Anthony Villanueva, Executive Chef at Edgewood Country Club, River Vale, New Jersey, USA. Image by Diana DeLucia.
Before meeting Anthony Villanueva, I had heard about his popularity with the members at Green Brook Country Club, North Caldwell, New Jersey, where he had worked for 18 years. Having worked with Anthony at Edgewood Country Club, I can understand why. I hope you enjoy this interview with Chef Tony, it comes right from his heart. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: You were born in Manhattan, tell us about that time of your life.
I was born and raised in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side. My mother, Maria Diaz was only 16 when I was born, so we grew up together. She was a saint, and she always had two or three jobs. She worked hard to provide for us as best as she could. We had a period in our life when we were homeless. A lot of times she couldn't make the rent, and there were many other difficulties. I was the man in her life, and I knew that she was sacrificing a lot for my sister and me. The fondest memories I have is when she worked in the restaurant industry. She worked for a cafeteria in the Twin Towers, and I would often go to work with her. They gave me the most amazing breakfasts; I loved it. They would put breakfast and lunch orders in a box, and say, "Kid, walk down that hall with this box, open the doors and look for this person. " I remember opening two big giant doors, and inside I saw screaming and yelling, and I saw papers being thrown around everywhere. It happened to be the New YorkStock Exchange! I was the cute little kid with the lunch box, and they were stuffing dollar bills in my pocket, it was excellent, and that was also my introduction to the business. I had the best childhood growing up in New York City, being exposed to different cultures and different foods, it was just one big melting pot. I would not trade it for anything in the world.
In 1980, my family moved from New York to New Jersey, and I had to change to a school system that was at the timequite dangerous, and I ended up dropping out. At the age of 18, I became a young dad. I started working different jobs, I was a maintenance guy, and I cleaned office buildings for a company; at the time the minimum wage was three dollars and thirty-five cents an hour, I did the best I could. I tried working in a recycling plant by Newark Airport where they recycled bottles and cans and things like that. I did that for a while, but I still needed more money to feed my family.
A couple of my friends were working in a restaurant in downtown Newark. It was a Greek restaurant called Marathon; I want to say this was probably 1982. I accepted a job delivering food to all of the offices, and at the time it was very lucrative for me. Again, I was a young kid, and I was making $50 a day in tips. It helped me because at the time all I was concerned about was buying diapers and formula for my son. I learned how to cook because I would always ask the cooks to make me something to eat. They got tired of preparing food for me and said, "listen, if you want to get into this business, learn, how to cook for yourself!" I learned how to do the prep work, how to set up the line and more. There was one time the owner had lost one of his cooks, so he gave me the opportunity to fill in. We were probably doing about 400 covers at lunch. It was insane. So my early introduction into the business was working in this bustling eatery, it was fast food, but you know, it wasn't all fast food, it was a Greek restaurant.
GK: I heard you are left-handed, how did that affect your career?
I faced a lot of adversity in the kitchen, I was a Spanish kid, and I was left-handed. They used to treat it as a handicap. I'm like, "What are you talking about? The knife is a knife; the spatula is a spatula!" They forced me as I'm learning to work the line, to use my right hand. I'm pretty ambidextrous, and I quickly learned that it was not a hindrance. It was an advantage because me being a left-handed cook, I could work alongside anybody, and I was faster. I became very good at what I did rather quickly. I used to run circles around everybody and it was funny because the owners would pit me against other seasoned cooks and they would say, "my guy will take you down!" [laughs]
GK: What was the catalyst that lead you to a career in the Private Country Club Industry?
I was making good money, but I needed to look at the bigger picture. I needed job security and health benefits for myself and my growing family. I was working 14 hour days to make money, and in the restaurant business, you're worried about losing your job every day. I knew I had to do something.
The new Clubhouse at Edgewood Country Club. Image by Jim Krajicek.
I was probably about 27 years old, and I was concerned about my future, how am I going to make it, you know, how do we survive? I didn't have that father figure in my life; I didn't have the positive influences around me or even the financial stability to go back to school. I was an excellent student in school. I was always the teacher's pet. I did well in my academics; it was only for financial reasons that I dropped out. However, it was still that chapter in my book that I never finished. At the time I lived in Kearny, New Jersey. They had a night school, and they were offering the GED program. It took me about three months to complete. I was going to night school on Tuesdays and Thursdays as I was working in a restaurant during the day. It was a tough time, but when I received the GED certificate, I thought to myself, why not go further? I found out about the culinary program at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City. I was like, wow, let me pursue a career where I didn't waste all these years of kitchen experience. My first semester I took on seven classes. At the time I assumed that I was going to qualify for financial aid. Okay. I'm halfway through the semester, and I was pulled out because I was told, unfortunately, that my financial aid did not go through. "You were disapproved because you never registered for selective services," they said. In this country, at that time, when you're 18 you had to register for selective services, meaning if there's a war, you're going to serve your country, they get you in high school, but because I dropped out, I never had that process. I pleaded my case to the financial aid board at Hudson County Community College, but the answer was no.
During my time at Hudson County Community College, as I was already a restaurant chef, I started to understand the process of cooking, why things happened, before that I just did it. I learned about cooking with wines, you know, deglazing, and things that I was not privy to in the restaurants I had worked at. I learned about the great chefs and great food. I quickly learned about the French brigade system, and I immersed myself in it. I just loved it. I remember one of my Professors, Chef Gary Bensky, took a liking to me immediately. I told him my story, and I talked to him about the restaurant I was working in, and he's like, "Oh, I hate that, they collect employees like keys on a ring now." I realized then that there was no future for me in the restaurant industry, there were no health benefits, there was nothing to fall back on. I pleaded my situation with Gary Bensky, and he said, "I have just the job for you. I'm consulting at a country club right now, Green Brook Country Club. Here's someone you should contact. At the time, the chef was Robert Terisi, and Gary was a consultant during the summer and started recruiting some of his best students.
I began working at Green Brook and Chef said right away "Go to the line." I was like, wow, this was the arena for me. I saw about 30 chefs running around, this was incredible. Gary Bensky was the key to me changing my life. I remember a conversation I had with him, "What are you looking for?" I said, "I just want to work somewhere that my hard work is going to be recognized, somewhere I'm going to be taken care of and be given some great benefits and hopefully retire someday," He said, "Get that out of your head. That's never going to happen. This business is too fluid. It moves around too fast. You can never count on being in one place for too long." He goes, "With your skill level, however, within six months you will have your own club. You will be an Executive Chef in your own right and in your own club."
I worked very hard, and I earned the respect of my peers in the kitchen. I received the affection of Michael McCarthy, the General Manager, Chef Ray Pendas, the board members, and everyone that I interacted with. They made me an offer in six months, just as Bensky told me. I accepted the position; I went full time. It empowered me, and I started getting better and better. I made Chef Ray's job a lot easier, and I remember at the conclusion of the season he said to me, "Great job this season." "Thank you so much," I told him, wait till you see what I can do next season!" I was at Green Brook for 13 years, and Chef Ray left to work at Apple Ridge Country Club. Before Ray left, he said, "Good luck Tony, you will get the Executive Chef role!"
GK: How did you find your way to Edgewood Country Club?
In May of 2015, one of my former General Managers and good friend Michael Frodella at Green Brook called me and told me about an opening at a club in Bergen County that was just bought by two Mountain Ridge Country Club members. He knew that it would be a tremendous opportunity for me and a chance for me to earn more money. I told him that I was very happy at Green Brook.
The Edgewood Executive Chef position was posted on the CMA website, and although I looked at the ad, I still decided not to pursue the opportunity because the future of Edgewood was not certain. My fear was to leave a position and membership that I loved very much after 18 plus years and take a risk of pursuing a new opportunity with a club that could very well end up becoming a development. A few weeks later I had found out that Edgewood ended up hiring a chef with no prior country club experience. In my heart, I knew that the chef would probably be in over his head and the position would be open again soon. As it turned out he only lasted five weeks and immediately resigned. It was now June of 2015 and I saw that the position was reposted on the CMA website. The ad appealed to me this time, so I decided to send my resume in and see what could happen. My resume was accepted and an interview was set up. As it would turn out the meeting place was at Eric’s office which was very close to Green Brook.
I remember the day of the interview I was very nervous, but I kept saying to myself that I have nothing to lose because I already have a great job. I remember waiting in the office for my meeting to take place. As I walked into the meeting room of the office, I was amazed at all of the pictures of buildings and various properties that were built by “Woodmont Properties.” As I sat there waiting to meet Eric and Bruce, I took everything in and began to get excited. When they arrived, they had incredible smiles, and that immediately put me at ease. We discussed the typical questions that would come up during an interview. Surprisingly they were both terrific gentlemen, and I got this feeling of warmth and genuine kindness. They told me how they knew all about me and had dined on my food at Green Brook for years. They stated to me that they wanted the best for Edgewood and they knew I was their man.
I was incredibly flattered by their compliments. I told them that I would be honored to take the position if they would have me. They smiled, and we shook hands the old fashioned way with integrity and respect. I felt so safe with them and thought that they had my best interest at heart. They told me they were looking for a partner rather than an employee. I had never expected the interview to go as well as it did and the fact that they wanted a relationship well into the future for years to come appealed to me. They assured me that Edgewood was their baby and they are committed for many years to come.
As difficult as it was for me to leave Green Brook, I eventually came to work at Edgewood, and as it turned out, it was the best career decision I had ever made.
GK: You mentioned that you have great admiration for Chef Eric Ripert, tell us about that.
Although I have never met Chef Ripert in person, I admire his philosophy on life and the importance of harmony in the kitchen. He influences many chefs. His passion for excellence is very apparent. The way he prepares his seafood dishes are legendary. What resonates with me the most is the fact that most of his menu items at Le Bernardin are seafood selections. I follow his lead on this because I believe that seafood preparations require a lot more finesse and technique from the chef. Any “meat and potato Chef” can season a steak, grill it and then throw it on a plate with a baked potato and call it a night. The real challenge with seafood is that it must be handled gently and can showcase a chef’s talent and flair. Fish is like a blank canvas that can take on whatever direction the artist likes. That is why the majority of my menu selections are seafood oriented. I would love to meet him in person one day or make the pilgrimage to his restaurant. Everyone speaks highly of him, and he is so humble. I appreciate how he talks about how he went from being an angry, hostile chef to the gentleman chef he is today. Chef Ripert leads his team with a smile and genuine compassion; I have much respect for him.
Anthony is the proud father of six children and is married to Evelyn Villanueva. They have a three year old granddaughter and reside in Haledon, New Jersey, USA.
Rosé Poached Pacific Halibut, recipe by Anthony Villanueva, Executive Chef at Edgewood Country Club. Image by Diana DeLucia.