Left: Wes Tyler, Executive Chef at The Club at Carlton Woods, The Woodlands, Texas, USA.
Right: Cherrywood Smoked Burrata.
Images by Diana DeLucia
Wes Tyler was born in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1987, the world’s bourbon capital. His parents were both from farming families, and he grew up working on the farm, developing core values and a strong work ethic.
At 17, he took a position at a local pizza shop, delivering pizzas and learning the business as a teenager, and continued to work in chain restaurants while attending college. Tyler did not enjoy the college classes, and his mom suggested a switch to culinary school. He never looked back. When he graduated from culinary school, Chef John Stanley from Woodlands Country Club gave him a position as a sauté chef at the club. After four years, he was the sous chef. He took a position at a Spanish tapas restaurant and an executive backstage catering chef position that serviced large venues in Texas.
His return to the club industry came when he was 28, working as the executive sous chef under the Executive Chef Jeffery Baker at Houston Oaks Country Club. It was here that he would realize the importance of his childhood roots.
Tyler took the sous chef role at The Club at Carlton Woods in ? and was quickly promoted to the executive sous chef role. When the executive chef left the position, Tyler assumed the executive chef role and is currently building his team and new programs and initiatives for the club and his team. Wes Tyler is one of those young culinary talents that takes complete ownership of his career in all areas. His talents go way beyond being a chef. His passion for artisan bourbons, writing, and lifting his team to succeed is exemplary. He is an example of the new modern chef, making significant strides in changing the perception of the private golf and country club industry on a culinary level. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: You are originally from Kentucky, what are some of your earlier memories?
I was born in Bardstown, Kentucky in 1987, the world’s bourbon capital. One of the strongest memories I can recall from a young age, was the warm fragrance of sour mash fermenting in the air in the early mornings and the smell of fresh corn being harvested in the fields across the county. I can still almost taste it. Retrospectively, this has become an intricate part of my life today, although I didn’t know the impact it would have on me at the time.
Both my mother and father came from farming families, and as a child I remember my grandparents did a lot of canning and preserving. Very early on, I can remember sitting on the porch snapping beans into 5 gallon buckets, shucking corn by the bushel, and puttering around in the garden with my grandfathers. As I got older I worked on the farms, in the cornfields, and hay fields developing core values and a work ethic that is only earned through legitimate blood, sweat, and tears. At the time, I didn’t realize what I was being introduced to at such a young age, however I’m thankful now as I often refer back to much of this in my career as a Chef today.
Growing up, my mom always cooked home-cooked meals, and most nights the family would sit around the dinner table and eat together. This was our time. It instilled an important routine, and a chance to connect with each other at the end of the day. I cherish these memories, and feel blessed to have been so fortunate.
GK: How did you end up at culinary school?
At 17 years old, I got my first job at a local pizza shop, delivering pizzas and learning the business as a teenager. After high school, I stayed in the restaurant industry mostly while going to college, bouncing around from chain to chain, and making enough money to have a good time while enjoying life. After a couple of failed attempts at the university, my mom suggested I go to culinary school since I was unsure with what I wanted in a career, and seemed to be happy in the kitchen.
Fortunately, I decided to make the leap into a familiar world, and discovered that I was genuinely passionate about food and everything that surrounded the hospitality industry. It was a mindless transition at first, although rigorous, and I was used to being a rebel so the early drive that was instilled in me began to shine through in the kitchen! I had to dress the part, uphold the standards, and take criticism just as I had as a young boy on the farm learning the ropes from my grandfathers. It was imperative, necessary, and paralleled the excellent foundations I had already developed coming up.
Now days, there is a stigma with culinary schools because many people come straight out of high school, graduate from culinary school, and then think they are automatically a chef. It doesn’t work like that, and I never had that mindset. Additionally, there is another side of the industry that believes that learning by working in the kitchen, transitioning through the school of “hard knocks”, and gaining experience as you work through the ranks is the only way. I embraced this very early on. Then you’ve got the select few that have been exposed to the industry, created a foundation with culinary education, and use a combined perspective to springboard a career. For me, it has been a combination of all of this that has worked well, and proven to outline a path as I progress within the industry and continue to raise the bar.
I have always enjoyed learning about other people’s perspectives, especially the younger generation. A reality check is often needed for students after leaving culinary school; it’s not like Food Network or TV shows that glorify chefs and kitchens. These shows, although enlightening, often put us in a bad spot because they make it seem like everything is beautiful and perfect all the time, and that is just not the case!
GK: What were your plans after that?
After I graduated culinary school, I was looking into see what I could land. A chef in Texas at The Woodlands Country Club, John Stanley, called me back and gave me an opportunity. We talked on the phone, and he said, “When can you be down here?” It was a Wednesday, and I said, “I can be down there by this weekend.” It was as simple as that. I let my family know I was headed off, and that was the start of my club career as a chef.
GK: Why were you applying to country clubs?
I didn’t even know what a country club was at the time, as I hadn’t been exposed to them. There was one in Bardstown, but it’s not like what we have here in Texas. I told my family that I had found a job and was going to Texas. I packed everything in my car and left that weekend. I lived in a hotel for three weeks and made it work until I got on my feet. I made some terrific friends, and an amazing chef there, Erik Gonzalez, took me under his wing and is my best friend to this very day. We became roommates for several years, worked together, and now he is an executive chef at Woodforest Golf Club here in Montgomery.
GK: How long were you at Woodlands Country Club and what did you do after that?
I stayed at Woodlands Country Club for nearly four years. I started as a line cook on sauté and worked my way up to sous chef. I was young and reckless, but I learned a lot. I met my wife Brooke there, and held our wedding at the club shortly after. She is still the catering director there, and is my rock in all that I do.
After getting married, I left The Woodlands Country Club to take an executive chef position at a tapas restaurant close by. I didn’t know anything about Spanish food and had never been to Spain. I got into the books, and I learned as much as I could. I learned how to run the operation, the kitchen, and the staff. It was a small restaurant; however, it had very high-volume traffic in a high-end area. I stayed for two years and then got an executive backstage catering chef position at a local catering company that serviced all the large venues in the area.
I thought, man, this is great, this is every cook’s dream to cook for the stars. They offered me what I thought was a great salary, more money than I’d ever been offered at the time— it wasn’t long before reality set in. I was working 18-to-20-hour days. We would show up at 3:30-4:00 in the morning, load up all the equipment onto the 18-wheeler, drive it to the venues, and unload it at the stadium or wherever we were going. Cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner, load it all back up, and bring it back. We had a newborn at the time, so I only stayed for six months. It was grueling, and not what I thought it was going to be.
When I left there, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I had to do something. I ended up at another country club and was there for maybe three or four weeks and realized that this wasn’t right fit for me. They’re not doing it the right way. Then, I received a call from Chef Jeffery Baker, at Houston Oaks Country Club. I talked to him on the phone. I said, “Listen, chef, this isn’t where I’m supposed to be. I’m looking for a place to continue to grow and learn.” I ended up going to work with him. I told him that I needed to learn and continue developing my skills. I was around 28 at the time. He took me under his wing as an executive sous, and immersed me in the many creative programs they were offering there. There was a giant garden, and we were growing all our own vegetables. We would go out in the middle of the day and pick stuff out of the garden to cook at night. We built an aviary and started harvesting our honey. He started canning, and that is when everything hit home and went full circle. I was doing what I was supposed to be as a chef, and touching base with my roots.
GK: How did you land at The Club at Carlton Woods?
Early on when I moved to Texas, while I was at the Woodlands Country Club, there were always whispers about this very prestigious club named Carlton Woods. So mysterious, that nobody could tell me what happened inside the gates. I always thought I’d love to work there. Years later, the sous chef opportunity came up, and I knew I had to take the chance.
When I first started here at CW, I was working the mornings at the Nicklaus Clubhouse. I was not doing much, and didn’t feel stimulated. I said, “Chef, I’m worth more than this. I’m not enjoying what I’m doing here in the mornings. I want to go to the Fazio Clubhouse so I could be more valuable to the team. He agreed, and I went to the other operation. It was there that I worked with the team, guided them, and developed menus. Later, I was promoted to executive sous chef where I learned more about the overall operations of the club, and created a platform for success as I grew and tenured. During this time, I knew that I was in the right place, and CW was where I wanted to call home.
GK: When did you get the Executive Chef role?
I took the interim executive chef position for a few months after the first chef left. Shortly after, they hired Russell Scott, CMC. He is an excellent classical chef, an Olympian, and a highly decorated veteran in the
industry. When they told me they were bringing him on, I was going through my executive chef certification processes with the ACF, continuing my progression and expanding my skillset and reach within the industry. Initially, I was disappointed that I didn’t get the role, however trusted the clubs decision and redirected my focus to refining my skillset and taking advantage of the opportunity to work under someone with such knowledge and success. This challenged me mentally. When he started, I wrote a letter to him, and I said, “I’m willing to be broken down, reset my perspective, and start from scratch in order to be successful and excel. I want to learn how to do everything the right way. I want to go by the book and see what you can teach me.” It was an opportunity few have the fortune of receiving, and I wanted to absorb as much as I could. Most importantly I remained humble, and wanted to use this time to take a look at myself and reflect on what I knew already and how I could grow with his guidance.
For me, this was another genuine turning point in my career. I took the time to focus, learn, and think about the small details. He often asked me questions that I didn’t know the answers to, even though I should have. I could frequently perform and execute tasks, but couldn’t explain, describe, or put into words what or why I was doing things or processes a certain way. He challenged me to think first and have a plan for every move I made. As a mentor, he taught me how to be a leader, and have a purpose and reason for everything that I do in the kitchen.
It didn’t end up working out for him, and he chose to move on after a couple of years. I’m still great friends with him to this day, and frequently lean on him for support and ideas. He redirected the way that I was thinking about the precision of some of the things I was doing, maybe a little more haphazardly early on. Then when he was gone, I had to focus on dialing myself in the rest of the way, in order to be successful.
Once he left, I assumed the role of executive chef, and have grown the culinary operations to a new level. I have a true appreciation for the support and guidance he provided, and the potential he saw and cultivated in me throughout our time together. Reflecting on this, it was a necessary bridge I needed to cross in order to take my career to the greater heights, and I am grateful for the knowledge I gained during this time.
GK: You are very humble and appreciate learning from those in your life and career. Tell us about that.
I rely heavily on my team and the people around me for support. I discovered very early on that their success is my success. I learn from my sous chefs, line cooks, and kitchen staff on daily basis. I think I continue to grow and have successful because of that. I don’t claim to know it all. I don’t claim to have all the answers. If someone comes to me and I don’t know the answer, we can undoubtedly figure it out together. If one of the staff come to me with an idea they are really excited about, we work through it and see how we can incorporate that into our program. That humble approach buys back into the creativity, freedom, and support that I need to stimulate them in the kitchen. The team has to have some opportunity to be involved in the bigger picture. By providing them a platform for growth and discussion, everyone gets a return on investment. If we can all do that, then we will all be successful.
I’m the face of the operation, but I’m the first one to tell you that I can’t do it alone. It’s a collective effort from everyone. That’s another reason my Executive Sous Chef Adam Jemmott, and I have spent the last 18 months meticulously building and selecting our team. Part of the challenge throughout the hiring process was the availability and quality of the talent pool. Due to the Pandemic and the shortage of applicants, it was tempting to take anyone who walked in the door because we were so short staffed. We had to make some really tough decisions while hiring to make sure we were making the right selections. It was more important to us to take our time and put the right team in place, rather than to just bring someone on to ease the work load. We passed over several people that could have filled a void, or were maybe even over qualified for a role because we wanted to ensure our core was solid and the people we brought on were going to mesh well with the team and elevate our operation as a whole. In the end, patience and dedication paid off for us, and now we have a really solid team. A lot of it happens naturally, and a lot of it comes with time and experience.
It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, dedication, and training from a leadership standpoint, but we want to ensure that at Carlton Woods we are not just another kitchen full of cooks punching a clock. We are running a dedicated, professional, and elevated culinary team in a high end operation. We strive to set the bar for our industry peers, and exemplify the standard of excellence necessary for success in golf kitchens across the world.
GK: Tell us about the Junior Sous Chef Program.
Now that we have compiled a really solid culinary team, we are getting everyone on the same page and aligning our core goals. These secondary programs, such as the Junior Sous Chef program, are designed to highlight an internal growth and promotional opportunity within the department. This program specifically, outlines a detailed path to the sous chef role focusing on supervisory growth and experiential development over a course amount of time. In addition to this, there are leadership goals and advanced techniques that must be demonstrated to complete each section of the program in order to move on to the next step. Each goal has an incentive or compensation increase attached to it, providing tangible results beyond the knowledge and career growth that comes with the program inherently.
As a leader, I want my team to have the confidence that if they buy into our movement and direction as a culinary operation, then we are excited to re-invest in their careers and support their growth as culinarians. This is a beneficial approach for both sides, as we are able to support the evolution of our team and elevate our operation, the team is simultaneously gaining both personal and career development as well.
GK: How did the club manage during the lockdowns?
It was challenging for us, and everyone in the hospitality industry as a whole. We shifted gears to focus mainly on to-go offerings, meal prep, and outdoor dining while restrictions were in place. Throughout the lockdowns we saw a 400% increase in to-go orders, and golf course usage spiked tremendously being one of the few outdoor activities available. Fortunately, we remained open and available in some way, shape, or form throughout the entirety of the pandemic. This was a great service for our staff, as we were able to keep most of them employed, and the members were overwhelmingly supportive as we navigated unprecedented times. No one could have predicted what happened, however it was amazing to see the communal efforts on all fronts. The ability to adapt and overcome the challenging obstacles we faced throughout this was a true display of character, and reassured us that we were going to make it through to the other side together.
GK: What are some of the changes you have made to keep staff at the club?
One of the most impactful changes has been the culture shift in the kitchen. Chef Adam and I have spent a lot of time redefining the philosophies, values, and principles of our kitchen to support the team that surrounds us. We re-defined the operation to capitalize on each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and that helps keep the staff stimulated. Most importantly, it cultivates a positive work environment for the team when they come to work every day and know that we are all in this together. By offering them the opportunity to showcase their skills, get involved in menu development, and be creative; we create some skin in the game for each person to own a piece of what we do collectively.
We also work really hard to achieve a good balance of work and quality of life for the team. This is one of the most important benefits we push, however there are still limitations. We have to run a business, but we want to make sure the team has a chance breath and take time to reflect after our busy times. Chef Adam does an outstanding job with the scheduling, He works hard to get everybody two days off, and works with the team on making sure they are getting their personal time away from work.
As I mentioned before, we really took the time to hand pick our team and make sure that we created a positive and dominant force in the kitchen. In this process we highlighted the fact, that as much value as they bring operation, we can equally be a value add to them and their careers. We promote a variety of outlets for professional development, and are constantly looking for opportunities that can benefit both the staff and the club. Because of these things, we have a very low turnover rate and maintain a positive energy in the kitchen.
GK: You and Adam are both young guys collaborating and finding what’s best for the staff. Does that make it more attractive for young people to join the industry on a culinary level?
Absolutely. I hope that we are an inspiration to our peers and younger generations of cooks entering the industry. We complement each other extremely well. We have different perspectives and came up through the industry very differently, but that allows us to showcase each other’s talents and really round each off in the kitchen. I learn new things from Adam every day, and am constantly inspired by his ideas and impressed with his level of talent. Adam didn’t go to a culinary school, but he did go through the “school of hard knocks”, and has climbed the ranks and earned his stripes through hard work and dedication. He is an amazing chef. He is resilient and creative, and is a dominant force in the kitchen.
Paralleling that, I went to culinary school, started out in the industry at a young age, and really embodied the classical style of cooking and old school philosophies in a lot of ways. I spent a lot of time digging down to my roots, and incorporating that into the techniques and practices I use today.
The combination of those two properties is a powerful thing. We can lean on each other. We can bounce ideas off of each other. My weaknesses are his strong points and vice versa, so we’re teaching each other and learning and growing together.
GK: Being in your thirties, you are changing the entire way the industry works on a culinary level.
We have the opportunity to impact the culinary industry in a lot of different ways. A lot of it will evolve beyond us, and there will be a time in 30 years where it changes into something else.
Right now, we’re still young enough to adapt and work with the new generations, and we’re old enough to have had the experiences with the old school chefs. The most important opportunity here, is to influence the industry, we have to take both of those perspectives, and make it what we need it to be. The hope is, that we can impact the industry in such a way that it continues to support the growth and evolution for generations to come. If we can do that while carrying on the traditions and philosophies that brought us to this point, then that will be our legacy.
The Club at Carlton Woods, The Woodlands, Texas, USA
Image courtesy The Club at Carlton Woods