Rhy Waddington, Executive Chef at Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, New York, USA.
This is an interview from the FALL 2017 launch issue of Golf Kitchen Magazine.
We eat with our eyes first. Well, at least I do, don’t you? Scroll through your Instagram feed or turn on the cooking channels, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it but your eyes can still take you to that place where your stomach starts to rumble, your mouth waters and you’re inspired to now cook a dish you hadn’t planned on. All because someone else had a vision and laid it on a plate.
Rhy Waddington is one of those visionaries who has long been tempting our eyes with his delectable artwork. Scroll through his website or Instagram feed and tell me you can’t help but salivate at his dishes. His innovative style has had mouths watering from long ago. From back in his earlier years at his first restaurant “Waddingtons at Kergunyah,” to his stint in Southern California to now, where the lucky members of Winged Foot Golf Club are treated nearly every day to his culinary showcase. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rhy to speak with him about where his passion for cooking came from. Oh, and of course don’t think I let him get away without cooking me lunch! How could I resist the opportunity! ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: What are some of the most memorable restaurants where you worked in Australia and why?
At the very beginning of my career, I worked for Noelle Quinn at Mon Cherie Restaurant and Zillion Food Studio, both in Albury-Wodonga. Noelle was a great ambassador for local farms, and through her guidance, I became even more enthusiastic about creating new menu items and sourcing local produce. When I returned to the North East Region after a few years away I joined the board of the Hume Murray Food Bowl, which Noelle founded and coordinated for many years. The Hume Murray Food Bowl was an initiative created to bring exposure to the regional producers, restaurants, and chefs. In 2002, I was offered the Executive Chef position at a restaurant called The Bank, in Beechworth, Victoria, which was a regional fine dining farm to table establishment.
GK: In 2003 you opened your own restaurant, tell us about that experience?
Yes, Waddington’s at Kergunyah, which we opened on my parent’s 900 acre Hereford beef farm. We wanted to take the farm to table experience to the next level by growing and supplying our produce. But we wanted our guests to have the authentic farm life experience also.
The farm was an actual working cattle farm, so guests were politely reminded to close the gate behind them so the cattle wouldn’t wander onto the road. Yes – customers had to get out of the car and open the gate just to visit us!
GK: What motivated you to travel to the United States?
I was offered a position with the Bondi Group to come to San Diego, California to help open Bondi Bar and Kitchen, located in the Gaslamp district in San Diego. Chris Behre was the consulting chef for the company, and I was the Executive Chef of the venue.
GK; How did you find your way to Winged Foot Golf Club?
A good friend introduced me to the Executive Chef at Winged Foot. After meeting the Chef, I was offered a position here in 2009 as the Executive Sous Chef and promoted to Executive Chef soon after that.
GK; What were your thoughts about working at a private golf club such as Winged Foot?
I was always a restaurant chef and had never thought about the private club world as an option for me. But as an avid golfer, I was intrigued as WFGC is one of the best golf courses in the world. Our members eat at the best restaurants in the world, and that is the standard of cuisine they demand here. It’s been a great experience, and I have a lot of freedom to practice my culinary visions.
GK: Do the members drive your menu?
The members have put a lot of faith and trust in us over the last seven years so we can pretty much do whatever we want. We always try to balance our cuisine by keeping a good mix of classic favorites and the introduction of new dishes. We like to change the menu up every week to keep it fresh for our members, and it also motivates and inspires my team to learn continually and grow.
GK: How do you plan your menus?
There’s always a balance required when creating a menu. We need to remember who our customer is, and as a golf club, we have a broad array of favorites and requirements. We like to use the best produce and present it in more of a modern way than you might expect at your local eatery down the street.
Only the members and their guests can dine here, so it is crucial to change our menu weekly and create new and exciting experiences. We find that frequently changing the menu also entices them to return on a regular basis, and also gives us great feedback on their likes and dislikes.
GK: How do you source all of your products, especially having the passion you have for farm to table dining?
It’s tough since we do things here on such a big scale, with as many as 400 covers a day. We have a lot of corporate functions and upscale events as well, so it’s always busy. While it makes it challenging for me to use smaller farms without the necessary infrastructure and pricing model, I have built relationships with local farmers and purveyors who jump at the chance to feature their product on our menus. We have excellent access to local quail, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, suckling pig, fresh duck eggs and a variety of other produce. We also grow a lot of herbs on site in our kitchen garden. And as you know, I have very strict guidelines on what is acceptable, and we only want the best!
GK: Tell me about your culinary team here at Winged Foot.
When I took the job, I knew we had to have a culinary team that was well respected in the industry. What I found was that a lot of chefs and culinary staff think that a golf club is where you go when you retire, and they have a notion that the chefs in golf clubs don’t know what they are doing, which is not the case at all.
I have assembled an energetic team who are passionate about cooking. I have key staff who return every year, but I also utilize the student internship programs from CIA (Culinary Institute of America) as well as Johnson and Wales University. I’m a strong believer in providing opportunities for young people, and we have such an amazing stage to start some of these kids off the right way. We have a variety of training programs to educate them both in the kitchen as well as the front of house staff. While I am the face of the culinary team, I have some great people behind me. My Pastry Chef Katie is amazingly talented, and my Sous Chefs Chrissie and Adrien are the backbone of our culinary team. They take on the majority of the responsibility for sourcing ingredients and making sure the staff is trained on the weekly menus.
GK: You are the first golf club team that was ever invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. Tell us about that experience.
The events coordinator at the James Beard House invited us to cook there. We had to get it approved by our General Manager Colin Burns, as well as the members, but they loved the idea and were very supportive. We put a menu together, and it was a superb experience and great exposure for the young kids and seasonal staff that were in the kitchen. It also provided the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) students with an extraordinary finish to their externship. It was like a celebration for the time they were here at Winged Foot.
A lot of the members whom I thought were plain eaters were blown away by the dinner. Many had not heard of the James Beard House or realized the significance of the honor to be invited to cook there. However, after attending and doing a little research, they clearly understood how special it was. We have since participated in numerous dinners and events with them.
GK: Do you enjoy working with the General Manager Colin Burns? He has been at Winged Foot for over 20 years.
Colin knows the members very well. When I came here, Colin wanted to change things up. He realized that remaining relevant with our cuisine was necessary, and he wanted to keep up to date and fresh. Before my arrival, the menu only changed three times a year, which isn’t what you would expect for a prestigious club like Winged Foot. When you have two of the best golf courses in the world and a club house that is recognized globally, you need to have a culinary program to match! That has been our goal, and Colin has been a huge supporter of our team, and we are certainly very grateful.
Rhy’s ability in the kitchen has provided him the honor of cooking at the revered James Beard House on four separate occasions making him the first Chef from a private club setting to do so.
Rhy is as an avid believer in the programs the JBF run, as he is passionate about the culinary stars of the future. His modern approach to classic cuisine continues to wow the members of WFGC with his weekly menu changes.
His superb craftsmanship of innovative and delicious dishes keeps them coming back for more and more. Each dish is a true piece of art. As I said, we eat with our eyes first. However, his food tastes even better than it looks. Trust me.
~ by Diana DeLucia
The James Beard Foundation is an NYC based non-profit culinary arts organization with a mission to “celebrate, nurture, and honor America's diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire.” www.jamesbeard.org
Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, New York, USA. Image by Laurence Casey Lambrecht, courtesy Winged Foot Golf Club.