As a new blogger for C&RB’s Chef to Chef, Matt Hinkle, Executive Chef of Exmoor Country Club, hopes to inspire other club chefs just as he’s been inspired.
As the Executive Chef of Exmoor Country Club (Highland Park, Ill.), I’m always interested in learning about what club chef peers are doing so I’m a frequent follower of C&RB’s Chef to Chef. I’ve learned a lot from this brand and I find myself eager to give back.
So, when C&RB’s Chef to Chef’s Editor, Joanna DeChellis, invited me to blog, I jumped at the opportunity. After a bit of contemplation as tp what my first post should be about, I thought some little context would go a long way since most of you are probably thinking, “Who is this guy, and why should I read his blogs?”
First real job? Dishwasher making minimum wage, age 15, at Sizzler Steakhouse. I quickly moved onto cooking, felt the adrenaline pull after busy nights and was pretty much hooked. I had not considered this a career until I was half way through college.
I had been cooking as a means to earn money through high school and college because, let’s face it, the $10 per month my parents gave me as an allowance didn’t get me very far and there were things I wanted to do and see.
I had been studying computer science, (waaaaaay before the magic of the internet ), and came to the correct (albeit misinformed) conclusion that I was going to be bored out of my mind if i continued working in computer science. At that time there was no passion, on any level, to be found in computer science.
It was during a conversation with my mother (because mothers know these types of thing about their children) that she suggested I become a chef. It was an epiphany moment and afterward that everything clicked and fell into place.
I set off to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. to study everything about the foundations of French cuisine. During my time at the CIA, I completed an externship at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans working for Jamie Shannon and the Brennan family.
After graduation I made the fateful decision to return to NOLA and ended up meeting my now wife at Commander’s. Soon after, I landed my first sous chef job (too quickly, but that’s a story for another time).
All these decision led to the lifetime opportunity to work in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Sheraton was hosting a New Orleans food promotion, which my Chef at that time was too busy to attend so instead sent me. The promotion was so successful the Sheraton decided to make it a full time concept and offered the job of Executive chef (again, in hindsight, too soon) and I happily accepted. One of the grand lures of cooking was the idea that I could travel almost anywhere in the world and find a job—and it doesn’t get much better than Asia.
Hong Kong was simply amazing during the two years my wife and I worked, lived, and traveled there, but we wanted to find a home and eventually start a family, so we headed back to the states. I worked for Lettuce Entertain You and other restaurants over the coming years until my daughter was born and then it was time to start doing more than making financial ends meet.
The Standard Club in Chicago was my first private club and, by nature, completely different than anything I had experienced in hospitality. My friends were dismayed and after enduring good natured chop-busting with variations on, “You’re going to be a club chef? That where good chefs go to DIE!”
I sunk my teeth in because I was a father and full benefits plus more money = good.
After a solid run at The Standard Club and with the help of my General Manager, John Guy, I landed a job at Bryn Mawr Country Club, my first private country club, and again, completely different than anything I had ever done in my career. To be honest, the first year was overwhelming. I was pulled in multiple directions from GM coaching and member feedback/criticism and of course all of it was conflicting. Thankfully I became involved with the Chicago Club Chefs Association. I also began attending the Chef to Chef Conferences and it made all the difference. It was proverbial “life raft.”
It’s also extremely gratifying to know your peers tackle the same issues you face.
As I said earlier, I enjoy reading these blogs, especially those from Nelson Millán, (who I had the pleasure of meeting at the 2018 Chef to Chef Conference in Seattle), as well as Penelope Wong, a prolific blogger. Penelope recently transitioned out of clubs, (more power to her) for all the right reasons, but before doing so, she wrote a blog about being a club chef and the “golden handcuffs” we are intimately familiar with.
I would extend those handcuffs beyond private clubs, though. And include the entire culinary industry.
Our profession is based on sacrifice. Time, friends, and family comprise most of that and the gravity of the sacrifice increases exponentially once you have children. I would be lying if I said I had not contemplated leaving at certain points in my career. It’s a common and natural thought for all of us. Being honest with myself, I know it would merely provide short term respite in the guise of happiness.
At the end of the day I am a chef and that is my passion.