Bryan Skelding, Executive Chef at The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, USA. Image by Diana DeLucia.
Bryan Skelding must have the energy level of 20 Chefs. The sheer size of The Greenbrier alone is overwhelming. His ability to oversee the restaurants and culinary aspects of the property and keep them at a high standard is nothing short of exceptional. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: How did your career in cooking begin, Bryan?
My mother Bonnie Skelding was a stay-at-home mom, taking care of my brothers and I while my dad worked. We were the traditional American family of that era growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin. I grew up in the kitchen watching Mom cook everything from scratch. My grandmother Lucille Hardie was also a significant influence as she kept a large garden and did a lot of pickling of vegetables from her garden including corn, beets, and asparagus - just about everything.
I was going to school in 1997 at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater for accounting, and I hated it. I was going to drop out, but my parents said, “Just stick it out for another semester.” After working in a few restaurants and Dairy Queen for five and a half years, I thought I should just go to a culinary school. My Mom loved the idea, but my Dad, Marc Skelding, didn’t think it was the best idea at the time. Since that time, however, he and my mom have eaten at every restaurant in which I’ve worked and are my biggest fans!
After I had graduated in 1999 from Madison Area Technical College, I wanted to travel and bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii. Within three days I found a job at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel where I met Tom Wong. I got to know Tom, and one day when I was in his office, I noticed a Springhouse plate on his wall that was signed by many people. I asked him, “What’s that plate up there?” and he replied, “You’ve never heard of The Greenbrier?” I said, “No.” He explained to me that when he graduated from the apprentice program at the Greenbrier, the traditional graduation gift from the Executive Chef and team was a signed plate. So we’re sitting here today because Tom Wong had that plate in his office!
GK: Tell us how you got started here at The Greenbrier.
Tom suggested that I needed to go to work for Chef Handke. Since I didn’t know him, Tom told me he would introduce me to him, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him. Tom was getting married and invited me to his wedding reception, and that is where I met Chef Handke. He worked at the Greenbrier from 1986-1991 and was the Executive Chef when Tom graduated. Shortly after that, Chef Handke offered me a job in Columbus, Ohio at his restaurant, Handke’s Cuisine. So I left Hawaii and worked for him for about two years.
GK: How did you get the job at The Greenbrier?
Originally I came here to work just for a season in 2002. I wanted to work at The Tavern, which was considered the ultimate restaurant here. Since I was into fine dining, I wanted to work with the best chefs and the best ingredients. I met Chef Rich Rosendale at The Greenbrier, and we became friends. After the busy season was over, I was offered a job as the Saucier, but I turned it down. I went out to Los Angeles where I worked for a couple of months at L’Orangerie in West Hollywood.
When I told Tom Wong where I was working, he said, “Why did you turn down the saucier position at the Greenbrier?” He then added, “I turned down that position when I was younger too, and it’s the one regret I have in my career. Do me and yourself a favor. Call Chef Timmins right now, take the job, and move back to West Virginia.” That’s literally what I did! I came back here that spring and worked here as the Saucier for almost two years. Then Chef Timmins called me into his office one day, and he said, “I’m about to post for a Sous Chef position.” He told me, “I’d like you to bid on that, but you’ll have to go through the internal interview phase.” I went through the interview phase, and they ended up hiring me as the Sous Chef at Sam Snead’s at the Golf Club, and I ran that restaurant for about two and a half years.
Why did you leave?
Chef Rosendale, who ran The Tavern for about five years, ended up opening his restaurant in Columbus, and he hired me as his Chef de Cuisine. We opened up Rosendale’s in the matter of a couple of months, created some awesome food, and I learned a lot from my two and a half years there. Chef Rosendale got a call one day from The Greenbrier when Chef Timmins resigned and moved to Florida. Chef Rosendale said, “Hey, they just called me at The Greenbrier to interview for the Executive Chef position. Do you think I should go?” I responded, “Yeah, why not? What’s the harm in that?” When he returned after the interview and getting the offer, he said, “But if I go I’d like you to go with me as Executive Sous Chef.” I said, “Let me talk it over with my wife.” My wife loves the area, so she was happy to return. We first met here and ended up coming back in September 2009.
Mr. Justice had just bought the property in May 2009. We wanted to be part of the brigade that brought The Greenbrier back its luster after a couple of years of going through bankruptcy, and about to be bought by the Marriott Group.
We opened The Casino Club, Prime 44 West, Infusion, a brand new Drapers, and The Forum as part of a significant expansion, and doubled the number of restaurants here in the first year. I ran every kitchen on the property here at some point. On June 3rd, 2013 when Chef Rosendale resigned to move onto other things, I was offered the Executive Chef opportunity by Mr. Kmiec, our General Manager. I accepted, and it’s hard to believe that I have been at the helm now for three years.
GK: Tell us about the menus here, as there are so many restaurants. How do you create so many new items?
My team and I get together and decide what the new dishes are going to be each season. We test them personally, and then we do a private internal tasting. We invite Jill Justice - President, Holly Jo Burns Gillespie - Vice President, Jeff Kmiec - General Manager, Pedro Gonzalez - Director of Restaurants, Brian McClure - Wine and Beverage Director, and Front of the House Manager of that dining outlet. Everyone tastes the new dishes and provides their comments and suggestions. Then we make the final decision based on everyone’s feedback as to whether to put them on the menu. Next, all the recipes are updated. The Front of the House staff then tastes and are trained to understand the written menu and the roll out plans. Usually, it takes about two weeks depending on the complexity of the launch plans.
GK: The Greenbrier is one of the largest facilities I have ever seen. How do you manage when you have to add banquets and weddings?
My role changes a lot throughout the year, depending on the focus of banquets or restaurants at any given time. In essence, I’m in more of a support role for my teams. We host the Greenbrier Classic, a PGA Tour event, every year in July, and that’s a good example of a large event. During that week every year, I work at Sam Snead’s restaurant for the entire week. We arrive about 4 am each day and start making breakfast for all the players and their families, as well as the VIP area upstairs. For that whole week, it’s almost like we separate this from the main hotel, as it becomes my home base for about nine days.
GK: How do you maintain the quality control here? There must be an incredible amount of food and other items delivered almost continuously.
Due to the size of the Greenbrier, we must trust our suppliers for attention to detail for the planned timing of deliveries.
GK: Where does it get delivered?
There’s an underground tunnel, and there are special trucks which the guests never see. Sysco is our largest supplier, but we have about 25 vendors just for the food alone.
GK: Has there been a special Chef in your career that inspired you?
The obvious one would be Chef Tom Wong. I’m literally here at The Greenbrier right now because of his guidance and helping me get my first opportunity here.
GK: What about a Chef you admire?
That would be Charlie Trotter. Many years ago, my friend Steve and I were working at a supper club in Wisconsin, and we decided to drive down to Chicago and eat at Charlie Trotter’s. I had one suit at the time and didn’t have a lot of cash, but nonetheless, we drove to Chicago in a rickety old Volkswagen van and pulled up to the restaurant. When we walked inside, it blew both of our minds. I’d never seen anything like that or tasted anything like it, especially growing up as a Midwest kid. It was an influential experience. I have every Charlie Trotter cookbook, and those were the cookbooks that I always opened up late and studied. I always loved the way he styled food, as it was very approachable, but he used a lot of exotic ingredients as well. His death was undoubtedly a loss for the culinary world.
GK: What is one of your missions here at The Greenbrier moving forward?
It is to leave a personal legacy behind. That’s why I have the images of the former Executive Chefs on my office wall, including Robert Wong, Walter Scheib, Hermann Rusch, Peter Timmins, who have passed on, as well as Rich Rosendale, Hartmut Handke, and Rod Stoner, who are still very active in the industry. When I was young, I learned, “You stand on the shoulders of those before you.”