to push the brakes on this project. Our Board of Directors and Chief Operating Officer Lee Smith thoughtfully brought the idea to me in late April to start most of the kitchen renovation, repaint the ballroom, and repair the terrace floor. This could be executed while most of the staff was temporarily furloughed. We would have the space to work in one kitchen, with no events booked in that space, and more time to complete this project efficiently within a short window of four weeks, with weekend workdays factored into the schedule.
Further advantages to completing this now is the ability to have all of the culinary/banquet staff back to work while this is being completed, being open during the July through September months for revenue generation, and then shortening the second potential phase of renovations in January of 2021. The total cost for the phase-one renovation is projected at around $225,000.
The thoughts behind this amendment was strategically done to address the main issues we were having structurally to solve the leaking of the main level floors. This new kitchen would also allow us to capitalize now on “In the Kitchen” Chef’s Tables, expanded cooking classes, a safe work environment, and a refreshing new kitchen for team members to be excited about.
The ballroom renovation will also create a bright and modern appeal while still keeping the traditional feel. We were losing potential clients and events due to the dated look of the wallpaper, multiple chips in the paint, leaking spots on the ceiling, and much more. Since the ballroom completion in mid-June, we have already seen a big impact in the reaction of potential banquet clients and member satisfaction overall.
C+RB You’ve become very involved with the Piedmont Culinary Guild while at FCC. How has your club benefitted from this connection?
Cannon The Piedmont Culinary Guild (PCG) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It’s a grassroots effort to create a working dialogue with the food industry, by providing a platform that is easily accessible for all to utilize and benefit. Connecting the food chain in our Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, the PCG strengthens the local chef and culinary community by sharing resources, educating consumers and establishing regional recognition.
The Guild is a gathering place and hub for innovative chefs, farmers, food artisans, culinary educators, and other professionals in the local food community. All of us are committed to sharing our strengths and building our local food economy. The Guild is founded on the idea that sharing resources and promoting educational opportunities can help develop and secure our local food system.
We have hundreds of farmers currently producing in our area. We have dozens of talented chefs working on main street, the back street and institutions that are supporting these farms and pushing the envelope every day to do more in the name of real food. Food that comes from farmers we know and who are treating the land sustainably and providing the best possible quality ingredients in our area. We have a plethora of talented artisans crafting breads, pastries, spices, charcuterie, beer, spirits and cheeses that we must support to help our community as a whole.
When arriving at FCC, the number-one mission or goal was to revamp our offerings and make FCC the dining destination for our members and their families and friends. Growing up with wonderful grandmothers who would take me to the seafood and farmers markets in Virginia Beach, I learned to appreciate where food came from, but also how hard these businesses work to provide the community with locally sourced ingredients.
I started researching who were the local farmers in the area, how could I obtain these fresh ingredients, and then started networking at the three local farmers markets. It was Emma Hendel and Elliot Seldner of Fair Share Farm, and Isaac Oliver of Harmony Ridge Farms who pointed me to the Piedmont Culinary Guild.
The Guild hosts many fundraising and awareness events around the Carolinas area. Specifically, these donations drive our mission forward, provide needed scholarships to chefs and farmers, supply grants for farmers to improve their facilities, and provide the resources to partner with organizations like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. There is so much this organization does for the community as a whole.
The organization also has two other membership categories besides the Professional Membership:
“The PCG Tastemakers” category is designed for those who wish to more actively support local chefs, farmers and culinary purveyors. It’s open to anyone who is passionate about sustainably grown food, enjoys profound taste experiences, and wants to support a vibrant, local food economy. Those in PCG Tastemakers receive exclusive access to monthly events to experience the unique flavors of the Piedmont, and more.
The PCG Business Membership category is a way to tell the community that your entire business—be it a restaurant, farm, farmers market, artisan food business, craft beverage company, culinary/agricultural school, or related enterprises—supports local food and incorporates environmentally responsible practices. Business members receive extended benefits and have access to the Piedmont Culinary Guild network.
At FCC, we now have over 23 Carolina and Virginia farmers, ranchers, distillers, brewers, and seafood purveyors featured on our menus. Our members love seeing events advertised to support the farmers, seeing their personal favorites, and knowing that the FCC Culinary Team is doing what we can to help support our fellow neighbors in a cohesive manner.
C+RB You’ve also developed quite an in-house program as part of providing members with hyper-local products, too, haven’t you?
Cannon Our Horticulturalist Cassie Plemmons and Golf Course Superintendent Matt Jones really took the reins on this project, and expressed how many members were already in the Beekeepers Association of the Carolinas. We then put our minds together and just like a hive, worked together as one to complete the end goal of producing our own honey.
Once we placed the beehives in the perfect spot, members were already interested in the project, and talking to local friends about it. In 2018, the hives produced a total of 170 pounds of honey, which had a beautiful variation in flavor profiles based on the late spring and early fall seasons.
In 2019, the FCC Culinary Team also started a pickling and preserving program. So many team members used to can with their grandparents or family members, which sparked the interest to help educate the team members on the proper and safe techniques. We preserved the local seasons, using classical and modern techniques. Some examples of ingredients we canned and preserved were fruit jams, pickles, conserves, chow chows, and much more.
The most popular is my Hendersonville Smoked Vanilla Bean Apple Butter, which is used in various applications such as charcuterie boards, dessert applications, and my Oak Barrel Aged Smoked Apple Butter Bourbon, using a secret technique I learned 10 years ago when I started brewing beer. Infusing a cocktail in two weeks, versus months sitting just in the barrel. Now this cocktail has become a staple year-round in our Centennial Bar.
Our garden beds have grown in the past three years since starting the program in 2017. This is Phase 1 of the garden program, where we currently have three raised garden beds, seven cedar-compartment garden boxes near the loading dock for edible flowers and garnishing ingredients, and twelve small galvanized box beds near the Fieldhouse Café, where we grow seasonal heirloom tomatoes, fresh Genovese basil, garnishing greens, and cocktail botanicals. We focus more on the specialty ingredients and highly used herbs in the main garden beds, featuring seven different heirloom tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, lime basil, German thyme, husk cherries, assorted peppers for our house hot sauce, mojito mint, cilantro, dill, Easter egg radishes, black radish, and certain leafy greens.
We are currently finalizing our plans with two Piedmont Culinary Guild farmers as well, to allocate out pieces of their farm to grow specific products for us as well for the larger production ingredients such as lettuces, squash, zucchini, lacinato kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.
Then in Phase Three of the Garden Project, we will be expanding another area on our property to include a 20-ft. by 30-ft. garden, blackberry and raspberry patches, mission fig trees, and persimmon trees around the property. We will then have a map that members can see while on the golf course, to show that on this certain hole is where the chefs grow ingredients for the menus inside.
It’s all part of making them once again feel value and pride with their investment in FCC. There is something special for members knowing that what they eat can be grown on their club’s property or from around the area. I love experiencing their reactions to what seasonal ingredient is coming next.
C+RB You are a young Executive Chef and have really been on a fast track in the club industry—how has your career evolved, and what have been some of the keys to your ability to advance rapidly?
Cannon Ever since I started in the hospitality industry in 2014, I have always had a passion to fuel my drive to becoming an Executive Chef. While working my way through the ranks at some of the top restaurants in the region, I have experienced many challenges and achievements that have pushed me harder and harder every year.
At the age of 17, I worked my way to Lead Saute at Todd Jurich’s Zinc Brasserie, where I had to prove my worth and cooking skills to my fellow veteran chefs to gain respect. Chefs Pete Evans, Todd Jurich, Meredith Adams, Skip Ailstock, and Patrick Reed were all huge influences in my young life at that time. They were what some call the “Old School” style— chefs who pushed me harder than ever, fueled my passion for exploring various cuisines, established technical foundations, and would not let me tell myself or have anyone else tell me that I am not good enough or old enough to achieve my goals.
While my fellow peers in high school were having fun at the beach, I was working two jobs at once, to get the most experience I could to build a foundation of skills.
As I was getting ready to graduate with my Associates, I did not know what sector I wanted to go into. It was my Dean of Culinary Education Chef Mark Allison, Professor Agnew Hopkins, and Dr. Piyavan Sukalakamala who pushed me towards the private club sector. I completed my internship at Augusta National Golf Club under Executive Chef Bruce Sacino, and my Advanced Management Internship at The Bohemian Club under Executive Chef Jean-Marie Rigollet.
It was through that experience and the motivational influence that I set my long-term goal to become an Executive Chef at a prestigious club by the time I was 30. I wanted to follow this goal to the end, so I moved to back to Charlotte to gain more experience.
Charlotte Country Club (CCC) was a huge foundation building block that solidified my vision. Working next to Executive Chef John Cornely, Executive Pastry Chef James Satterwhite, and our COO at the time, Damon DiOrio, was an eye-opening experience that fine-tuned my managerial foundation. Creating “Raving Fans” of our members was the drilled vision that must be achieved in order for the team to be successful.
After my tenure at CCC, I wanted to take the next step, so I met with Chef John Cornely and expressed that in the next year, I was going to start keeping an eye out for the next step in my career, and that I would love his assistance in helping me find the right fit. Two weeks after that discussion, Chef John had an interview lined up for me at Forsyth Country Club as Executive Sous Chef.
When I was hired under Executive Chef Michael Mort, there was an outlined vision that I could not pass up. After 21 years at Forsyth, Chef Mort was going to retire from his prestigious career that had included positions throughout the country, and the plan was being created for me to take over as Executive Chef after three years.
Chef Mort and COO Lee Smith worked very closely with me, empowering me to revamp the FCC Culinary Team and to recreate Forsyth Country Club as a new dining destination in Winston-Salem for our members. The empowerment and direct guidance from the leadership above was a huge part of my success.
I know this is a long answer, but I would not be here today without all the chefs’ influence who are listed above, and the industry influencers who take this same vision. One big piece of advice I give to up-and-coming culinarians is to take advantage of every second you get with each chef you work for. The industry experience, knowledge, and obstacles each chef has experienced is intangible and priceless.
I knew what my long-term goal was at a young age, but it was Chef Patrick Reed and Chef Skip Ailstock at the Virginia Beach Tech Center who instilled this in me before attending Johnson & Wales. Two quotes that I am very passionate about and instill in my team are from two very strong women who have influenced me personally and professionally.
From Chef Meredith Adams (Professional):
“Everything you need is inside your heart. Let the passion and hard work fuel your drive to success. Don’t wait for others to light the fire within—you are the only one with the matches.”
From St. Catherine of Siena (Personal):
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”
It’s also important to remember that as chefs we must take time to focus on ourselves and our families. It is key to set up this foundation for others to shine, and for us to take those needed mental or physical breaks. We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen. We must remind ourselves that we are human as well once we leave our kitchens. C+RB
Blair Cannon, CEC
Current Position: Executive Chef, Forsyth Country Club, Winston-Salem, N.C. (2019-Present)
> Executive Sous Chef, Forsyth CC (2016-2019)
> Sous Chef, Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club (2012-2016)
> Sous Chef, Best Impressions Caterers, Charlotte, N.C. (2010-2012)
Education & Professional Achievements:
> Bachelors Degree, Foodservice Management, Johnson & Wales University, Charlotte, N.C.
> Associates Degree, Culinary Arts, Johnson & Wales University, Charlotte, N.C.
> WSET Level II Wine Certification
> Certified Executive Chef, American Culinary Federation
> CMAA Chef of the Carolinas Competition Winner, 2016 & 2018
> Attended Club & Resort Business Chef to Chef Conference, 2015-2020
> Founder’s & Dean’s Award, 2009 & 2010, Johnson & Wales University
Lavender-Scented Pound Cake
with Macerated Strawberries and Ricotta Ice Cream
INGREDIENTS for the pound cake:
1 lb. butter, diced and not too cold
6 cups sugar (flavor with lavender for 24 hours, then tamis)
2 tbsp. fresh lavender (optional)
12 eggs (room temp.)
4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 lemon (juice and zest)
18 ozs. cake flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
16 ozs. cream
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes. Slowly add eggs two at a time, scraping bowl often. Sift flour, salt and baking powder, then add half of it; then add in the cream and finish with remaining dry. Do not overmix. Divide between four buttered and floured loaf pans, sprinkle the top with sugar, and bake at 310˚ F for approximately 45-60 minutes. When cooled, cut end off of loaves and cut into large dice.
Ingredients for the Ricotta Ice Cream:
2 qts. cream
2 qts. milk
2 lbs. sugar
35 egg yolks
2 kg. Ricotta
1 tbsp. salt
1 lemon finely zested and juiced
Bring cream, milk and half the sugar to a full boil. Temper in yolks and remaining sugar, passing through a fine-mesh sieve. Stir in remaining ingredients and cool in water bath.
Ingredients for the Lavender Syrup:
4 cups sugar
3 cups water
2 vanilla beans (split)
1/4-cup lavender flowers
Reduce sugar, water and vanilla beans to syrup; add flowers and cool.
Ingredients for the Macerated Strawberries:
2 cups, stemmed and cut into small quarters
3 tbsp. sugar
Toss and let macerate for a minimum of 20 minutes.
Submitted by Jessica Shelton, Pastry Chef, Forsyth CC, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Coriander-Seared Chilean Seabass
with Vidalia Onion Soubise, Tabbouleh Cous Cous, Chive Oil, Tangerine-Infused Local Carrot and Micro Radish Salad
INGREDIENTS for the Coriander-Seared Chilean Seabass:
2 ea. filets of seabass, 6-oz. portion, skin off
2 tbsp. coriander, fresh-cracked in spice grinder
2 tbsp. kosher salt and white pepper blend
2 tbsp. blended oil (canola and olive oil, 75/25)
1 Heat a French pan or saute pan over medium-high heat
2. Season the presentation side of the seabass with spices and salt blend
3. Place the presentation side down, and sear until golden; then flip and finish in a 425˚ F. oven until desired temperature is reached.
4. Let rest on a paper towel, then reserve for plating.
INGREDIENTS For the Vidalia Onion Soubise:
1 cup vidalia onion, large diced
1 tsp. FCC wildflower honey
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 cups vegetable bouillon
2 tbsp. blended oil (canola and olive oil, 75/25)
salt and white pepper to taste
1 In a large non-reactive pot, bring all ingredients except oil to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the onions are soft.
2. Puree in a blender and then slowly drizzle in the oil to emulsify.
Ingredients for the Tabbouleh Cous Cous:
1 cup cooked Israeli cous cous
1 cup Harmony Ridge Farms red onions, small-diced
2 tbsp. chopped curly parsley
8 ea. FCC heirloom grape tomatoes, halved
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. Chardonnay white wine
1. Combine all ingredients together in a mixing bowl while tossing
2. Serve chilled
Ingredients for the Tangerine Micro Salad:
3 ea. Harmony Ridge Farms tri-colored heirloom carrots
4 ea. orange supreme segments
1 cup Fair Share Farms radish microgreens
1 tsp. tangerine zest infused with extra-virgin olive oil
pinch Maldon sea-salt flakes
1. Clean, peel, and then shave carrots into ribbons, using a straight-edged peeler
2. Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl
3. Gently toss and garnish
Submitted by Devin Brunelli, Chef de Cuisine, Forsyth CC, Winston-Salem, N.C.