Matthew O'Connor, Executive Chef at Bonnie Briar Country Club, Larchmont, New York, USA.
Image left by Diana DeLucia, Image right courtesy Matthew O'Connor.
In 2015, I was very fortunate to travel to Morocco with a group of general managers, golf professionals, and journalists. It was on this journey that I met Kevin Burke, then General Manager of Bonnie Briar Country Club. I struck up a conversation with Kevin several times regarding the culinary side of golf. Kevin spoke very highly of his chef and his culinary team. Fast forward to 2018, and here I am working with that very same unsung Executive Chef. Although Kevin has moved on, the current General Manager Joe Napolitano is equally appreciative of Matt and the culinary team. — Diana Delucia
GK: Where did you grow up Matt?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. My dad Ed O’Connor, who loved to be out on the water, had a commercial crabbing and fishing license. It wasn’t his source of income; he just had a passion for it. From the age of three, I was on the boat with him every weekend, catching crabs, fishing for striped bass and things like that. Looking back that’s probably where my interest in food began. Every Saturday we would come home, and steam bushels of crabs and the family would come over, my grandmother would make potato salad, and dad would cook on the grill. I never realized how amazing that was until I left for school.
I went to a vocational high school called The Western School of Technology in Environmental Science, and at that time I thought I was going to be a paramedic because they had a health science program. The first half of my freshman year I had to take several different subjects the school offered. I did health science, and I did culinary classes and electronics; after that, I had to pick the field I wanted to focus on.
I wasn’t great at health science or electronics due to my math and science grades, so I wound up in culinary. After two weeks, I was like, I love this. My teacher was great. He pushed me into ACF (American Culinary Federation) competitions when I was in high school. I was competing against college kids! I got a job at a local restaurant part-time, it was horrible, but I worked really hard and then later that year the owner Pat Patterson decided to sell it. He said, ”I see a lot of promise in you, would you be interested in getting a job next door?” I immediately took the opportunity. It was a Baltimore Sun three-star French restaurant named Tersiguels in Ellicott City, Maryland. It was a family run farm-to-table restaurant. They were doing seven-course tasting menus, which was not mainstream at that time. The son Michel was the chef, his father Fernand was the maitre’d, and his mother Odette was the ex-chef, but she still came in and made all the dessert! She used to work out of the very illegal kitchen in the basement. She would kick my ass all afternoon making desserts and yelling at me in French; I picked up a lot of things from that experience. I learned the love for ingredients, and in the summer, they’d come in with bushels of tomatoes, beets, and goat cheese and things like that. It was interesting to me to see the process of where ingredients came from. I think it molded who I am today. I still keep in touch with him to this day, they’ve been open for over 25 years and have survived several recent floods. I worked there until I turned 18 and began studying at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York. I graduated when I turned 21.
GK: Where did you do your externship?
I did my externship at the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore because I couldn’t afford to go abroad or to the French laundry and stuff like that. The hotel was a five-star, five-diamond, and Conde Nast Traveler rated. I spent most of my externship in the restaurant, and it was a great learning experience. Matthew Laurence was the executive chef. When I graduated from the CIA I went back to Harbor Court as the morning sous chef, and then I became the evening sous chef. Matthew Laurence, the executive chef, left to open his own business in Rochester. It was a catering business, and he asked me to come work for him. I was very interested as I knew I would get to see what it’s like to open up a new restaurant and business. He had grand plans! The space was 24,000 square feet, and it had a huge banquet hall with a historic house attached that he could live in. The house had room for a restaurant, but it never really materialized.
GK: What did you do next?
I moved back to Maryland, and I got the banquet chef position at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington DC, which was a fantastic experience, and at 23 I had a staff of almost 50. Although I had been cooking since I was 14, I found the Willard to be seriously hardcore training. We did $13 million a year just in the banquet department and $24 million in overall food and beverage sales. It was 24/7. I cooked for George Bush twice. There was always a dignitary or someone’s private chef in the kitchen, and you never knew if there was a Prince of wherever in town. The Secret Service were always in the kitchen. It was a fantastic experience, but it was very taxing, and it took a toll on me after a while. It did teach me a lot about mass production and banquets and how to do things very well for a lot of people, it had to be perfect.
After the Willard I did some corporate catering for Legg Mason in their corporate office in Baltimore, and after that I moved back to Rochester, New York and worked at several places while awaiting the opening of Matthew Laurence’s location, sadly after three months I was to be told it was not going to get off the ground. It was a tough time as we had a baby on the way. I was fortunate to get a position at the Marriott in Rochester and then I ended up overseeing 17 properties for EJ Delmonte Hotels in Western New York. That was a really cool position as I got to travel a bit.
GK: When did you gain an interest in country clubs?
I was always interested in country clubs. I had a friend, Max Knoepfel, who worked at Westchester Country Club for two years. He told me that I needed to come to see Westchester. He was formerly the chef at Belle Haven Country Club in Virginia, and my best friend Don Fisch was the executive sous chef. I went to Westchester and did a few events with them, and Max told me, “Call David Myers the headhunter, he’s really hooked up with the country clubs. Maybe there might be a vacancy somewhere.” As it turned out Rockland Country Club in Tappan, NY had a job for the executive chef position, I took it, and they doubled my pay!
That was a stepping stone, and I stayed there for two years, it was great. After Rockland Country Club I went to Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, NY for a short time, but it wasn’t a good fit for me, and we mutually parted ways, and that’s when I got in touch with Kevin Burke, the general manager at Bonnie Briar Country Club.
GK: How did you meet Kevin Burke?
I was getting desperate because I had parted ways with Old Oaks two weeks before Christmas and was a young father to my son John who was just eight months old. I was interviewing at Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Connecticut, and one of my meat purveyors told me that I should call Kevin Burke at Bonnie Briar Country Club. I called Kevin, and he said, “Yeah, you need to come in for an interview, and you should come in tomorrow.” It was interesting because the first person I met introduced himself to me as the executive chef and I was like, okay, they have an interim chef here. They had been through several chefs in four years, so they had this gentleman who actually came out of retirement to oversee the place. He told me that he was only going to stay for another year and that if I take the sous chef position, it will likely turn into the executive chef position. In my head, I had no interest.
After the interview, Kevin cornered me and said, “I just want to tell you that you really aced this interview. I’m going to call you back.” I thanked him and told him that I appreciated the feedback. I told Kevin, “I’m really not interested in being a sous chef. I’ve been an executive chef for a long time, and I’m interviewing at the Harbor Yacht Club, and I only have the cooking test to go, and I am very confident I will get the position.” Kevin said, “Just hang tight.” I went home, and he called me the next day. He asked me to come in on Monday which was two or three days away. “I want you to meet with someone from the board,” Kevin said. I said, “I’m doing my cooking test at Indian Harbor tomorrow.” Kevin asked me to send me the pictures from the test, and I did.
Indian Harbor Yacht Club needed to wait for their board meeting to make a decision. This gave me some time to meet with Bonnie Briar on Monday. I interviewed with a board member Doug Jung and on my way home he called me and offered me a job, I said, “I don’t want a sous chef job.” He said, “No, the executive chef position!” I was surprised. They had paid their interim chef in advance and gave me 24 hours. I called the yacht club and told them I had a job offer, and I’m in no position to turn anything down at this point. They needed to wait for their board meeting, and I said, “I don’t have that much time to risk.” I accepted the position at Bonnie Briar, and it is the best decision I have ever made. Kevin was a very supportive general manager. They wanted to change the food and beverage here immediately. This was an excellent situation for me! We had a very supportive president, and we achieved a lot in a year.
GK: What are your plans for Bonnie Briar moving forward?
We were talking about doing our own bacon, which I know would be really cool. We will make our own sausages, and salami and maybe we will start to do our own dry aging meats. Things like that will immediately improve our product and also lower our costs. The members see that as a win-win situation.
GK: Tell us about your staff?
I love my staff, and my sous chef junior is one of the kindest and hardest working people I have ever come in contact with. I have people here that I can see growing to become chefs in their own right. I want to spend more time with them and get the club involved to offer them some continued education so they can see more outside of these walls. I have a gentleman who started here as a food runner, but I could always see how interested he was as we grew. He was always asking me, “How did you do that? That’s really neat. When will you let me taste things?” Now he’s working here full-time, and he’s moved up. He’s my grill cook at night, but I’d love to find him a path to go to school. I think he needs that to grow.
I want to focus a little bit more of my time into helping with their education if I can. I’ve looked into the ACF, they have an apprenticeship program, but to be approved for that apprenticeship program they need the paperwork. I only have so many resources here, and I don’t have a college campus that I’m affiliated with. I sit on the board for the Westchester Community College culinary program, but it’s not what is needed for ACF. I’m trying to get the membership more involved with that to understand that they have a real opportunity to improve someone’s life and also make them very loyal to this club. That’s one of the things that our new General Manager Joe Napolitano who has a culinary background can assist me in achieving.
GK: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Five years? I hope I’m still here doing improvements, more renovations, and a new kitchen if they will give me the blessing for that. Long term I would like to train to be a general manager.
The Bonnie Briar Clubhouse. Image courtesy Bonnie Briar Country Club.