Michael Ponzio, Executive Chef at Medinah Country Club, Medinah, Illinois, USA
Image by Diana DeLucia.
Multiple General Managers in the northeast have informed me about the progressive culinary programs at Medinah Country Club. After visiting the Club, and meeting Michael and his team, I discovered their unique formula, which has been built as a marriage between the culinary team and the membership. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Michael, tell us about your Italian upbringing.
I come from a big extended Italian family, we all grew up on the outskirts of Chicago within a few blocks of each other. We were always together. Everything was about food, because my nonna was a fantastic cook and that is what gave her joy. By the time I was 12 years old, I had started working in my uncle's restaurant; I was bussing tables, making salads. I've always been a workhorse. I love working, it's rewarding, and I feel like I have a purpose. I knew from that age that restaurants were for me. I always wanted to own one, so when I was old enough, I went to culinary school at Kendall College. I said myself, "if I'm going to own a restaurant, I'm not going to let someone push me around, I need to know how to run the kitchen." I was 19, and something just clicked. This was it for me.
When I was in school, I worked at a French bistro as a Sous Chef, and I worked for a catering company and a bakery. I didn't know the direction I wanted to go in, so I held all three jobs throughout obtaining my degree. Right after I graduated, I had this fantastic opportunity to become the sous chef at Spiaggia, which was the only four-star Italian restaurant in Chicago. They had been open for 20 years, and the food was gorgeous there. Spiaggia opened doors for me. I learned about making homemade pasta and what real good cheese is, how to fly things in from Italy, and how to make gelato properly.
After two years at Spiaggia, I was recruited to work with Rick Tramonto, and over a period of a year and a half, I opened four restaurants for him. After working for Rick, I was asked to go to Volare, which is an iconic Chicago restaurant owned by the Benny Siddu. He wanted me to help his team open a restaurant in the suburbs. I also spent several years with Portillo's consulting for them, and then one day I got a phone call from the owner of Rosebud Restaurants, Alex Dana, and he said, "What are you doing?" I had never met this man before, and I said: "I am at work." He goes, "Well, you're going to come and work for me." I said, "No, I'm not, thanks and goodbye." He was very persistent, and I eventually said, "OK, I'll have a cup of coffee with you." He said, "I have two locations, Schaumburg and Rosebud on Rush, which is right in the heart of downtown, a celebrity hangout area, the whole thing, the gold coast, which one would you want?" I said, "Which one's busier?" He said, "Rosebud on Rush." I said, "I'll take that one." I started working there, and within six months I moved up to a corporate chef role, and in another six months, I became director of operations. I was 26.
It was such a busy restaurant. Within the first month, I dropped labor by four percent and we started getting noticed by magazines again and having a larger celebrity presence. We had 11 restaurants that we were overseeing, and Medinah Country Club Assistant General Manager Mark Jablonski was also a part of our team then. I also opened a restaurant with them, which we ended up closing because the partnership didn't work. When I left Rosebud, I was debating what I was going to do next, and my stepfather, John Pappas, who was a member at Medinah said, "Hey, Medinah is looking for a chef." I said, "I'm not going to go to a country club!" But he said, "You should check it out." I was against it, because in the restaurant world clubs are seen as a place to go to work after you retire, how incredibly wrong that perception is.
When I came in and walked in the front entrance, I was like, wow! I have never been intimidated by a job interview. I wasn't scared about the job itself; I knew I could do the job, I was intimidated by the mere presence of the venue. Barry Garrett, the general manager at the time, had a lot of interviews with master chefs, and club lifer chefs. During my interview, he asked me, "Why do you want to work in a country club?" I said, "I don't." He's like," Well, what do you mean?" I said, "I don't want to view these areas as club dining rooms, I want to treat them like restaurants. A lot of the members here are old customers of mine; they frequent the restaurants where I used to work. I don't want to serve meatloaf every other Tuesday and things like that, I want to make it great." He said, "I want you to start July first because I want you here for Fourth of July." Fourth of July in any club is huge; here we do about 2,000 people. I came from restaurants to this huge 2,000 person event! I was thinking to myself, "What did I just do!"
The team was made up of fantastic people. At the time, many of them had been here for a while, and working with them was great. It took me about six months to understand Medinah. I took my time, and I asked a lot of questions, surveyed a lot of the members in person. I would ask them, "Where do you like to eat? What are you looking for here? What are you looking for when you go out?" We started to make some changes. When General Manager Robert Sereci and Assistant General Manager Mark Jablonski came on board, things really took off. We've increased F&B revenues over one million dollars in the last four years alone. We saw a 30 percent increase after the first year in just food sales, which was huge.
After about a year and a half, I wanted to do more. At this point, we had already switched all of our steaks over to antibiotic and hormone free upper one-third prime, all-natural steak, humanely killed from Meyer Ranch, we had changed to Amish chickens, and we had started to bring a lot of ingredients in from Italy. The team and I reviewed every little thing here, threw it out the window, and restarted. We focused on the small things that add up to make a big difference. When we had used up all of our resources I was wondering what was next? I remember it was January, and the idea to tap the maple trees on the golf courses came up. I started educating myself about it online and watching YouTube videos.
At the start, we tapped five trees and ended up with about four and a half gallons of maple syrup. I thought to myself "Oh my goodness, that's a process!" It takes 38 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. This past year, we tapped 30 trees and we got 30 gallons of syrup. That's over one thousand gallons of sap! As challenging as it was, I thought, we are going to give our members and guests an experience that's unique to Medinah, one that you can't get anywhere else. The maple syrup was a hit, with the members, so the next year we doubled the number of trees we tapped, and then we doubled it again.
GK: Do you sell the maple syrup?
We don't produce enough to sell; we serve it to our members. When they have breakfast pancakes or waffles, they are served the Medinah Maple Syrup. From here, we began to make our own sourdough bagels and red wine vinegar. I don't get too fancy making every single item from scratch, because I think there are things I can buy that are better than what I can make, but we're continually looking for what we can do that is excellent and real.
GK: Tell us about the Medinah chicken coop.
I had always wanted a garden here, I asked Robert Sereci about it, and he said, "I'm going to give you enough freedom to do it." I said, "Thank you." I wanted it out where the members could see it, but with the way with the tournaments are set up that wasn't really possible. Robert said to me right after he started working here: "What about a chicken coop?" I said, "What am I going to do with a chicken coop? I'm not going slaughter birds in the kitchen," He said, "For eggs!" So we combined our ideas and built a chicken coop and a garden. It just continues to grow. Bees are the next thing on our radar, and I'm terrified of bees, but I want to do this, regardless. I started studying the process and built a presentation. I talked to a few chefs that have bees, and spoke to a few farmers. Now we are just waiting until it's right for our situation to do it. We are currently in the middle of renovations and construction, and I didn't think it was safe for the bees with all the building going on.
GK: Are you upgrading all of the restaurants on the property?
Yes, it has been the biggest reward for us when the members voted to upgrade all the restaurants.
GK: How do you relate to the membership here?
The thing that keeps me here, more than anything, are the relationships I have built. The members, for example, when my kids were born, they called me to see how my family was, and they sent me congratulations cards, little personal touches. I feel like I'm part of something bigger than a job. I've been with these members for five years. I've been with them through births and marriages, and I have made real connections with them. I know I am still an employee of the club, but I'm an employee who cares about the people I'm serving, and in turn, they care about me as a person. That's what would make it hard to leave Medinah.
GK: Tell us about your cooking approach.
My focus on cooking is a little different than most. My focus is on real food. Have you heard of the ugly food movement? I'm all for that; I buy from imperfect produce at home, because I support that. Ugly food tastes better than the picture-perfect stuff. What I mean by that is that there is nothing wrong with having discoloration on your apples and it's probably tastier and better for you.
My approach is to keep it simple and give the absolute best we can, and it doesn't mean buying a $500 bottle of olive oil. It means that the olive oil has to be real and made from a producer that I trust and understand, I need to know the types of olives they are using and the conditions in which they are grown. We buy our pigs from a local farm, and I know when and how the pigs are raised. It's about being real and true to what I'm serving. Cooking for members and guests is no different than cooking for my family, I want to make sure that they are taken care of. I want to make sure that what I serve them proudly represents the club and me.
I am not a fan of commodity items. It doesn't mean everything has to be organic because I don't think there's value in that either. I think that the product needs to be respected and taken care of and thought through. I won't buy just a burger patty. We came up with our own blend, which is a mixture of hanger, skirt and chuck steak. I have the percentages. I know where the beef comes from, and I sell tens of thousands a year. There's a lot of pride that comes with that.
I am very strong with Italian cuisine, and I try to stay with a Chicago American style. I'm very against mixing cultures. You cannot properly execute five diverse cultural styles and really do it from the heart. For example, if I open a Sushi Bar, all we would serve would be Japanese cuisine.
GK: Tell us about your team.
I have an incredible team that I work with here, and I am very goal driven by my staff. I try to find their strengths and guide them in that direction, so that they excel. If one of the team said, "I want to work on bread baking,” I 'll say "OK, let's do it." There's a reward for us and a reward for them. Let's focus on this, just give me three years, and I'll help you to get where you need to be after that.
GK: You are really making an impact in the industry. Tell us about that.
We've been fortunate to have a lot of publications cover us lately because of what we are doing. We're making a statement in a sense, and I'm not trying to be cutting edge, I'm trying to be old school. I want to give the members the tomatoes that my grandparents grew up with. I want to show them what a real tomato smells and tastes like. I think that's what's gaining the attention, is we're taking those extra efforts. We aren’t doing it for the media attention; we are doing it because we care.
Medinah Meatballs, recipe by Michael Ponzio, Executive Chef at Medinah Country Club.
Image by Diana DeLucia.