Chrissie Bennett Q&A
Interview by Diana DeLucia, Golf Kitchen
Executive Chef, Winged Foot Golf Club
With club season on the horizon, Total Food Service is thrilled to share a truly inspiring story: Executive Chef Chrissie Bennett.
TFS has collaborated with a truly gifted publisher and writer to share that story, Diana DeLucia. Many clubs are facing challenges coming out of the pandemic. As with any other foodservice segment they face their own very interesting set of obstacles. For some, it’s the vision to replace an aging membership. Prior to Covid, there were even enormous questions marks regarding the future of golf. Little did anybody imagine that during the Pandemic, golf found an entire new group of participants with members desperately seeing refuge from their couches and being locked out of traditional indoor exercise venues. Having attended the annual Metropolitan Club Managers confab for years, we are always stunned by the culinary skills of these gifted professionals. With that in mind, TFS jumped at the opportunity to have Diana share Chef Chrissie Bennett’s vision.
(In 2014, Diana interviewed Chrissie Bennett when she was the Kitchen Manager at Winged Foot Golf Club) She asked then: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully, in an executive position, and most likely in a sous chef position. I love Winged Foot so much that I am happy to work my way up here and have no intentions of leaving. I am very family-oriented, and Winged Foot feels like home, which is why people stay here for 20 years and more. We’re always thankful that members and management acknowledge our performance, which happens every day! To summarize my feelings, Winged Foot has been great to me, and I, in turn, need to be great for Winged Foot.
Tell us when you realized that cooking inspired you?
My parents both worked, and they took turns cooking dinner. One rainy day when I was around 11 years old, I called my mom and told her I wanted to cook something to eat. She said, “No, you are too young, and you don’t know what you are doing!” I replied, “Fine, I won’t do anything,” and then I said, “Mom, I am going to cook something!” Defiantly I went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and made Chicken Curry with White Rice. When my mom came home from work, she was impressed and started calling everyone to tell them how her little Chrissie had cooked an impressive meal.
That is when I knew I was interested in cooking, and after that, you couldn’t stop me! I cooked for my family, school friends, and at any opportunity, I could. Both my parents could cook, especially on my father’s side, so you could say it’s in my DNA, my family’s genes!
My extended family is enormous, and I have many Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins. I credit my family for showing me that cooking was a pleasurable activity, and to this day, I love it, whether cooking for two or 200! You can always teach someone the cooking techniques, but you can’t teach the commitment and passion needed to excel.
Tell us about your journey to one of the top Executive Chef positions in the country.
When I first came to Winged Foot 11 years ago, it was just a Summer job. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with the place. I felt it; it was so different, and I loved the culture and began to make friends.
My first duties here were at the pantry station. I think everyone was surprised that I knew what I was doing; besides cooking for family and friends, I used to watch every culinary show in existence for hours. I would have my notepad and jot down everything; cooking became my second nature! By my third year, I was the kitchen manager. When our former Executive Chef, Rhy Waddington, moved on in 2021, I accepted the role. I knew I was ready.
Winged Foot has been a great learning environment for you. Tell us about that.
Many people don’t realize that it is much harder to attain recognition at a private club, but the goal is there if you want to work for it. At Winged Foot, you learn much more than you would in a restaurant because you have breakfast, lunch, banquets, fine dining, events, weddings, and golf course food.
There’s so much more education in the private club space. Another great thing about this learning environment is that you have more freedom to be creative. Due to the number of oversized banquets and events, I can take traditional recipes, play around with the ingredients and find new ways to present them. I love that freedom.
Winged Foot has pushed me to be the best version of myself. The only way I could conquer Winged Foot, one of the most beautiful and fierce animals you can come across, was to be just as fierce!
You sacrificed a lot on your journey. Tell us about that.
I knew how much I had sacrificed to get to this position. If I came here every day, not giving my all, would it be worth all the sacrifices? When I accepted this role, I took it very seriously. I’m a person who, if I dedicate myself to something, I’m going to work hard at it. As a woman of color in this male-driven career, I have grown a thick skin and learned much from the harshest criticism.
The most significant personal sacrifice I made during my journey to this position was missing my sister Tanya Bennett’s graduation in Italy. We are very close, and every time I feel low, I think about the moment I made that choice and how it has paid off. It helps me to push through hard times.
What was the biggest challenge when you took on this role?
When I took this role, I took it very seriously. I’m a person who, if I dedicate myself to something, I’m going to work hard at it. As a woman of color in this male-driven career, I have grown a thick skin and learned much from the harshest criticism.
Creating a team is such a difficult task. One of the most challenging struggles is taking over a group of staff that the former chef led. Getting people who have worked under someone else to accept your vision isn’t an easy task. You have to figure out new ways to separate yourself from those who were previously on the same level and then get them to buy into your ideas and goals. That is not always possible, and that’s when hard decisions have to be made. You ask yourself, how do you create a culture with rotten apples?
How do you lead your team now to build a better culture?
One thing I love to do is team building. I try to build each person up and encourage them to do their ultimate best. I talk with them daily about the service at the end of the shift. I give credit all the time. I’m honest and open with my staff and show them their strengths. I try my best to enable them to be creative. On the flip side, I might have a team member with an elevated ego, and I need to find a way to bring them back to earth, then rebuild.
When I first got this promotion, I received a letter from a girl congratulating me. I did not remember who she was. In the letter, she reminded me about a day many years earlier when she was feeling down and was in need of a little encouragement. She told me that my words made such an impact on her life.
It is mind-blowing that she tracked me down years later, congratulating me. It was just a conversation at the bottom of the Winged Foot staircase. This made me realize how important words are.
You may not realize it, but you are a light for many people here.
Thank you! This moment is so unbelievable for me. Who would have thought getting this promotion would have touched so many individuals, both young and old?
I wanted this position for myself at first; I wanted Winged Foot. I have put so much of myself into it. However, when I was given the new role and started receiving congratulatory messages from so many people in and out of the industry, I realized what a huge accomplishment it was.
It would be fantastic for my story to go as far as God wants to take it. Words can’t explain how important it would be to me personally if I were to be an inspiration to even one person.
How has the membership responded to your new role?
I am overwhelmed by how supportive the membership has been. Rhy was here for ten years, and the members loved him; they were big shoes to fill. I knew some members wanted this for me, but the support has been much more than I had anticipated. It has made me want to do better.
That’s the beauty of it. That’s why I come here every day. I want to know when someone eats my food; I want them to be blown away by it. I see this place as my extended family; I need them just as much as they need me.
Tell us about some people who have influenced your career.
The relationship I built with Mr. Colin Burns, Winged Foot’s former General Manager, is phenomenal and he will be missed. He’s been behind my back this entire time. Chef Rhy realized 11 years ago how dedicated I was, and they have both championed my development.
My father always instilled in me that I could achieve anything if I had a dream or desire, worked hard enough, and made sacrifices along the way.
I want to bring more people into my surroundings. If I can get people to come into this kitchen, I can show them that what you put into a club is what you will get back.
From my perspective, the younger club chefs are creating new ways to run kitchen operations, especially in the last few years of the pandemic. It is not based on the old-style brigade system anymore.
At Winged Foot, we have workers of all different age ranges. It’s hard to get everyone to buy into the angry brigade atmosphere. There will always be some tension because we all work so many hours, and we must try to create the best environment, so people want to be here.
How do you manage the mental health of your team?
There’s so much happening in a person’s day-to-day life that we don’t know. I talk to everyone I hire, try to get to know them personally, and build better working relationships. We all come from different walks of life. I come from a solid background, and I can honestly say that not everyone comes from that. It doesn’t matter how well someone looks or presents themselves; there might be some real deep-rooted stuff that’s happening outside of work. I try to figure out how to connect with all my staff and encourage and motivate them. If someone struggles from within, I need them to feel comfortable talking to me about it.
Our kitchen is a very stressful environment, and the expectations are high. We’re not saving lives; we’re just making food, but at the same time, everyone needs to receive approval from their peers, superiors, and members. You put so much of yourself into this kitchen. It becomes a massive part of your life, so I need to make it as supportive of an environment as possible.
How do you think we can raise more awareness of the culinary career opportunities that the industry provides?
I honestly believe we have to figure out what we can do as an industry. Each person has to do their part to come up with a system that works long-term. We need to begin by inspiring young children and teenagers.
How do we make future culinarians learn about the culture of our industry and all it has to offer?
I hope a face like mine will bring that awareness to many.
To learn more about Winged Foot Golf Club, visit their website
All photography by Diana DeLucia, President at Golf Kitchen, unless otherwise noted.
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