Robert Lee, Executive Chef, Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge, with Michael Koribana, Executive Sous Chef
This interview for Golf Kitchen was completed prior to the passing of the Legend. Let us all celebrate what an incredible passion Mr. Palmer had for all things Golf, Food, Wine and all mankind.
Robert, you have been at Bay Hill for 25 years, what was your background prior to coming here?
Robert: I grew up in upstate New York, and my first job was at Colonie Country Club. It was about three miles from my house. I was 13 old years and started out washing dishes. I was always a tall kid, so I fibbed about my age to secure the job. I had been there for six months and I started helping out the pantry chef, when he left, they asked me if I wanted his position, and I said yes, so at 14, I became a salaried pantry chef. This was pretty amazing!
I worked there all through high school. Then I went to college at Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. When I had completed college I worked at the club again while attending the State University of Albany. The president of the club at that time owned a French Restaurant. It was like a hobby for him. It was a very fine French restaurant named Le Cole. He wanted me to go there and transition to the chef position as he was leaving. I apprenticed with him and he was teaching me French classical cuisine. It was great learning from him, after a year or so he retired and I took over that position. I stayed there for three years.
After that I worked in the Catskill Mountains for three years. One of the places I worked at was an Italian restaurant and the owners were leaving to open a restaurant in Kingston, New York. They approached me about the possibility of leasing the restaurant from them. So at a very young age I had my own Italian restaurant and nightclub. I leased it for two years. It is where I met my wife Sabine.
During this time the first Gulf War started, that hurt business, people were afraid to travel, gas prices went through the roof and everyone pulled in. We were just breaking even. My lease was up, and my wife and I decided that’s it, let’s move to Florida, that was 1992 and that’s when I started working here at Bay Hill.
photo cred: Caryn B. Davis
Did Arnold Palmer hire you?
Robert: I worked in the fine dining room as the restaurant chef before I became the Executive Chef. I interviewed for the job and went over to Mr. Palmer’s garage where he tinkers with his golf clubs, and interviewed with him personally. It was quite an experience. He discussed the position with me and it was a very interesting conversation. He said Robert, are you ready for this job and I said absolutely, and he hired me. I was in my early 30’s.
Does Mr. Palmer have a culinary interest, and how involved is he is the process?
Robert: Mr. Palmer likes traditional food and cooking. He likes things to be made from scratch, simple and not too over the top. Over the years we have had many conversations and he will tell me if he wants anything changed or added. I have been with him forever, it’s a great relationship.
How has the food quality progressed in the 25 years you have been here?
Robert: When I first came here everything seemed to be in slow motion, compared to New York where everything was fast paced, it seemed so laid back. I wasn’t used to that kind of pace and I had been out of clubs for a while as well. The sales were a lot different then, the increase from then until now is huge. I am very proud of how much we have grown from where we were then.
The menu items here have not changed too dramatically over the years. We still serve some menu items we made twenty years ago, but we change the menus often and keep a balance of traditional and modern fare. Michael, tell us about your culinary background leading up to Bay Hill.
Michael tell us a little about your background.
Michael: Like most people in this industry I started out washing dishes. I have worked in restaurants since I was 14..I moved to Orlando and got a job in a restaurant as a cook. I learned a lot doing hands on work. Someone I knew got an apprenticeship at Bay Hill and I said if there is an open slot to keep me in mind. About a month later he told me there was an opening and asked if I would like to come to Bay Hill and interview. I did, that was in 1995. I have been here 20 years now. I started at the pantry and worked my way through the grill, the sauté and became one of our Closing Supervisors. Then I became the Banquet Chef for three years and I was recently promoted to Executive Sous Chef.
What is it like working with Robert?
Michael: I did three years part time at Florida Tech in their culinary program, which was very beneficial from a math point of view. People don’t realize that people who cook need to know math. There is more to being a chef then just the food; there is food cost analysis, menu planning, price points and many other things. I was certified by the American Culinary Federation. However, I find it better learning from other people like Robert. What you learn in the classroom doesn’t always work in the real world. Everything is in a controlled environment in school. You learn more under fire than in a controlled circumstance.
Robert is one of the most organized people I have ever met. He is very calm. He doesn’t just think about step one, but he has contingency plans and a contingency plan for the contingency plans. You could never catch him off guard. You could throw things at him and he will never get raveled. He has already thought of that situation ahead of time. It is very refreshing working with someone that doesn’t get upset and keeps his professionalism, things run a lot smoother like that. Robert sees that if things are out of control that it just trickles downhill. He knows how to keep calm and order throughout the club whether we have banquet numbers go up at the last minute or if we have rain at the tournament. He knows exactly what to do. He is even keeled. That being said, everyone else below him also remains calm.
In the 21 years you have been working together, tell us about some things you have developed together.
Robert: We have been through a lot together over 21 years. I mean I could walk out the door and Mike can run the kitchen. Originally, we could only sit 150 people; most of what you see now did not exist. The kitchen was a lot smaller and we had many challenges to overcome. After the renovation took place it enabled us to seat up to 500 people. This enabled us to execute the Awards Dinner and many other events during the Arnold Palmer Invitational Tournament. This was a challenge for the staff but we have an excellent team here at Bay Hill and were able to make the transition.
Tell us about Arnold Palmer’s 80th Birthday party.
Michael: Robert and I did a menu for Mr. Palmers 80th birthday which was being held at Universal Studios Portefino Bay Hotel. We included all of his favorite things. There were 5000 people in attendance. It was a huge event and they used a lot of Robert’s recipes. It was such a great opportunity for us to showcase the menu we had created for Mr. Palmer. We loved seeing another team create our recipes.
photo cred: Caryn B. Davis
Were you guests?
Robert: Yes we attended the event.
Did Robert freak out at that time Michael? [laughs]
Michael: I’ve worked with Robert for a long time and you don’t see him freak out. It was really nice to be on the other side of the kitchen that night. Michael, tell us how you developed the Bread and Butter Pudding and the Crab Cakes. Robert insisted you produce two of your recipes in Golf Kitchen.
Michael: We decided that we needed a warm dessert. We do a lot of member/guest events and we were always looking for a special dessert to present that was also an in-house dessert. When you do a big banquet it's always hard to do an in-house dessert, so we wanted to either be creative or different, or more home-style. We have a lot of staff here, so it gives us the freedom to be able to create. It’s one of the reasons I have stayed here so long. That is what is so special about some of the elite private clubs.
Tell us about the Crab Cake.
Michael: I am originally from Baltimore, Maryland. It is crab cake country. A lot of places use the back fin meat as it is cheaper, but Robert suggested that because we were using jumbo lump crab meat he didn’t want to break it up, he wanted people to see the crab meat and that we were serving the good stuff, the best that we could get, not just some filler like the back fin. There is a big difference in quality. Many places the meat is shredded, so you don’t get that burst of flavor.
Robert: It’s nice for our members to boast a bit about the menu. Even if it’s the chunks of top quality crab meat!
Mr. Palmer seems to be very engaged in the menu. Tell us about his likes and dislikes.
Robert: We are not trying to be cutting edge, a lot of the menu is Mr. Palmer’s favorite recipes. We focus more on top quality product. We have a lot of competition in the area, including restaurant row, but we continue to have 100+ covers a night in season. Out of 40 choices of restaurants within a mile, our members and guests still come here. We serve good old fashioned food, but the right way.
Michael: Mr. Palmer is a meat and potatoes guy, so if you give him meatloaf and potatoes, chicken pot pie or spaghetti and meatballs he is happy with that as long as the quality is outstanding. To add some unique and cool items to the menu, we are allowed to create the specials. These give us the chance to add that flair to the traditional menu.
Do you enjoy the Arnold Palmer Invitational?
Michael: It’s been an incredible experience. We have seen the tournament grow and increase in size and we have grown with it. Between the two of us we have quite a few under our belt combined. The tournaments are our time to shine. Robert and our culinary staff do a great job, it’s hard work but when it’s over we can reflect on what we have achieved.
Do you ever play golf together?
Michael: We used to. Not as much anymore. Robert has sneaky four wood he likes to hit. As you can see Robert is calm and steady and hits straight down the middle, I am a bit more left and right.
Robert: I just let him get a bit angry and I am all set! However, then he has some days where he keeps his cool, and then he beats me.
Tell us about your staff.
Robert: My staff at Bay Hill is like family. We work together as a team at all times. I feel confident when I walk out of the building that the kitchen is running smoothly in my absence. They really do an awesome job day in and day out. It’s a very dedicated group of chefs.
Explain the differences between private club restaurants and regular restaurants from your perspective.
Robert: In a private club you have a captive audience. They are going to voice their opinions. They spend a lot of time here, and they care about the menu and the club as a whole. Not so much in a regular restaurant. The audience is always changing, if they don’t like the food and service, they just don’t come back in most cases.
A Special Quote for Golf Kitchen from Mr. Arnold Palmer.
“It is no secret that my personal tastes in food are simple; I am a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I like traditional fare, the kinds of things my mom made when I was a kid. But what I appreciate the most is good food and great service, and I know that’s what I can always count on at Bay Hill. Executive Chef Robert Lee makes sure of that.
Robert and I have 25 years of history together, and with that comes a certain comfort level. Take my 80th birthday for example. We had a small, intimate celebration here at Bay Hill with family and close friends, where Robert prepared some of my favorites; meatloaf, mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, baby back ribs and skillet cornbread to name a few. A few days later, there was a much larger celebration at a resort hotel here in Orlando. They asked me what I wanted to dine on, and I put them in contact with Robert; I knew he would know what I wanted, and he did. By the way, the menu featured quite a few of the aforementioned favorites - just the way I like it.” ~ Arnold Palmer
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