Job spotlight: Chris Smith, executive chef at Callaway Gardens

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 25, 2013 

To say Thanksgiving Day will be a labor of love for Chris Smith and his crew at Callaway Gardens might not fully describe what they will face.

The executive chef of the nature preserve-like attraction in Pine Mountain, Ga., just north of Columbus, concedes it takes plenty of hard work to plan and prepare the annual feasts for Callaway's four restaurants and Mountain Creek ballrooms.

That's because Smith, a Senoia, Ga., native and LaGrange, Ga., resident, expects to serve about 4,200 guests Thursday at the resort, which would be about 200 more meals than a year ago.

"You've got to get in here early and it takes a long time to get all of that stuff ready. It really does," said Smith, 32, who has been with Callaway Gardens seven years. Before that, he cut his proverbial culinary teeth as a cook at two country club restaurants near Newnan, Ga.

The Ledger-Enquirer talked recently with Smith, who worked his way up the ranks at Callaway, starting with cook, then lead cook and sous (assistant) chef, followed by executive sous chef and finally executive chef in March 2012.

He discussed his job, its challenges and the huge task of pulling off one of the most revered days for giving thanks and eating a delicious meal. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.

Was it hard to work your way up to the top chef at Callaway and what did it take?

Yes, it was very hard. Really, it took showing up every day and doing my job the best I could, listening, paying attention to the chefs before me. This property is very unique. We have so many restaurants that it can't be run like a regular (stand-alone) restaurant.

We have everything from the big buffets in the ballrooms and the Mountain Creek Inn to higher-end plated meals down at the Gardens Restaurant.

Is Thanksgiving about attracting those who wish to splurge or simply don't want to cook during the holiday?

It really depends on who they are. It may be a lot of older couples that don't want to cook or don't have a lot of family around, or maybe some Army wives or Army families that have deployed family members that don't want to cook at home. We see a lot of that ... For some people, it's just a tradition to come here.

How long does it take to plan the holiday menus?

I wrote the Thanksgiving menus months ago, before summer. So we start planning months and months in advance, so that gives us time to make any changes. We go through our notes from Thanksgiving in years past to see if something didn't work, to see what did work, and modify going forward accordingly.

Is it about serving up refined dishes for some people's tastes, and more traditional food for simple palates?

Yes. Sometimes the more refined stuff doesn't work and we need to change. But we always have the traditional offerings as well.

What's the difference in the menus? There's the Country Kitchen, but I see free-range herb-marinated and roasted turkey and sea salt-crusted smoked prime rib au jus on the Gardens Restaurant menu. Are the latter two popular?

They are. We bring those two back every year. At Country Kitchen, that's straight traditional turkey, dressing, gravy, mash potatoes and green beans. Then you can go to Vineyard Green (Restaurant and Spirits) and have a turkey sandwich.

Is traditional turkey and dressing the most popular foods you serve?

In the ballrooms, we do a 20-pound smoked turkey, and we go through 70 of those. So we go through quite a bit of turkey ... it's almost 3,000 pounds of turkey we serve for Thanksgiving total property.

What is your favorite holiday dish?

I love cornbread dressing. We have a cook that works for us. His name's Ray and he's been working for Callaway for 30 years and, man, he makes the best cornbread dressing. I've had grandmas and whoever, they can't match him. And that will be what we serve in the ballrooms and the Plant Room on Thanksgiving.

Tell me about the staffing and the hours everyone puts in?

For Thanksgiving Day, we'll put the turkeys in the night before, about midnight. The first cooks the next morning will come in about 4 and they'll monitor those turkeys and take them out when they're ready. I'll probably get here about 7 or 8.

Most of our services are hit hard about noon, anywhere from noon to 3 we're getting hit pretty hard. Just for the buffet we'll have five cooks, five chefs, doing live stations out in the ballrooms and the Plant Room. We'll have 10 to 12 in the kitchen cooking all day. Total property we'll have about 40 cooks cooking for Thanksgiving.

That's just a really big day for us, to have 4,000 people during the lunch hours. That requires a lot of people on deck.

Do you repeat the process for Christmas?

We do it very similar for Thanksgiving and Christmas, usually not the same amount of volume of people, but a pretty high amount.

What's the toughest aspect of your job year-round?

The best part of my job is the people and the worst part of my job is the people.

Managing so many people is probably the hardest because of all the personalities. You've got to treat everybody different in a manner of speaking. The cooking isn't really all that hard. Training people how to cook the way you want them to is hard. Training and managing staff is probably the most difficult part.

Does the pressure ease up between Turkey Day and Christmas?

All of the restaurants are busy just about every day of the week at dinnertime during this time of the year. Starting this Friday (Nov. 22), people are coming to eat before they see the (Fantasy in Lights), coming to eat after they see the lights. We get hit really hard starting this Friday all of the way to the 1st of January.

How did you learn to cook and get better at it?

I was fortunate because the chefs that I worked for were pretty bright people. They taught me a lot. I asked a lot of questions, listened to what they said, applied what they said. And tried to be creative when I was offered a chance to write menus and stuff like that, trying to do it right.

What's your best dish?

I make a really good grilled salmon with lemon-tomato sauce. My wife loves it ... We'll do something similar to it (at the gardens). We're rolling out a new menu in the Vineyard Green and there's a grilled salmon with a lemon-dijon butter sauce.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to work their way into an executive chef position like you? After all, you started on the ground level.

I did, I did. The best advice I would have for somebody is to ask questions and to learn as much as they can. But learning something and being able to apply it in reality is two different things. You can learn how to make that butter sauce all day long. But if you can't apply it and make it every time the same way, it's not going to happen for you. You have to be consistent.

Do you watch the Food Network?

I watch it sometimes. I've gotten inspiration from some of the stuff they've done before. I try to put my own twist on everything ... I like Alton Brown. He is very, very smart. He knows how and why (concerning food and cooking). He's got the Good Eats show and he's hosted a lot of the reality cook shows.

Do you ever eat fast food?

Sometimes. I do have kids, so we'll stop and pick up a sack every now and then. Most of the time I like to cook at home if I can. But most of the time I eat at work.

What's the next step for you here?

I would like to see all of the restaurants at Callaway kind of have their own (signature menu) ... this is where you go to get this and this is where you go to get that.

An example is at the Discovery Cafe, we have a type of cafe menu like a Panera Bread. Another example is I would like to turn our pizzeria into just a pizza shop that serves all of Callaway, all of the rooms, all of the time. Just things like that. I think that's the next step for us.

What about personal aspirations? Your own restaurant maybe?

I'm just really taking it one day at a time. Things tend to work themselves out. As for owning my own restaurant, yes and no. I've seen so many places just go under so fast. It would just have to be the right place, the right time. But, yes, I would like to own my own restaurant one day.

Would a single restaurant be more difficult than dealing with the large gardens operation?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I'm not really an accountant. So all of those numbers and stuff, I'd need somebody else to do all of that.

What is the most satisfaction you get from your job?

The most satisfying part of my job is when I teach somebody how to do something and they actually learn it and are able to apply it, and then it makes their job easier. That's what I like.

You try to mentor people?

Yes. I have one cook that's under my wing now. He reminds me of myself when I started. I kind of took him under my wing a little bit. Not so much to show favoritism, but enough to give him a nudge in the right direction.

Note: As of Thursday, Callaway Gardens said its Mountain Creek ballroom reservations were closed, or full. Reservations were still available for the Gardens Restaurant. No reservations are required for the Plant Room, the Country Kitchen or Vineyard Green.

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