An interview with Michael Ruggiero
Michael Ruggiero, Executive Chef, GlenArbor Golf Club, Bedford Hills, New York, USA
Michael Ruggiero has spent his 25-year culinary career working with great chefs and has traveled extensively to countries like Peru, France, and Japan to expand his culinary knowledge. His mentor of ten years Edward Leonard CMC (Certified Master Chef) is currently the Executive Chef at the Polo Club in Boca Raton, and a well-known speaker at industry events.~ Diana DeLucia
GK: You grew up in Queens, how did that influence your career?
My parents owned an Italian deli "Roman Carousel" in Rosedale, Queens, New York. As I was growing up, I watched my father make all these Italian specialties and my Mom cook Italian catered foods in the kitchen. My grandma lived above McSorley's Old Ale House on East 7th Street, and on Sundays, she would prepare these long, lavish dinners in her tiny little apartment, with the table extending through this shotgun apartment for all the family in attendance. My grandma would start the meal with antipasti, then meatballs and sauce, and even handmade pasta. She'd make pizza dough and veal and peppers, it was this long ceremony of dining. Even with all of this exposure to food early on, oddly enough, I was a bit of a picky eater! That fussiness almost certainly fueled my passion for cooking and with the best ingredients even more.
After high school, I enrolled at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York. It was about 1995, which was around the time the Food Network started to become popular, and this youth movement of students started going to culinary school straight from High School. I was one of the younger kids, amongst others in my class, as many students were older with previous culinary experience or already an established chef. I believe having a formal culinary education early in my career helped me get a jumpstart in the industry. It was a tough learning curve so green at the beginning at the CIA, but I was very fortunate to have great classmates and professors to learn with and from, and I was always determined to go above and beyond and make the sacrifices to improve myself.
After graduation in August of 1997, I bounced around a bit as a cook until I met one of my first mentors, Brian Limitone who worked at a little Italian Bistro at the Redding train station called La Trattoria in Connecticut. I was looking for a job, and I walked in the back door, and I remember him giving me this look, like "What are you doing in here!?" Little did he know that he was getting the gift of a hungry CIA graduate looking for work, knowledge, and as much experience, I could soak up!
When he hired me, I was 20, and I can honestly say that working with someone of his skill set at an early part in my career was a tremendous experience and just what I needed as a young cook. His flavors and techniques in making soups, braises, sauces, curing salmon, and making desserts, was very attractive to me, I was learning trial by fire at the same time, but the professionalism and standards that I learned in the two years with him at La Trattoria was a fantastic experience. I will always look upon those early days with fond happiness.
After working with Brian, I moved on to a new position at Food First, an upscale corporate cafeteria, which was co-owned by Edward Leonard CMC. After a couple of years of working in various roles including Head Chef at Duracell (at the time) the company was sold, Chef Edward was moving on to open a fine-dining Italian Restaurant named Cantare in Downtown Chicago.
In hindsight, I felt fortunate that Chef Edward invited me to join him as we didn't have much of a relationship before that. He was in charge of the entire company which had locations all over Connecticut with dozens of head chefs to choose from. He also asked my colleague and friend, Matt Roche, another head chef from one of his units, to come to Chicago and work with him as a sous chef and open the restaurant.
After two years in Chicago, I moved with Chef Edward, to Rye, New York to become his Executive Sous Chef at Westchester Country Club. It was the next step in my career, and really an incomparable experience. The collection of talent in the kitchens that Chef Edward put together was full of future CMCs, CEC's, executive chefs, and pastry chefs. I was present for all of the ACF (American Culinary Federation) Culinary Olympic Team practices, and being a part of their brainstorming sessions was just an experience that is near impossible to duplicate. Combine that with the size and pressure of running a food program with the sheer amount of functions daily at the golf course, beach club, and the clubhouse was detailed and intense. I was just getting this first-class experience in so many avenues of foodservice and hospitality. I can't say enough about the people that I met and the friendships that I have to this day with the culinary team that I worked with at Westchester Country Club.
GK: Tell us about your first position as Executive Chef.
After four seasons at Westchester Country Club, I was ready to take on my own kitchen. I accepted the position as executive chef at the Orienta Beach Club in Mamaroneck, New York. In the six and a half years that I was there, I had the opportunity to be involved with many of the expansions and remodeling of the club, from the clubhouse to the beach. They renovated the snack bar, parts of the clubhouse, the cabanas, and to have an opportunity to renovate the kitchen, including the selection of all of the china, glass, and silverware, was a great learning experience. The Orienta membership, the kitchen staff, and General Manager Mark Sheehan were great to work with, and I enjoyed my time there immensely.
GK: What lead you to the Tuxedo Club?
During my final season at Orienta Beach Club, I became a father. It was winter, and I decided to take a year off to spend time with my wife Denise and our son Carter. I wanted to watch Carter take his first steps and to take a break from the 60+ hour work weeks.
We moved to my wife's home state of Louisiana, and I took a job in a shipyard for a year. The job involved bidding and estimating on the repair, and painting of 200-foot service vessels in the oil industry. It wasn't my field, but as a chef, many of the same components could be used to be successful in this new endeavor. We do estimates and financials daily and make contracts, manage groups of people under duress with tight deadlines. I applied my knowledge to a different area, and within six months, I was running the department. You can be successful in many things if you put forth the effort and have a can-do attitude. When March came around the following year, I felt that I had been away from the stove for too long. I sent out my resume to the club openings, and after a long process of interviews and tastings, I accepted the Executive Chef position at The Tuxedo Club in New York.
GK: How long did you work at The Tuxedo Club?
I worked there for three seasons, and during my last year, I became the Culinary Director. This was an excellent position and experience, and I recommend it to every chef because you learn the challenges from the other side of the business.
GK: Tell us about your experience.
Having the opportunity to anticipate the needs of the membership a-la-minute in the dining room as well as learning the flow of the setup and breakdown of events is advantageous. Learning about the wine program and the ever-changing needs of the front of the house staff during multiple functions that are taking place simultaneously also gives you more depth as a chef. When you have a clear idea of both the front and back of the house, it helps you to understand the flow of the business and its ever-changing needs.
GK: Tell us about GlenArbor.
I was 41 when I began my role as the Executive Chef in 2017 when former Executive Chef Carey Favreau ended his long successful tenure to start his own business. Carey had been the only chef that the members had known, he was like a family member to them.
GK: How did you find the transition?
Usually, when a new chef begins, the previous chef had been let go, or the program was not at a level that the membership preferred. At GlenArbor, I was walking into a place where they had only known one chef, and he was beloved by the members and the staff. It is now my job to continue the continuity of his success. I had to look at things from a different angle than usual. I felt that coming in, I needed to honor the culinary traditions of the club and the imprint Carey had left. Over time with consistent, thoughtful creativity, I could add my influences, add my flavor profiles into the program where it made sense, and eventually, I would have this new hybrid of old and new ideas and club classics. It would be subtle with no break in continuity or quality, no break from the synergy, or the success that was already in place. I'm now in my second season, and I love it.
Full interview will appear in the first edition of the new biannual Golf Kitchen Magazine and Golf Kitchen Americas, the second book in the Golf Kitchen series. Preorders available.
New England 'Clam Chowder' recipe by Michael Ruggiero, Executive Chef, GlenArbor Golf Club
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