Thomas Isidori, Executive Chef at Brae Burn Country Club, Purchase, New York, USA
I first met Thomas Isidori when I visited Brae Burn Country Club in Purchase, New York for a food photography assignment. The vast clubhouse has two enormous kitchens and on this day there was a member/guest tournament being serviced by the catering team. In the second kitchen and dining areas, Chef Thomas and I had our own private set for preparing dishes and shooting the images that accompany this profile. For me, this was total bliss. Please enjoy learning about the life of this emotionally and intellectually curious chef.~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us where you grew up and when your interest in cooking emerged.
TI: I was born in Yonkers, New York, and I am a third-generation chef in my family. My grandmother, Philomena aka Fanny, was a chef and owned a restaurant with my grandfather, Arthur, Villanova, on 47th Street in New York City. My father, Thomas Isidori Sr., owned a few restaurants in Westchester County, New York and Fairfield County, Connecticut. My uncles, Arthur and Donald also were chefs, and my “brother,” Joseph Isidori, is a successful Michelin star chef. Joe is my first cousin, but I call him my brother as we grew up together in the same three-family house. We are from divorced families, so we spent every Sunday cooking with our fathers—it was our quality, family time.
When I was in high school, I discovered that I wanted to cook for a living. I was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and planned to study architecture as I loved design. From my perspective, there is little difference in designing a plate or a building, and I like the instant gratification and feedback in the culinary world. I switched paths and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, graduating in 1994. During my internship year, I was assigned to work at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, but the chef there had no recollection of having me assigned to him, nor did he have space for me either. So, I returned to the CIA to look for an alternative location and subsequently contacted Ardsley Country Club. Executive Chef Victor Boyd was sympathetic to my situation and told me, “You can start tomorrow!” I jumped on the train, began my country club career, stayed at Ardsley for four years, and have never left.
From there, I worked for Kevin Sullivan, Executive Chef at Innis Arden Golf Club, Old Greenwich, Connecticut, for seven years. Victor taught me how to be organized and fast, and Kevin taught me all the ins and outs of being an executive chef, including the necessary computer skills. From his example, I learned how to delegate and how to be a better manager. These two guys were the biggest influences on my career.
In 2001 I accepted my first executive chef position at the Stamford Yacht Club. For four years, I learned about high volume catering operation, which is significantly different from golf club culinary operations. At a yacht club, the money is on the water and invested in the owners’ boats. At golf clubs, members are invested in the club, the course, clubhouse, and other facilities. The models are very different.
Golf and country clubs are where I wanted to work and when I landed the executive chef role at the Country Club of Fairfield, the sixth-finest links course in the United States, I stayed for over a decade.
Two years ago, when I was offered the executive chef role at Brae Burn Country Club, a high-volume club where I could utilize and integrate all my experiences, I seized the opportunity.
GK: How do you find the time to teach?
TI: I have taught culinary classes at Norwalk Community College, Norwalk, Connecticut, for the last 15 years, including Food Introduction One, Cost Control and Production, Catering, and Event Management. My favorite class is International Cuisine, which I teach every Tuesday on my day off from the club.
GK: You are a very kind chef who gives back to the community. Could you tell us about that?
TI: I will do whatever I can for the community. When I was a member of the Club Chefs of Connecticut, we worked on the Stamford Hospital Foundation event for the kids every year. I was honored to oversee that event for four years, along with Jeff Perez, who is currently at Fairview Country Club.
I live in Newtown, Connecticut and have a soft spot for this community, which reminds me of true America in the middle of this crazy world. In the town center is a massive flagpole where our patriotism is displayed each day. The community is open and kind, with very little crime. But as everyone knows, we had a life-altering tragedy in 2012 when a mass shooting took 26 lives, including 20 children who were only five and six years old.
In the aftermath, I coordinated and prepared meals for all the services and funerals. I reached out to the community and fellow chefs. Between purveyors, chefs, students, and the Country Club of Fairfield (which gave me the week off to work on the community’s behalf), we produced over 14,000 meals for first responders, volunteers, and families. This was one of the proudest moments of my career. Chefs reached out to me from Texas, Arizona, and California, offering their assistance, including one chef who drove non-stop from Atlanta and worked 48 hours straight. He was so passionate about supporting these people in their time of need.
The most emotional part for me was learning more about the children and what they wanted to be when they grew up. New York City sent three firetrucks to honor one of the little boys as he dreamed of being a fireman. They gave him a fireman’s burial. His small casket was on the back of a firetruck with firefighters and bagpipers lining the streets. It was the most heartfelt thing I have ever seen. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. Each December 14 is a somber day for me.
GK: Tell us about your interest in watches.
TI: I have a large collection of Rolex, Panerai, and Omega watches. After the Newtown tragedy, I gave up my hunting rifle and started fixing and building watches, which occupies me in the off season.
GK: Did you have any expectations when you started at Brae Burn Country Club?
TI: When Brae Burn contacted me, the timing was great. As both a high volume and a Jewish club, I found there a membership that wanted an enhanced culinary program. Initially, I thought it would be much harder to turn this place around, but what they needed was an executive chef to provide direction.
GK: Tell us how your team works with the membership.
TI: My team has and shares their great ideas and through this collaborative environment, they’ve learned to trust me. Within six months, the club’s culinary program took off. Members were ecstatic. One day, I walked into my office and one member gifted me bottles of Tequila and Bourbon to thank us for the great meals and service.
I can experiment and introduce cool concepts. I challenge myself whenever we activate stations in the dining room, which is great for my staff as they are having great fun being creative. I love bringing the kitchen into the dining room and interacting with the members and guests. It has been a great experience here.
GK: You have two immaculate, large kitchens in the clubhouse, indicating a significant emphasis on food and beverage departments.
TI: Well, you know what they say, golf is about the golf and then, there’s everything else. Here at Brae Burn, the food comes before anything else!
GK: Being an Italian, tell us about your love of pasta and pizza.
TI: Nothing is more exciting to me than a hot pizza right out of the oven, especially when it looks like lava: you get the crispiness of the crust, the cheese, and the sauce; it’s a complete pleasure food and yet so simple. I hope that one day Joe and I can venture together and open an amazing pizzeria.
We make every kind of pasta in-house with my Sous Chefs Lucie, Spencer, and Javier, who has been with me for 17 years and 3 clubs now. The members love it. They enjoy seeing pizza made right in front of them and having us run an amazing pasta station with an array of fresh pasta.
GK: Tell us about your team.
TI: I truly believe we are a family and I know that I have some of the most incredible staff here at Brae Burn. And, I realize that my success here wouldn’t have happened without their hard work and dedication.
Nobody is treated inferior. I want to know what they are thinking and what ideas they would like to try. The one empowerment I give line employees is input on menus. This provides some ownership and encourages them to be successful. An example, if a junior sous chef comes to me with an idea, I ask him how he plans to implement it, then I provide feedback. Recently, based on a team member’s suggestion, we created an oyster action station four ways in the buffet and it was a huge hit.
I bought knife kits for each team member when I got here. Why do I give a chef’s knife kit to a dishwasher? As much as I personally hate doing dishes, it gives me so much pleasure to see an employee advance themselves whether it be moving up in my kitchen or leaving my kitchen for a higher position in another. I love seeing people grow and mature and become successful. I don’t want them to always be a dishwasher.
The 8th hole at Brae Burn Country Club, Purchase, New York
Image courtesy Brae Burn Country Club