Executive Chef Jose Sanchez with his mother Juana Sanchez
Jose Sanchez is the Executive Chef at the exclusive Arnold Palmer-designed Tradition Golf Club in La Quinta, California. He is also a scratch golfer. Jose’s story is an interesting one, from his family farm upbringing in Mexico to his move to the United States of America, where he learned to play golf in a very unusual way.
Tell us about your life before you were a Chef.
I grew up on my father’s 750-acre farm in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. We grew and raised everything that we ate. I come from a family of seven kids, and I learned to farm at a very young age while helping my parents. That is where I developed my passion for cooking. I watched everything grow, including chickens, cattle, fruits & vegetables.
One of the things that I treasure about my childhood growing up on the farm, versus a city kid, is that I was very fortunate to be a part of the entire process. We created everything we ate from the beginning to the end. As an example, if we were going to bake bread, we had to build the clay oven with our parents. Making tortillas, which many think of as such a simple dish, is in fact a long process. We had to plant the corn, then grow and care for it organically without using any chemicals. We learned ten different ways to prepare a potato; the same with corn. We had every different variety of corn. When the corn dries, it becomes the base for the tortilla. It is also used to feed the animals. We had to get up at 4 am to help grind the corn, so that by daylight the prep would all be done, and the tortillas were ready for the entire day.
Our days were spent working on the farm, going to school, and then coming home and working on the farm again. In those days, the nearest market was a six hour horseback ride away. We had to be self-sufficient. The process of seeing the food grow from the beginning to the end is to me the ultimate experience, and I feel it is something that everybody should expose themselves to at some point in their lives.
When I teach cooking classes here at Tradition, I take my students to the local farms to show them the harvest. I can’t show them the entire process, but at least they are getting the feeling of where and how the food is produced. The flavor of food that is organically produced is totally different from the mass produced foods that have become commonplace.
When and why did you come to the USA?
I came to the USA for the first time in the early 1980’s. Originally, I came to visit my older brother David as he was living here at that time in the San Francisco Bay area. With my parents’ permission, I decided to stay permanently. I started school here and began working in restaurants in my spare time.
Where was your first restaurant position?
It was a French restaurant where my brother worked (La Tour restaurant in Palo Alto California). He told the owner that I needed a job. Originally they hired me to paint the restaurant. When I finished painting it, they liked my work ethic and they put me to work in the kitchen helping with the restaurant prep. That’s how I got started, and I then enrolled in a junior college nearby (Foothill College in Los Altos California). I studied Business Administration and turf grass management and then I had to sign up for Physical Education classes. I chose archery, weightlifting, and golf. I had no idea what golf was. We showed up at a baseball practice facility because the college did not have a golf facility. At that time, they gave us one club. It was a sand wedge club, the one that hits the shortest distance. The reason they gave us the sand wedge club is that they didn’t want us to hit the ball too far! So, for the longest time, I thought that was golf. I didn’t even know that there was a golf course. I thought that was it. You had one club and one ball, and you hit it over and over again. (Laughs) There wasn’t even a hole. However, we did have a target!
It wasn’t until later that I was working at this restaurant at night (Fresco’s Restaurant in Palo Alto), and I was talking to one of my co-workers about golf. I said I was taking golf classes, and how much I loved it. My co-worker Henry Corlin said we should go and play golf sometime. I still didn’t know there was anything else; I was thinking we were going to the little baseball field. I was going to show him how good I was! The owner of the restaurant overheard the conversation when I said I didn’t own a club. He said, “Hey, when you guys are ready to play, you can borrow mine.”
When the day came for us to play golf, I go to his office, and he has this huge bag, I’m looking through the bag, and I find the one club I could recognize. He said, “What are you doing, you have to take the whole bag...” That was my introduction to the game, and that was when I found out that there was a golf course. Once I got the experience, it was a whole new game. I loved it.
I made this arrangement where I would show up for work at 11 am to cover lunch, and I would stay through dinner service to make sure I had my morning free to play golf. I would be teeing off at 6 am, play 18 holes and be ready to go to work. I did that at least five days a week. I was hooked, and I wanted to improve. It would take me months to improve one stroke, but I kept doing it. Within three years, I became a scratch golfer.
How did you transition from the restaurant industry to the private golf club industry?
Once I became interested in golf, I quickly realized it was a very expensive sport. I thought to myself that I needed to find a place that would allow me to grow in the culinary world and the golf world. I had a love for both. At that point, I got an interview at Monterey Peninsula Country Club in Pebble Beach California. My first position was as sous chef and was later promoted to Executive Chef.
Tell us about the transition?
Coming from the public sector to the private sector is like night and day. It’s a completely different environment. I fell in love with it. I could keep both my passions and I also loved interacting with the members and playing golf with them.
In the public sector, you could be working in the kitchen, and nobody knows who you are. But in the private sector, you get to know the members and they know who you are. If you asked any member at Monterey Peninsula Country Club at that time who their chef was, they could tell you. I made it a point to interact with all of our members; I knew all their names, as well as their likes and dislikes. When I spend four hours playing golf with a member, I get a lot of valuable information. They will most likely open up to me and share information that would allow me to be a better chef for the club, and I can ask them their preferences for food and wine. Then I can bring that information back to the club and make changes accordingly, even if it’s just for one person. For example, if one person says, “I like wild boar, but it is not on the menu”, I would come back and put it on the menu! That member would come to dinner and see that item on the menu and be very happy that I listened to him.