Shaun Christopher Lewis, Executive Chef and Assistant General Manager at Liberty National Golf Club, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA | Image right: Truffle Macaron
Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey has been on my wish list to feature in Golf Kitchen projects for ten years. It’s now 2020, and the timing is right. Shaun C. Lewis has been at Liberty National for almost eleven years and holds the Executive Chef and Assistant General Manager titles. He is a dynamic chef and enjoys learning new skills with voracity. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us when you developed a passion for cooking.
From a young age, I think we are all fascinated with fire. We are told not to go near it, not to touch it, that it is dangerous. I think it’s a very primal instinct to be drawn to it. My grandfather owned The Fireside Bar & Grill on Broadway in Newburgh, New York. I would enjoy being by his side, hanging around the bar, helping out, especially during the summers. I had to be about six or seven years old. I remember a big cast iron grill out back; the coal burning, the top lined with different meats, sausages, corn, bluefish. So, I was always fascinated by cooking. When I was younger, it was watching my relatives cook and that great experience of cooking outdoors. Coming from an entire family of great cooks that are predominantly Italian, every Sunday was somewhat celebratory. We would have multiple dining tables for extended family, and on Christmas Eve, we were cooking for about 50 people!
My first interaction with professional cooking was with pizza. It is so accessible to observe; everything is right there in front of you. In my hometown, there was a pizzeria, and I would persistently ask the owners if I could work there. After months of pestering them, they promised that when I was tall enough to reach over the counter, they would give me a job. Soon after, the pizzeria changed hands. When the new owners arrived, I told them about the job that was promised, and they obliged. At 12 years of age, I landed my first gig at Nancy’s Pizzeria and was ready to develop my cooking skills. I excelled, and by the time I was 16, I was propositioned by other establishments in surrounding towns to work for them. I was a workhorse and had developed a skill. I had discovered the great satisfaction of caring for customers and providing exceptional service, even at that level. I worked there throughout high school and would continue during college breaks.
After high school, going into the culinary field seemed like a very natural decision. In 1988, I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). I was excited to learn and immerse myself in the world of cooking; this was before the beginning of the Food Network when there was no sensationalism or novelty aspect to the culinary field at all. I simply wanted to become a well trained culinary mercenary! The Culinary Institute of America taught me professionalism, discipline, leadership, and provided me with an excellent culinary foundation to build upon.
While attending, the Director of the McCann Student Center, John Campbell, asked me to work at the Pizzeria on campus. I was very familiar with the pizza business, and I quickly said yes. Whenever they called upon me to cover a shift, I would jump on it. Mr. Campbell was very appreciative of my dedication. Upon graduation, he had arranged a few Stagier positions for me at The Water Club, The River Café, and Aureole in New York City. During that time, a position opened up at The Pierre Hotel (where I completed my apprenticeship), and I accepted the job. I stayed there for an accumulative six years and had worked every possible culinary position in the operation. I had forged a solid foundation in classical French cuisine and the Brigade System.
My final position was Tournant, which meant I could be placed on any station at any time and execute service as better as any. This was crucial because due to union regulations, Sous Chefs could not work the line. I was ready to move forward and become Sous Chef.
I was offered quite a few positions and decided to go with Interstate Hotels on Long Island. They immediately sent me to Nantucket as Task Force Chef for the White Elephant. I loved my time there. The people, the amazing fishing, and local produce were phenomenal. I returned after a season to work on Long Island for the Winter and was then asked to task force out in Martha’s Vineyard at the Harbor View Hotel. I think I said yes before the GM completed his sentence! I love the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, which was just as unique as Nantucket. A year later, I was asked to return as the Executive Chef at The Inn at Great Neck, and I stayed there for about two years.
I had my heart set on opening a restaurant, nothing pretentious, just great solid American food with a focus on local ingredients. I opened Mae Browne’s in Huntington, New York, and we were focused on creating the highest quality dining experience. We were reviewed within a few days and received two stars from the NY Times. While most were very pleased with this, I wasn’t motivated by stars or accolades; I was focused on great food and excellent service every day. My philosophy is still the same today.
I was offered a share of Mae Browne’s, but I politely declined. I was starting a family and knew that my time to explore other options were running short. I mulled over opening my own restaurant, but then my father in law said to me, “There’s a chef that wants to meet you.” I was introduced to Nino Procacci, who was a retired Executive Chef from Old Westbury Golf and Country Club in Old Westbury, New York. Chef Nino took me to meet Chefs Nicholas Carlone and Peter Fischl. I had preconceived ideas of what club cuisine would be like, but it turned out to be nothing like what I expected. I was hooked. Together with Martel Meyer, we created a new standard in Club cuisine and private events.
At Old Westbury, we embraced traditional club cuisine, although we did push boundaries, and the food scene was evolving very quickly. I got to interact with the members a lot, and I enjoyed forging those relationships through hospitality. I had a captive audience and was shooting for an outstanding performance every day. Old Westbury was very special to me in many ways.
After about four years, I was offered the Executive Chef position at Woodcrest Golf Club in Syosset, New York, a very charming-family oriented club that was looking to update its food and beverage program. I loved the challenge and the members. Sous Vide and Molecular Gastronomy were on the forefront of modern cooking and was poorly criticized by established and well-respected chefs. I knew that I needed to form my own opinion and began to focus on these techniques. Soon I was taking courses at the French Culinary Institute with David Arnold and with Alexander Talbot of Ideas in Food. Learning and growing at an accelerated rate, I needed an outlet for this type of cooking and began staging again.
GK: How did you end up at Liberty National?
I received a call from Martel Meyer (Old Westbury). Martel had accepted the GM position at Liberty National Golf Club a year earlier. Martel said, “We just opened the new clubhouse, and I need you to come and see it.” I had just declined an opportunity in New Jersey and was apprehensive to consider another. I had told Martel that I was not looking to relocate. “Just come over to visit, that’s all I’m asking you to do.”
On a stormy spring day in 2009, I took the ride out from Long Island. I distinctly remember an 18 wheeler clipped my trucks side view mirror. “Welcome to New Jersey!” I thought to myself. I pulled into Liberty National, and in the dense fog and chilly rain stood this modern steel and glass clubhouse. Peering through the mist in the distance, stood Lady Liberty. Even on a dreary, rey day, this place was stunning. I fell in love with the club, what it represented, what it meant for golf, and private clubs, and the potential history we could create here.
There were very high expectations and within 48 hours, I had CBS interviewing me in the kitchen on what it’s like to work at Liberty. I had not even touched a knife yet! My first interaction with food and staff is caught in the video “Lady Liberty Awaits”.
In the first month, we catered Paul and Phyllis Fireman’s Anniversary Celebration and two months later, The Barclays tournament. I had my dream position and culinary freedom. This suited me well as I enjoy creativity and surround myself with talented-creative types. Getting to know our members and collaborating with them on menu ideas is the true evolution of a club’s cuisine.
GK: You had the PGA Tour event rather early in the club’s establishment, tell us about that experience.
I had to change all the menus for the PGA Tour event as they simply weren’t mine. Our Club membership was probably about 60 members but we were gearing up to cater for about 2,000 covers a day in three different locations on the property. We had two satellite kitchens, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever done. I had a great team and still do! Due to the success of the tournament, we did three more after that, 2013 Barclays, 2017 Presidents Cup, and 2019 The Northern Trust event.
GK: Tell us about your relationship with the members.
The relationship I have with our membership is a very special. Lady Liberty may have enticed me to come here, but it is the Liberty membership that keeps me going. After 11 years, I feel blessed to have forged such great friendships and see families grow.
When I arrived in 2009, we were doing tasting menus and Michelin Star geared cuisine. It was all over the top and exciting, and we were creating the culture. One thing I’ve said consistently over the years is that my cuisine is a reflection of the member’s desire.
GK: Do any celebrities frequent here?
We get a lot of celebrities, politicians and sports figures here and some are members. My philosophy, however, is every one that walks through Liberty’s doors is a celebrity. They are all treated the same. When we do have someone that is “celebrity” in the dining room, my focus is on the other members and my staff. I want to ensure all members receive the same level of attention and service as anyone else.
One story I will share is when Martel Meyer said to me the night before, “Alice Cooper’s coming in tomorrow. Alice’s agent is a food guy, do you think you could talk to him?” I said, “Sure, my pleasure.” The next day I came into work, and I had recently returned from Alinea in Chicago, where I staged with my sous chef. One of my inspirations from there was the Truffle Explosion.
Alice Cooper and Shep Gordon, who is Alice’s manager, were in the dining room and had already ordered turkey burgers. I had offered them my truffle explosions. I set them on the table and explained what I had created. Alice says, “you have to talk to Shep. He is a big food guy”. I had a conversation with Shep about food and chefs, and I could tell how knowledgeable he was, he knew who Frédy Girardet was. Most cooks have never heard of him; I was impressed.
After learning about Shep’s incredible career, I said to him, “You’re probably the one person that I could thank for elevating my craft. By launching many culinary careers and the Food Network, many of us have better work conditions better pay, and we are celebrated. Shep said to me, “You know that Turkey burger that you made us? You will be making that your entire life. I thought to myself, “God, help me. Where are you going with this Shep?” He explains, this is the best turkey burger he’s ever had. You make it in house, cook it sous vide. It is amazing!” He said, “You can make your Truffle Explosions and all of your different special things, but you will always need to play your hits. That Turkey Burger is a hit! When Alice puts on a concert, he could sing with Johnny Depp and the Hollywood Vampires, or sing a new song, but he still has to play his hits. Chefs are no different. You put on your uniform, and you go out and perform your hits. I didn’t do anything but shine a light on chefs. I am proud to have done that.”
If you are a chef and haven’t seen the documentary Supernmensch, flog yourself, then rent it on Netflix.
GK: Tell us about your cocktail program?
In 2007 I was at the French Culinary Institute studying sous vide and learning modern cooking techniques with Dave Arnold. We were applying a lot of these techniques to spirits and cocktails as well as food. These were all applications to enhance a cocktail program, however, the Long Island Country Club scene wasn’t ready for it yet. Once I arrived at Liberty National, I knew I would be able to showcase these techniques and build upon them. Over the years, I have been gradually enhancing our cocktail menu. In the Summer of 2013, I was hosting a Celebrity Golf event and took notice of celebrated mixologists Tony Abou-Ganim and Charlotte Voisey. I was so impressed by the attention to detail in their work and focus on fresh ingredients. It inspired me to dedicate more time and energy to the world of spirits. The craft of Mixology became of great interest to me. Balancing time between my passions has always been the greatest challenge for me.
It’s not uncommon to see me behind the bar experimenting with my techniques and at the same time, studying wine and seeking my Sommelier Certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Flavors, textures, service; my vortex is spinning….
Behind the bar is the ultimate open kitchen. The guest gets to watch you prepare their cocktail from start to finish, and you get to experience their reaction, up real close. It is intimate and very telling.
In 2019 I was asked by the PGA Tour to create a luxe - VIP experience for the Liberty Club at The Northern Trust. My response was Chef & Chic. I created this culinary and cocktail experience that paired food and cocktails together beautifully, and it played out right in front of our guests in an outdoor bar setting. Chef & Chic has since grown, and my focus is on charitable events. I am currently working on a curriculum for Modern Mixology, which will demonstrate a lot of these techniques in tandem with talented Mixologists.
GK: You mentioned charitable events, which are you involved with?
I am very proud to serve on the Board at the Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City. This is a fantastic community, and its growing so quickly. It’s very gratifying to serve such beautiful pets and their people! GK: Paul Fireman stated that Liberty Nationals’ great expense was treating the site it was built on. How do you approach the focus on being “green-friendly”?
The history of Liberty’s property is quite unique. Paul Fireman had the foresight to purchase land that nobody wanted and had the resources to properly treat the land so it would be viable for generations to come. It has made such an impact on this community and the world of golf.
Since opening the clubhouse in 2009, we have always approached operations from an environmentally conscious standpoint. We use compostable take out containers, recycling, and the use of fabric bags instead of plastic. More recently, I started beekeeping at Liberty for pollination and population reasons. Hopefully, we will harvest honey this year. We are also looking into composting onsite.
The Liberty National Golf Club Clubhouse,Jersey City, New Jersey, USA
Image courtesy Liberty National Golf Club