Executive Chef Doug Blair, Cassique Course @ Kiawah Island Club – South Carolina, USA
Cassique is one of my favorite places that I have visited. I am not sure what it is but I just feel at home there. I met some wonderful friends there with whom I have stayed in touch . I enjoyed Doug’s company and his passion for the cuisine at Voysey’s. ~ Diana DeLucia
Doug, I’m sure it’s been a long journey, but can you share how you became interested in food and some of your early experiences?
I grew up visiting my grandparent’s farm in Illinois. It was the place where the entire family gathered for the holidays and other special occasions. We had large gardens and many chores, which was something I hated as a kid, but as a result, farming became something that was ingrained in me.
In 1982, I started college at the University of Idaho. I changed my major many times and ended up choosing communications and did some bartending in my free time. The nightclub where I worked was called the Mirage, and they had decided to split the property into a nightclub on one side and an upscale dining restaurant on the other. It was owned and run by a young kid whose family was very wealthy. They gave him the business and flooded him with cash. It was a high-end operation, and it was my first exposure to a chef. Being a bartender, I walked into the kitchen all the time, and I became the chef’s nemesis. I would just graze on his mise en place, and I became so enamored with the sauces and everything that he was making. I realized then that I really enjoyed the culinary field.
I left college in my senior year before graduating and moved to Seattle with a bunch of college buddies. I had every intention of going to a hotel and restaurant school in Seattle with a great culinary program. I applied everywhere for jobs, but I didn’t have a reference for high-level cuisine experience. I was applying for jobs at places like Sizzler! I was 20 at the time, and I was totally naïve. I was just pounding the pavement. One thing I had learned in college was how to create a resume and how to network, so I spent weeks blitzing many areas of the city for employment.
One day I walked into a place called Il Terrazzo Carmine. Carmine Smeraldo, who just passed away in 2012, was the owner. I remember the first time I walked into the restaurant, and as the kitchen doors opened, I could see that it was an open kitchen. I went in, and I left my resume which had nothing on it but bartending, a dishwasher job, and some time in a grocery store. They paid no attention to me. I walked in at 11:30 am which is right as lunch was starting! I was standing there at the pass, and the chef said: “Move along now; we are busy, and you can’t stay here.”
I was so affected by the smells and the environment. From that moment on I just couldn’t get that out of my mind. I would go back there every day for five days in a row. The chef said “What are you doing back here? I have read your resume, and you have no experience”, and I said, “but surely there must be something?” Essentially I was begging for a job. Finally, he said “Don’t come back here anymore at this time, because you’re here every day during lunch service, and you’re disrupting everything. Come back tomorrow at three o’clock and meet us in the bar. I will introduce you to the owner,” he chuckled. “I will let him talk to you.”
Carmine was notorious for being a bit of a tyrant. He sat me down in the bar and told me, “Look, you have no experience”, and in not so many words that I was annoying them so much that he decided to give me a shot at doing some prep work. At the end of the interview he threatened me, saying “If you mess one thing up or if they ever give you the chance to put something on the plate, and it goes out to one of my customers, and there is something wrong, you’ll be fired on the spot. That will be it, and there will be no warning.” That’s where I started, and I ended up staying at Il Terrazzo for a year and a half.
I was in Seattle to get my residency so that I could afford tuition for school, so about four months into it Christopher Horsfield took me aside and said, “In order to maintain my Master Chef certification abroad, I need to have an apprentice under me. I have not done it in over a year, but I will do this for you if you keep it under wraps as I have not offered this to the other guys, and they have a lot more experience. I will do this for you, and I advise you to do the apprenticeship before you go to Culinary School.” After that, I hopscotched around the Seattle restaurant scene getting as much experience as possible. After four years, I got hired as the head chef for a pizza and pasta bistro that we opened in an affluent neighborhood. We did very well; my partner had equity in it, and I was working towards the same. About a year later, he ended up separating from the silent partners and somehow it all got dumped into my lap. I was 25 and nowhere near ready, and I became overwhelmed. Even some of my mentors told me I was not ready for that job, but I said I was going to do it anyway. It had a huge learning curve and was very strenuous, but a great experience.
I decided to get out of the city, and for my next adventure, I got a job with a family who owned a large resort in Montana in Glacier National Park. I was hired as the Food and Beverage Director. On a trip to the Georgia area recruiting college students to work at the resort in the summer, I felt something familiar about the Southeast having lived there as a child.
I went back to the Montana resort for a summer, and it was crazy. We worked 90–100 hours a week for three and half months, and it was brutal. In the first two weeks, I lost my executive chef, my Sous Chef, and then my pastry chef. Suddenly, I wasn’t a Food and Beverage Director anymore. I was Johnny everything. It was exhausting, but I learned a lot. During that time I met a girl from Columbia, South Carolina. I decided to visit her and ended up staying. I had only brought a few things with me, but I needed a sabbatical just to recharge.
In 1993, we were visiting her family who were on a little vacation at Kiawah Island. We were staying in one of the villas right by the resort. I had my portfolio with me, so I just walked across the street and talked to the Executive Chef, and he hired me on the spot. It was a low paying Sous Chef job, but it was better making money every day rather than spending it. At the time, the resort was in receivership. Soon after that, Bill Goodwin from Virginia Investment Trusts bought it and it has become what it is today. I went from being a Sous Chef to a head chef of a Mediterranean bistro, The Indigo House, which was being redesigned. That kept me at Kiawah for about two and a half years.
I then joined a private club, the Country Club of Charleston, one of the oldest country clubs in the nation. They wanted to convert their culinary focus to fine dining. As a member equity-owned club, many opinions were expressed, and after a year, we still did not have a final concept in place to make any meaningful changes. It was not what I wanted, and I decided I needed to do something that utilized my knowledge and experience level. I needed to be more involved in cutting edge cooking. I had moved so far away from that and felt I was starting to get behind in the emerging scene of farm to table cooking and cutting edge techniques.
A French bistro in downtown Charleston, Beaumont’s, offered me a position and I accepted. Unfortunately, the business ran into financial trouble, and I stayed for just four months. I thought about opening my own restaurant, but then Robbie Crawford, General Manager of the Kiawah Island Club, called me. Robbie asked me to come back to Kiawah to talk. I didn’t want to go back to the country club environment, so I first told him “No.” But after about a week, I thought I should reconsider, and at least see him. The golf course here at Cassique had just been completed. We toured the course, and he asked me what I thought. He said, “Can you see yourself being here?” I replied, “I see a beautiful golf course, but what are you asking me? I’m not sure I want to be involved in private clubs anymore.” He explained that Buddy Darby and Leonard Long had fallen in love with Gramercy Tavern in New York City, and they wanted to create a similar concept at Cassique. That got my interest and my attention! Robbie sent me to New York to train with Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern. All of a sudden things came into alignment, and this was just the right thing for me. That was in 2000. I would remain here as a consultant and be involved in the design of the clubhouse and restaurant while at the same time doing training in New York. Everything sounded really good.
The idea was to create a restaurant concept within a club. We wanted people to walk up the stairs and feel like they were walking into a restaurant in Manhattan. That really resounded with me. With that concept, I felt that we could perform at a very different level, and I could exceed people’s expectations. When you are pushing the envelope as high as you can and stay just a step ahead of people’s expectations, you get to do what you want. It allows you freedom, as opposed to putting out a vote to see what the menu will be. It was clear that this is the direction that we were headed, and I liked that idea.
How long were you at Gramercy Tavern?
I went up there for three months and went back several times when Craft was opening. I wanted to see how they were doing things and learn from it. Tom Colicchio, Buddy Darby, Robbie, Leonard Long and I were working on the concept together. We were excited to get Tom’s perception and vision since he had adapted several spaces in New York, which takes someone who is very creative since everything is vertical in New York. At Cassique, we have a dishwashing machine in the basement, and we have a porter running our wares up an elevator. We would never have thought to do that. It’s a little expensive, but it freed up space in the kitchen. In addition, all the noise and humidity of dishwashing would be kept out of the service kitchen. Tom brought a lot to the table with the design here, including our cooking suite. The company we used, Grande Cuisine, builds custom commercial kitchen equipment, and we were starting from nothing. We sketched out the design, it was approved, and we were good to go!
I loved being at Gramercy; it was such a special time for me. I have given Tom a hard time about it ever since because I was put through the ringer so intensely for the first two months. I was running each station for three days and moving onto the next; it was hard but really a good way to learn. I asked him if it was intentional, and he said: “No, it was just because people were calling in sick and you just happened to be there.” It was very much a trial by fire, but it was fun and successful, and we hit it off.
Once the three months ended, I returned to Kiawah, but we would return to New York occasionally in groups. My wife Amy Everett, who runs the front of the house, would go with us to New York as well, and we would all observe the front of the house service at Tom’s restaurants to get ideas of how we would adapt that to our club service. The last time we went was September of 2001, and we had leased a big apartment. We were supposed to fly home to Kiawah from New York on September 11th. On September 10th, I went for a long walk to release some tension which included walking around the World Trade Center. I came back and said, “You know what guys, I think we are done here. We could stay for another night but why don’t we just leave today.” Everyone agreed, and we moved our flights up and left that night. The next day as I was driving to work and heard the news, I couldn’t believe it.
Tell us about the opening day for Voysey’s.
Robbie and the partners wanted the opening to be incredible. He told me to spend whatever I wanted, and so I did! It was really successful. We were open for lunch each day for a week, and the members could just come by and experience it for free. We created a buffet style setup that would show a little flavor of what the menu might be. It was the best buffet with which I had ever been involved, but the bill was astronomical! The sticker shock was almost comedic, but I said, “You told me to do whatever I wanted!” They said, “What are you - crazy?” I reminded them, “I asked you three times!”
We started out with a great staff, and there was a lot of buzz about this place, as there was nothing like it in South Carolina. Five of my staff members had been Executive Chefs in the past, so we had a lot of depth and experience. We are now on our fourth generation of staff, including about 70 percent women, and it’s working very well.
Tell us about the James Beard connection.
Several years ago, Tom Colicchio was visiting, and he asked me if I was interested in doing a James Beard dinner. Of course I said that would be great for our team. He told me they were doing a hidden chef series, and he gave me the contact details and told me to use his name for the referral. It was funny because, at first, she was very dismissive. But as soon as I mentioned Tom and the Hidden Chef series, her interest peeked.
We did the dinner in June of 2004, and it was very successful. We brought everything up from here, and when Tom came in around course number three, he said, “You have brought everything but the kitchen sink!” I explained we’d never done this before, so I wanted it to be the best.
What was the reaction to Cassique and Voysey’s?
We had the reputation that we were one of a kind. Even at that time in the USA, the restaurant industry was trying to find their own way – especially in the private club world. Things were just starting to improve, and the celebrity chef was becoming a trend. The Food Network became more and more successful, and we often appeared in magazines as they were impressed that Tom Colicchio had become involved in a private golf club.
What makes Cassique special for you?
Having been here from the inception, being a part of the design team, and having nurtured it for this long, it feels like home to me. The people that work here are a very close-knit team. We don’t have a big separation between the front and back of the house, which happens so often in restaurants. Since we co-managed both from the start, we work seamlessly. This is the longest I have spent anywhere in my professional life. I have put a lot of myself into this. I can rely on the people here, and we have developed a distinctive culture just within this clubhouse. I like the fact that we have very high-quality cuisine here. But it’s also very simple, even though a lot of effort goes into creating it. We put hours and hours into prep of sauces etc., and we make everything here.
What drives you to create new menus?
Everything is seasonally driven here. Rarely do we ever step out of these premises during our busy season. We get excited about each season and what we are going to do with the produce. Sometimes it will be traditional, and sometimes we’ll go in an entirely different direction. We have a dedication to the integrity of what we are doing, and we have an exceptional team. Michael O’Shaughnessy and I both come from an Irish-English background. I don’t know what it is, but we’re certainly driven people. We are not going to accept anything less than absolute excellence as a standard. Once we established that standard over 15 years ago, there has been a total commitment by our team.