Left: Shawn Olah, Executive Chef at Highlands Falls Country Club, Highlands, North Carolina, USA
Right: Sweet Corn Bisque with Butter Poached Maine Lobster
Highlands Falls Country Club situated about two miles from the quaint, elegant town of Highlands, was my first visit to North Carolina apart from layovers in Charlotte. I was blown away by the beauty of the mountains in the Fall.
Working with young chef Shawn Olah was a pleasure. His story is endearing as is his love of family, cooking, and his passion for creating new culinary programs for the areas youth.
~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us about your upbringing?
I grew up moving around quite frequently. We moved from Florida to Grand Junction, Colorado, Fredericksburg, Virginia and back to Florida due to my stepfather’s TV repair service business. Bouncing around schools took its toll and when my parents separated, my mother and I went back to Florida. They tried to make another attempt at being a cohesive family, so we yet again moved back to Virginia. I couldn’t find a job and all that was available was a line cook position at Taco Bell or to become a backyard mechanic. This was not for me, and I knew I had to make a change.
One day I told my mom I was going out to look for a job. What I was actually doing, was going to seek opportunities elsewhere. I slid my suitcase out my window, got into my Honda Civic and started driving back to Florida. When she called and found out that I was at the Georgia border, she wasn’t exactly happy with me! I knew from experience that there were a lot more opportunities for me in South Florida. I kept driving and I ended up staying with my grandparents.
GK: Did it take you long to find employment?
I was looking for a simple job that I could jump into, I had minimal experience. I found an advertisement in the newspaper for a position as a busboy/food runner at Royal Poinciana Golf Club. I didn’t know anything about golf
clubs, but I figured I could clear tables to make some money. I was very fortunate as I was able to form a friendship with the Executive Chef John Giebels. Chef Giebels had been at the club for 25 years, but six months after I joined the team he retired. The club brought in Chef Manfred Brauer from the Bellagio in Las Vegas to take the executive chef position. We hit it off immediately and he recommended that I should move from the front of the house to work with him in the kitchen. Beginning the following day, I was to be trained as a professional chef and paid $3/hour more than I was at that time. As a teenager that was a large jump in wages, I obviously agreed!
After some training, I became his executive banquet chef and remained in that position for just under five years. During one of the off-seasons, I took a summer position in New Hampshire at an Emerald Distinguished Club called Bald Peak Colony Club. I went there as an executive banquet chef for a season and when I came back, I decided to move to The Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida. This was with the guidance from Manfred as the sous chef was not going to be leaving any time soon and I still had a couple of career stages to go through. His recommendation was that I could stay at Royal Poinciana but that it was not best for my future development. It would be good for me to move on and learn from another chef to continue my education.
I took a position at the Ritz-Carlton working under Executive Chef Derin Moore, CMC. I worked in the main hotel in various outlets, did some private functions at Tiburon, as well as private off-property events. I was even fortunate
enough to work the famous Naples Winter Wine Festival, operating one of the dining services. I grew tired of the hotel lifestyle, and I moved on to The Club Pelican Bay, another beautiful property in Naples. I stayed at Pelican Bay for five years as the sous chef/restaurant chef. I then received a call from Patrick McDonald, who was formerly the
assistant general manager at Royal Poinciana.
Patrick was a great mentor for me on all aspects of the business. I was gaining the opportunity to work with him again! Patrick took over a tennis and swim club named The Town Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lucky me, he needed a chef! I was 27 and my goal was to be an executive chef at the age of 35. I thought my goal was a bit premature, as I was training under chefs in their 50s. Regardless, with Patrick’s support, I jumped into my first executive chef role eight years earlier than my goal. I stayed there for three years, when an opportunity to operate a larger golf club with two clubhouses presented itself.
My move to Wisconsin from South Florida became a life changing experience, one which I was not expecting. A few short months after taking my role with The Town Club, I was rushed into emergency surgery, as my appendix had ruptured some-time during my work-day. It was during the short recovery I was mandated to take, that I met my now wife, Amber. In hindsight, maybe things do truly line up as they’re meant to.
GK: Where did you head to after Milwaukee?
When I was 30, I secured the executive chef role at Green Bay Country Club, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This role offered me the opportunity to oversee two separate clubhouses, about a mile apart. I had a sous chef and culinary team at both locations. This gave me the opportunity to solidify my abilities running two full operations. I was there for about 18 months, when my wife and I decided to leave after our son was born. We realized once we had an infant, subzero temperatures were no longer desirable for up to seven months a year.
Patrick Delozier with GGA Partners presented me the opportunity to work at Highlands Falls Country Club in Highlands, North Carolina. It was a real draw as I would be working just over half a year, and I could be a present father to my young son. Living in Virginia as a teenager, I knew the Carolinas would be a great place for us to raise our family. It offered the rural, small town feel with several major cities just a short drive away. Most importantly, was the obvious still ingrained nature of good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.
We sold our home in Florida in the midst of Covid-19, when the housing prices skyrocketed and relocated to North Carolina. Initially, the club assisted us in securing a rental property until we were able to find a home to purchase.
We ended up finding a home just outside of Highlands, that we felt better fit our lifestyle.
Highlands Falls Country Club had been completely remodeled, and for me it was like coming to a brand-new property. I was really impressed by the membership and General Manager Jason Macaulay. They had the willingness to make some big changes in the dining operations and gave me free reign. Although the club had been remodeled in 2020, it was closed for the off season. The club reopened in May 2021 to a friendly membership that was eager to socialize.
GK: That must have made it better for you as a chef as they’re not expecting to return to the old Highlands Falls.
The membership was aware that there was an executive search taking place for a new chef. I had been invited to the club, along with other chefs to do tastings for the executive chef position. The tasting panel included board members, house committee members, and long-term members. They were very selective on who would be involved with each chef’s tasting, to my understanding. To reopen the club, it was much easier with a closed operation. With a new face in the kitchen, we knew the membership would return anticipating fresh flavors and menu offerings.
GK: The club had been closed for a long time, how and where did you source products for your tasting?
When I arrived in Highlands Falls the club was not operational. There were no deliveries, coolers were empty. I had to find and travel store to store, in a semi-rural area with bad cell reception to find food products. I had to somewhat develop my menu around what I could find on the shelves, which was nerve-racking considering the cuisine I aim to
serve during tastings. I developed my menu in the grocery store! I thought it was the best plan of attack for the situation, which came to work out well.
GK: So, the whole town knows who you are already, (laughs) in the grocery department that is?
The produce department particularly. Someone finally asked if I needed assistance. I believe they thought I was confused, circling the store with an empty cart making notes with pen and paper over and over. What better way to make a lasting impression in a small town?
GK: I see that you have one of the largest croquet clubs in America here. Do you take care of them as well?
Our culinary program services all areas of the club, including private in-home events. We host multiple croquet tournaments throughout the year, with teams from all over the country. We received rave reviews from members
and guests last year, with plans to continue expanding our dining offerings in 2022.
GK: Have the members given you a lot of feedback thus far?
Yes, almost all of the feedback is positive! Of course, like any other dining operation, we always have requests for previous favorites or dietary/special requests. It’s a beautiful thing when you know what quality the membership expects, without much variance by member group. I have been a part of operations where committees control menus for dining services, which makes a chef’s duties more difficult. Here, I have several members that remember me from much earlier in my career in Naples, Florida. Knowing the level of service they expect, makes it easier to provide! I’m going to continue to grow and see where evolution takes us. I think that the best I can do as a chef is to be myself, continue to grow and develop, and continue to put myself out there.
GK: How did you come up with the dishes that you presented for this story? What were your inspirations?
They are inspired from dishes that I have created in the à la carte dining menus. I have a strong belief in “simple food done well” being the forefront of what I do. Although we encompass all traditional and modern flavors and techniques, I find it very important to put the same energy and dedication in-to all culinary items, especially the simple things.
GK: You mentioned you are not a big pastry fan, but your pastries are immaculate.
Thank you! I’ve learned many flavor profiles and techniques along the way. When I was at the Ritz-Carlton, I would clock out and enter the pastry room and just be a fly on the wall and if I was lucky, I could assist! I wanted to learn, and it was obvious, which was generally the biggest hurdle, getting a chef to allow me in their area. Overall, in my career I have worked with chefs, bakers and pastry chefs from international destinations and backgrounds. I learned about breads, pretzels, and more working with a great German baker at Royal Poinciana. I was even fortunate enough to be a semi-regular at Norman Love’s Confections, way back in early 2000’s while he was working on some
developments for Godiva. Many of the other pastry items I do are self-taught or self-developed, utilizing the basic constructs of traditional baking.
GK: How are you managing the staff shortages during these crazy times?
Like everyone in the industry, staffing has presented challenges. This year we are taking a proactive approach in not only finding staff, but we have assumed an almost “focus group” on how to retain employees and key staff. In my department, I have moved the sous chef and pastry chef roles to annually compensated positions, even though we are only operational from May to October. We have immediately drawn the interest of talented young professionals with families, because of the quality of life we offer.
GK: What interesting programs are you planning for your staff, such as off-season educational programs , trips to The Chef’s Garden and regional farms?
Covid has presented many challenges in the field of continuing education for the hospitality industry. Many options are just now beginning to reopen with a physical location, rather than all online based platforms. In the mountains
of North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a wide diversity of different farming practices right here at home. We live in the only rainforest within the continental U.S. We are fortunate to have many specialty farms in the area. One of my favorite hidden gems is the Wagyu beef producers, Providence Farmstead. Once travel restrictions have lightened, I have plans to reach out to The Chef’s Garden and organize a trip for some of my best to visit The Culinary Vegetable Institute of America, as well as other famous properties. It’s important to keep and grow the
interest of the next generation of culinary professionals.
GK: Tell us about the beehives on the property.
The Apiary was in place when I arrived and is maintained by our superintendent Fred Gehrisch, CGCS and his team. I’ve tried to utilize the benefits of his program more and more in our cuisine at the club. The desserts presented in this story both use our honey in different applications. We also sell the honey in our golf shop to members throughout the late spring, fall, and winter. He only does one large harvest a year but it’s something I’d like to get more involved with for my own education.
We are incredibly fortunate to have a professional superintendent who utilizes all complete organics throughout our golf course and outdoor areas. Mr. Gehrisch even goes as far as having our lakes and streams on the property tested regularly, to ensure that the trout he stocks our lakes with annually are safe for those to eat, if they can catch them!
GK: What are your plans for Highland Falls this year?
I think we are going to continue to grow and expand. Last year we put in a bar menu since during the renovation, they expanded the bar, adding indoor-outdoor seating. I knew that the bar was naturally going to be a hub for social interaction. With great success, we are planning on adding in some gastropub themed nights for upscale small plates and diverse offerings, to continue growth of our bar concept. I am looking forward to the season-opening!
We have multiple member weddings, and The National Croquet Tournament in May. I’d like to get involved with the Taste of Highlands either this year or next if we can. I believe that the more opportunities we have within both the club world and Highlands Community, the more we should continue to get involved. I’ve worked in some fantastic properties in my career, and Highlands Falls is a hidden gem that’s sure to shine in the spotlight. We’re discussing remodeling the kitchen next year to allow me some of those necessary improvements, primarily space to continue to grow and accommodate more of the areas on the property.
Our demand for more options, more diverse offerings in more diverse settings has grown significantly in the first year. I believe this trend and growth rate at the club will be consistent for years to come. I’d like to collaborate more with the local chefs this year. Our mountains are filled with all these great clubs and luxury developments with limited educational opportunities without distant travel. I’d like to develop long-term monthly meetings for chefs and develop other opportunities with the ACF (American Culinary Federation) in mind, much like I’m used to in South Florida. I plan on staying a while as it’s a beautiful area, a fantastic club and an even better membership.
The main Clubhouse and Hole #10. Image by Michelle Muraco