Left: Dominic Calla, Executive Chef at Round Hill Club, Greenwich, Connecticut, USA. Right: Olive Oil Poached Halibut
For ten years, I have wanted to produce an article featuring the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. I had heard from many influential industry people about the grace and talent of their Executive Chef Dominic Calla. It is an honor to bring his story to you. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us about your background and how you developed an interest in cooking and cuisine.
My father Gaetano Calla was born in Calabria, Italy, and his family moved to the United States when he was just eight years of age. I grew up on Long Island. The majority of my family is still in Italy. I am the fifth or sixth generation born in this country, and I have an older brother and a couple of older cousins. They lived in Brooklyn. My early childhood was a typical Italian household; we had the Sunday dinners that lasted from two o’clock until seven o’clock, took naps, and watched soccer. That was my introduction to food. I don’t think it held any meaning for me at that time.
GK: Where was your first job?
A little restaurant in Ocean Beach, New York, called the Sand Bar and Grill. It’s not in operation anymore, but that was my first introduction to the kitchen. I was 15, and I washed dishes, scrubbed mussels, cleaned calamari, peeled potatoes, and basically performed the kitchen’s grunge work. I enjoyed it, and it was where the initial attraction began. Being there got me out of my head. It was a place where I didn’t have to think about anything else that was going on. I could focus on work. I enjoyed the people that I worked with, the pace of it, and the chaos. The thrill of getting through to the end of the night as a team was memorable.
I started traveling when I turned 16. I worked as a line cook in California for a year and a half, then I did six months in Maryland, and a year or so in Athens, Georgia. When I was 20, I moved back to New York and started a job as a line cook at The Inn Between in Ocean Bay Park for the summer. The Executive Chef Scott Everett offered me the Sous Chef position, and I accepted.
Towards the end of the summer season, I was looking for something to fill in the time until the next season. My brother and his then-fiance moved to West Virginia, so I decided to go with them after the season closed.
When I arrived in West Virginia, I found a small restaurant, Mario’s Fish Bowl. It was a little dive bar and restaurant in Morgantown. They were opening up a fine dining restaurant next door, and I ended up landing a job to open up this restaurant for them. I had no idea what I was doing! None. I had never built or designed a kitchen. I walked into an old automotive shop, and there was a car lift in the kitchen, and they said, “Dominic, this is your kitchen.” Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. There was no internet back then, and I had to search through catalogs to research kitchen equipment and the rest of what was needed. I spent six to eight months designing that kitchen, and I succeeded. I wrote the menus and had them ready to open.
After that I returned to New York, which was always my home base. Shortly before the September 11th attacks, I decided to take a South Florida position in Naples as a line cook at Gabrielo’s of New York. It was a fine dining restaurant. They had a grand piano and celebrity clientele such as Carol Burnett and Tony Curtis. The Executive Chef got fired, and that was my first introduction to the Executive Chef role. I was just 23.
Once again, I had no idea what I was doing. However, I was still learning when I took over as Executive Chef at Gabrielo’s. That is when the light switch turned on for me. Previously it was a means to travel; I could go wherever I wanted and would pick up a position at that location. Now I could see that this was a career. I wasn’t a great manager or leader, but I knew how to operate a kitchen, write menus, and order. I made a ton of horrible dishes, and I’m not even kidding. (laughs) The internet was in its infancy, so magazines like Food and Wine and Art Culinaire are where I found inspiration. I would dine at other restaurants, and if I loved a dish, I would try to recreate it. Trial and error and pushing myself were a big part of my career path. So much of my early career was me biting off way more than I could chew! I stayed at Gabrielo’s for two years, and it was excellent training and boosted my confidence.
At that point, I found a restaurant group that owned three restaurants in Athens, Georgia, a French bistro called Basil Press, a high-end steak house called Porterhouse Grill, and a brewpub, Copper Creek Brewing Company. All three restaurants were in downtown Athens, Georgia. They were looking for an Executive Chef of all three, and I went for it, and I got it.
I had a sous chef at each restaurant. I still worked the line every night, but I was introduced to three restaurants’ inventory and mass ordering. I learned how to set up prime vendor agreements and ordering under the company name and not each restaurant. Andy Urell, one of the owners, was a chef. Michael White, another owner, was a server and bartender who was studying to be a master sommelier. It was great because I got a lot of training from Andy, who taught me a lot about French cuisine. Michael taught me a lot about wine. My time there was instrumental to my career, and I stayed for two years. After that, I decided to move back to Naples, Florida, and look for the next step in my career.
GK: How did you land in the private golf and country club industry?
I applied for a supervisor position at The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs, Florida, which is getting closer to a Country Club environment. They offered me a sous chef position, and then a year and a half later promoted me to the chef de cuisine of their fine dining seafood restaurant. I had a lot of fun at this restaurant. I had no food costs. I could order whatever I wanted. I ordered $70,000 worth of Chef’s Garden product in one year. I got to play around with whatever food I wanted. It was a seafood restaurant, and at one point, I had 18 different catches on my menu. It was fish from Honolulu Seafood Company and Europe. I brought in Chinese Black Chickens because I had heard how good the soup is with them. I even ordered duck tongues, and I did Buffalo Duck Tongues as an appetizer at the bar. I continued to be enthralled for another year and a half.
The executive sous chef position for the entire hotel opened up, and I applied for it internally. I got promoted to the hotel’s executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs. This was another huge learning curve because now I got pulled out of the kitchen and my little comfort zone playing with food every day. The Executive Chef there at the time was John Benson. He’s now a General Manager at a Hyatt in Hawaii. John Benson started to teach me the other side of operations, such as scheduling, forecast budgets and carrying myself as a professional. I stayed in that position until 2010.
I was burnt out by this time as they had me taking interim chef positions at other properties in South Beach that needed over-the-top menus but relied on temporary kitchen staff. I left Hyatt about two months later. I needed a break.
GK: What did you do during your break?
A group of executive chefs and executive sous chefs in Naples worked as private chefs for folks who rented the big mansions for a week. I did this for a year, and I then wanted to explore working in a private golf or country club. I had enough confidence and a great career portfolio that would overpower the lack of a culinary degree.
GK: Tell us about your first private club experience.
I was hired as the executive sous chef at The Hillsboro Club in Hillsboro Beach, Florida. It’s a small racket club, but it’s been there forever. The members live there for about seven months of the year. So you see these people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day. If something is wrong at breakfast, they will let you know at lunch, and then at dinner, they would tell their friends. The next morning they’d come in for breakfast to see if you fixed it. It drove me crazy! It wasn’t like a hotel where they check-in Friday and check-out Sunday and see you later. No, no, it was more like Ms. Montgomery was upset with breakfast, and I’m going to see her the next morning!
It was a wake-up call to me, plus I needed to learn everyone’s names by heart and talk to every member during service. But for some reason, it felt a little better. It wasn’t always about the bottom line. Your food cost was 23.4% in the hotel, and then they want you to come down to 22%. At Hillsboro, I could blow the budget on an event for the members because we wanted to create a memorable experience. We could make up for the budget later in the season.
I stayed at Hillsboro for three years, and during that time, I had met David Meyers from David Meyers and Associates over the phone. Two and a half years into my position at Hillsboro, I gave him a call to see if he could help me gain a position in Richmond, Virginia. My brother had moved there, and we hadn’t seen each other in years. He called to tell me how great the food scene was. David had found a position at Hermitage Country Club. I flew to Richmond, did all the tasting tests, but the food and beverage director didn’t like my background and flatly said no.
I went back to Florida, and David called and told me that he might have something at The Country Club of Virginia (CCV). David was having a conversation with Phil Kiester, the General Manager at CCV, and Phil told David that he needed a chef to run the James River clubhouse. David’s said, “I’ve got a guy in Florida who is trying to move up here. He has a colorful background.” Phil asked, “can he do the job?” And David replied, “yes.” From there, I was fast-tracked to CCV.
After interviewing and some cooking demos, I took over as Executive Chef of the James River clubhouse. The first day I showed up at work, the Executive Chef of the entire property Gary Whitecotton welcomed me and then said, “This is my last day. I have resigned.” I remember calling David Meyers and said, “what did you do to me? You just started me at a club, and the Executive Chef is leaving on my first day, and then three weeks in, the Executive Sous Chef had a month off.”
I settled in quickly and adjusted. After a few months, we started interviewing for the next Executive Chef position of the entire compound. Keith Armstrong was one of the candidates, and fortunately, they hired him. I immediately connected with Keith. He was no stranger to clubs and knew the routines well. Keith was an outstanding mentor for me for the next three-plus years.
We did many creative events and had a garden that we eventually turned into an event space. We started doing parties at an old farmhouse on the property. We were coming up with many ideas together; we fed off each other. CCV had signed up to do the Dominion Energy Charity Classic; we worked really hard to plan and execute menus and all the other facets of this PGA event. The first year was the most challenging as we planned 200% of what we didn’t need and six percent of what we did need!
The following season, Keith turned up in my driveway with this huge wooden backdrop with things hanging on it. He said, “we’re going to have stations, and we’re going to have backdrops. They will have lanterns hanging from it and flowers.” His creativity was endless.
After that second PGA Tour event, I learned that Keith took the Westchester Country Club position. After another year at CCV, I started looking around for an executive chef position where I was the chef in charge of the property. I gained a job at the Dominion Club. It was owned by the Heritage Golf Group who had about nine properties. I had the impression it was a financially stable operation. They hired me to turn around the food and beverage operations, and I would have everything that I needed to make it happen. However, when I arrived at the club, it was nothing that was painted. I called Phil Keister at CCV and told him that I did not want to work in a corporate golf club. They were in talks to buy and take over the Heritage Golf Group properties. I handed them my resignation and thought, “that was a crazy nightmare.”
Phil asked me to return to CCV as it was a few months before the next PGA Tour event. I stayed for seven months and worked with John York, who took over from Keith. It was great for a time, but Phil and I knew this would not be a long-term arrangement.
GK: How did you land at Round Hill Club?
I got a phone call from Keith, and he told me about an opening at Round Hill Club (RHC) in Greenwich, Connecticut. He said, “RHC is right up your alley.” I got off the phone with Keith and called David Myers, and I said, “David let’s go with this.”
I interviewed with Brian Walshe, the general manager, and his assistant GM Mary Schaffer. They flew me up here for a night, and a day later, they asked me to return for a second interview. I returned and enjoyed dinner with Brian and Mary. We got along very well, and it was very much a personality fit. Positions like this one at RHC only become available every 10-15 years.
I continued with the interview process and the cooking demo, and about a day later, Brian offered me the position, and it was like, “okay!” I started in September of 2019. I experienced the end of the golf season and the entire holiday season, and then we shut down in March.
GK: That was a shocking time for all; how did you find the positives?
During this Covid time, I tried to find the positive side of it. I used the time to get to know many of the members better as it was not as busy. I made it my mission to learn more about what they want, what they like, what they don’t like, and how much I can push them to try new things. They had the same chef for eight years and then the same chef for 20 years; I had my work cut out for me for sure.
Brian and Mary were great presenting me to the members. There are way fewer members at RHC than CCV, and it was excellent as I could talk to them freely and ask them questions about what they want and need.
GK: Apart from Keith Armstrong and your work peers, tell us some of the Chefs that inspire you.
Chef Gunter Seeger, the German Chef, who anchored himself at the forefront of Atlanta’s fine dining scene for 25 years. I started to follow chefs like Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gabriel Kruether. They inspired me immensely. I knew at a club, I couldn’t make the food they were doing at their restaurants, but I could experiment with larger versions.
It’s an art form in a club, more so than a restaurant, because you want to be creative and you want to present amazing things, but you still have to be not too big and not too small. It has to be presented well, and you’re able to do something fine, but in a proportion that’s going to make everyone happy.
GK: Have you changed much of the menu in your year and a half here?
There’s always a portion of the menu that you can’t touch. However, slowly I’ve started making small changes to a couple of them. Currently, I have about half the menu that I can change. That’s 12 or 13 dishes. The first Wednesday of every month, we change five dishes on the dinner menu and four on the lunch menu. I would come up with new specials each week. We became bold with the specials. I was making Peking Duck as a special to see if they order it.
GK: What are your culinary plans at Round Hill Club in the future?
I have quickly come to realize this is a special place. The membership has been so welcoming and a pleasure to get to know. My first six months were what you would expect, the end of the golf season, the beginning of paddle season, and all the holidays. We close for three weeks each March, and the first half of my season was perfect. When lockdowns began mid-March, it was time to make a plan and strategize. We started offering curbside menus and making cooking videos in my kitchen at home for the membership. We increased the number of wine dinners we did and got creative with every event we would have normally had.
Despite this past year, we have continued to make strides forward for the membership. We change the menu monthly and are always running different specials. As the chef, I continue to teach and develop my staff. I ordered a whole swordfish to show the team how to break it down. We recently brought half of a hog to teach the staff how to butcher it and make charcuterie. I continue to try and plan trips for the culinary team to visit farms or other clubs to keep their interests peaked. We are getting ready for our March closure again, and I am excited that we have a hectic season coming up. I am looking forward to getting back to normal and offering all we do for the membership and more.
Image by Ambria Michelelle