We’re pretty sure Chef Chris Calhoun completed this interview with one hand still stirring a pot of Chicken Gumbo (not the Tahitian Fire Water kind). His busy schedule since coming on board in December 2011 as the newest Director of Food and Beverage at Desmond Hotel & Conference Center has included winning “Dish of the Year” at Philly Cooks 2012, managing service in both the restaurants and banquet operations, and most importantly creating dishes that stay true to their natural flavors.
Somewhere in between these vigorous tasks, the Culinary Institute of America grad found time to share with us why almonds make his list of top 5 kitchen supplies, which Michelin star and James Beard-award winning chef taught him to keep cooking despite roaring fire engines, and how to save a Chicken Gumbo disaster. Readers beware, this is not your average chef interview!
Lessons that we learn from our passions tend to seep into every day activities. What is one characteristic you developed from being a chef that gives you an upper hand with normal life obstacles?
Always react quickly to obstacles – don’t procrastinate.
Chefs are usually their toughest critics. Did you feel the Poached Pacific Halibut you prepared that snagged the Best Dish title at Philly Cooks 2012 had room for improvement?
Absolutely! I always think there is room for improvement. I toned down the virgin olive oil in the sauce and cooked the kale a bit more tender since the Philly Cooks Event and I think it tastes event better.
Besides the amazing opportunity to work at a fabulous facility like The Desmond, why Malvern?
I have had the opportunity to live in many different places around the country. Since I have good friends and family in the area, I was very happy to come to The Desmond.
You are famous for “[letting] the ingredients speak for themselves” so if you were an ingredient, what would you say/which would you be?
I would be part of the entree – a pristine piece of fresh fish. I might say “please don’t overshadow me with exotic flavorings just to make me different. I’m already here and with a few well chosen touches, I’ll be the star of the meal!”
As a Chef that focuses on seasonal masterpieces, what are your thoughts on the local movement that is sweeping (I think it’s safe to say “has swept”) restaurants all over the country, and especially the Philadelphia area?
It’s about time!
What did you love most about working under James Beard award winner, Chef Gunter Seeger?
His focus and committment. For example, a fire engine would race through downtown Atlanta past the restaurant and ten cooks and servers would all turn their heads. Gunter’s head stayed bent down, never once looking up because he was adding crucial last second details to the dishes for a table of four.
Dealing with staff and clients is a huge part of the Director of Food & Beverage’s job. How have your “people skills” transformed, being that you are required to manage so many different personalities on a regular basis?
I have been fortunate that my years in the business have afforded me multiple experiences and scenerios to learn from. The process never stops, I’m learning every day.
To keep things really interesting, would you be able to share one of your worst kitchen disasters? Anonymous pro-nouns are obviously encouraged.
Just recently, we were making Chicken Gumbo for a banquet and someone mistook the Cayenne Pepper for Paprika. The result was something that tasted like Tahitian Fire Water. With the time of the banquet getting close, we were able to salvage it by doubling the recipe (sans spices) and it turned out very well.
What motivates you to keep cooking, even on the longest of long days?
Never, never wanting to be a quitter.
Top 5 kitchen supplies you can’t live without?
- Good Coffee !!!
- A Vita-mix brand blender
- High quality Olive Oil
- Pointed tip serrated Forschner brand knife
- Almonds (for snacks AND as an ingredient)
We conclude this Chef Q & A with examples of Chef Chris’ handiwork, seen below (seared scallops perched atop ratatouille with asparagus, to left; lobster and couscous with a champagne chive sauce, seen to right). All photographs credited to Nina Lea Photography.