An Interview with Robert conte
Robert Conte , Historian at The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, USA
Image left by Diana DeLucia, Image right courtesy of The Greenbriar.
When I arrived at The Greenbrier, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard so much about it, and when I arrived at the main building, I was overwhelmed. I thought, “Am I in a time capsule?” I felt like I was in Gone with the Wind, without the crinolines of that period. Rather than attempt to rewrite history, I decided to interview The Greenbrier’s beloved historian Robert Conte. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Robert, I am intrigued by The Greenbrier and its history. Tell us about that as well as the culinary history.
Well, remember, we go back a very long way! We go back to well before the Civil War, and it is a fascinating story. The golf courses we see today at The Greenbrier were farmland for years in the nineteenth century. Before the railroad was built, people traveled here by stagecoach. Without the railroad connection, we had to grow our produce and raise our livestock; remember, this was a summer-only resort in those years before the current Greenbrier Hotel opened in 1913. What are now golf courses were vegetable gardens, corn fields and grazing land for the cattle and sheep. Today we talk about a farm to table restaurant as a new phenomenon, but that’s the way it operated here a hundred and seventy-five years ago!
Throughout the nineteenth century, the resort was known for the healing mineral spring waters, the cool mountain climate, and the fashionable social life, but visitors also enjoyed some of the freshest food in our history because it was grown right along Howard’s Creek that runs through our golf courses today.
GK: When the railroad started coming through town, it must have made a big difference.
Once the railroad arrived, everything changed. Given access to refrigerated cars, the kitchen could bring in seafood daily which was not practical before that as we are hundreds of miles from the ocean. The tracks of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway reached The Greenbrier shortly after the Civil War and for a full century, it was the primary transportation mode. Food started arriving by rail too as well as many of the staff, both in the kitchen and in the dining room. This was a large resort in the late nineteenth century, and we could accommodate more people in 1885 than we can today. Eventually, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway purchased the resort property in 1910 and built a station right across the street from The Greenbrier. The man who managed The Greenbrier in those early days, Frederick Sterry, also managed The Plaza in New York and the Copley Plaza in Boston. For many years he brought young talented European immigrant cooks and dining room staff to The Greenbrier from those famous hotels. Until the 1970’s, quite a few of our dining room staff were European, primarily Italian, Swiss and French.
After World War II - when The Greenbrier served as an Army hospital - Hermann Rusch joined the team as Executive Chef. He is a legendary figure in the history of The Greenbrier. Mr. Rusch came from Switzerland, moved to New York in 1939, and came here in the mid-1950’s. For twenty-five years he was responsible for all of our Food and Beverage operations. He was a great showman; he loved to compete. He started our internationally celebrated Culinary Apprenticeship Program in 1957, which functions as a kind of “graduate school” for chefs.
GK: What did the culinary team do during the winter months when business was a bit slow?
In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a strong culinary network up and down the eastern seaboard primarily made up of European staff who worked at the best hotels and resorts. During the winter, our culinary staff members headed south, especially for Florida to places like The Breakers or the Everglades Club as far back as the 1920’s. It was not unusual for a guest to have the same waiter at The Breakers in Palm Beach during the winter as they had at The Greenbrier in the summer. And of course, it was the rail system that made that possible. Once the availability of rail transportation declined, the transition to hiring and training local people began.
GK: But is there enough population from which to draw people in the area?
We still mostly draw from three small towns - White Sulphur Springs, Lewisburg, and Ronceverte - with a total population of about 10,000, so it’s big enough to supply the labor needs here at the Greenbrier. Employees are extremely proud of their heritage at this resort, and many of the current staff are third and fourth generation Greenbrier family members. With the Greenbrier’s reputation over the years as a very glamorous place, the excellence and passion of the staff maintains that tradition for the benefit of our guests. People enjoy being served by a waiter/waitress who has been here for 25 or 30 years. And as the guests come back year after year, they’re greeted by our doorman “extraordinaire” Frank Mosely, who has been here for 57 years!
GK: Tell us about some of the planned expansions related to the lifestyle and wellness aspects of the resort.
Some things are already in place or are part of planned expansion. We have the Sports Performance Center that currently hosts the New Orleans Saints for their summer camp and we’ll be constructing a sports medicine facility there as well, with physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons on staff. We also have The Greenbrier Clinic, which has been on-site for 65 years as a world-renowned diagnostic clinic with limited cosmetic surgery. The clinic has been a mainstay in the corporate world for CEOs and key executives to get their annual physicals to promote a healthy lifestyle.
GK: Being out in the middle of the mountains and away from any major metro areas, how has The Greenbrier survived?
Good question. Once people stopped relying on the railroad in the 1960’s (they had arrived and departed by rail for a full century), we went through a bit of a crisis. The two keys to the transition were the interstate highway system which is close by and the 7000-foot landing strip at the nearby Lewisburg airport. Both of these improvements were necessitated by the construction of the Cold War underground bunker, which also created a strong connection to the political world in Washington, D.C.
Those political friendships extend to the culinary staff also, since our former Executive Chef Walter Scheib was the White House Chef from 1994 - 2005. Hillary Clinton hired him, and he stayed through the Clinton years and the first term of George Bush. Unfortunately, he died recently quite unexpectedly.
The political connections extended to many of our corporate groups that were here for meetings. If your company was in the steel industry and you wanted a senator on a committee to come down and give an update on legislation affecting steel industry, The Greenbrier is a great environment for that. The speakers can charter private flights into Lewisburg, and spend a couple of days for both meetings and leisure activities away from the distractions of the bigger cities and the media.
GK: Can you please talk about the evolution of the restaurants on the property?
While I realize I’m prejudiced in this regard, The Main Dining Room to me is the quintessential Greenbrier experience. I’m a bit “old school” on this, especially since we’ve added five new restaurants since Mr. Justice bought the property in 2009 and we now have 19 restaurants from which to choose. While folks may have incredible meals at our restaurants, just having one meal in the Main Dining Room can change your visit from a nice resort experience to a Greenbrier Experience! The ambiance with the chandeliers, the superb wait staff, and the enjoyable entertainment create a beautiful atmosphere for any special occasion. One of the more glorious times of year around here is during the holidays when you have grandparents, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all dressed up and strolling to the Main Dining Room for dinner. You just don’t see this that much anymore, but I think it is that combination of well-dressed food, well-dressed people, fine dining and an exquisite setting that makes for an excellent evening. We do get a little push back on the formal attire requirements, but that’s nothing new. I’ve been hearing it for the thirty-seven years I’ve been here. There are plenty of casual restaurants on the property now, so everyone has choices.
In the end, it’s all about enjoying the diversity of activities. If you come to the Greenbrier, you can play golf and tennis, relax at the spa, experience afternoon tea, enjoy some fishing, and head to the Main Dining Room for dinner. Enjoy the unique experiences here that have set us apart from other resorts for many years. And while we adjust to what I call the “over-caffeinated culture,” we still have people who love just enjoying the spacious lobbies or sitting by the fire in the winter and reading a book. There is plenty of space for everyone so you can surely find your little nook around here and feel like you have the whole place to yourself.
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