Executive Chef Perry Seal began cooking at 12 and became Hermitage Hotel’s Executive Chef at 26–now he’s bringing his imagination to Hillwood Country Club.
Hillwood Country Club (HCC), in Nashville, Tenn., opened in 1953. Today it ranks as not only one of the top private club facilities in Tennessee, but the entire South. The club’s golf course, built in 1957, has seen two renovations in the last ten years. Hillwood also offers extensive tennis and swimming programs for members of all ages, and a state-of-the-art fitness facility, with over 10,000 sq. ft. of workout space, that opened last September.
Dining amenities at Hillwood include four restaurants and seven banquet rooms, all served by Executive Chef Perry Seal and his young and talented team of culinarians. Since his arrival 11 years ago, Chef Seal has drawn on his previous experience with five-star hotels to change the way his membership thinks about club cuisine. He was good enough to spend some time with us to share his insights for taking more innovative approaches that go well beyond “standard” club fare.
Q: Chef, at age 26, you were the youngest Executive Chef in the Westin Hotel chain when you were at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. It’s hard enough with years of experience to run a five-star hotel kitchen. Tell us a little about that part of your career, and how it prepared you for private clubs.
A: When I was at the Hermitage Hotel, it was the flagship hotel of Starwood Lodging and a member of Historic Hotels of America. My time at the Hermitage refined my experience in large, full-service establishments. We offered 24-hour food service at a high level and with precise standards. I always had the “large establishment” mindframe of a chef.
I worked in hotels most of my early career and chose my formal training accordingly at the New England Culinary Institute’s Essex Campus. I enjoy the pulse of a “grand establishment,” and the majestic approach to our business. I started cooking at 12 years old and have never looked back.
Q: At Hillwood, your a la carte menus are streamlined, contemporary and fresh-sounding. This is not the case all the time in our industry, either because of resistance to change or a talent-level issue. Do you attribute your success in this area to pushing the envelope, delivering great food consistently, or both?
A: We are lucky that our members support our nightly specials and our culinary direction. I like the daily challenge of creating new foods that complement the ingredients used. We do our share of home-style food, but when we get the chance to do something edgy, we cherish the opportunity—and the accolades that come with it. My success comes only from the last meal served and the love that our staff put into creating that dish.
Q: The younger-member demographic is the backbone of your a la carte business. Besides good food quality and service, what draws them to Hillwood, instead of Bonefish or the Capital Grill?
A: Our members are considered a part of our extended family, and Hillwood has a down-home appeal. We serve great food in a spirited atmosphere, which our members support and enjoy. Most of our members have grown up here and want to keep their family experience going with their children. We create children’s activities that help to offer a fun and exciting atmosphere for the entire family.
Q: The characteristics that define your culinary team include high retention rates, low turnover, a constant exchange of ideas, and mutual respect among staff members. How have you achieved these things that all chef-managers strive for?
A: I work for my team as they work for me. As they grow, I grow. We all work in a tough environment as chefs; we like to have fun while executing a top-notch product. Our chefs enjoy a competitive culinary environment where quality and creativity are the focus, and the members are the benefactors. Our team of chefs and culinary management averages 7.5 years of service at HCC, with an average age of 34.
If you treat all of your colleagues and purveyors with respect, they in return will treat you respectfully.
Q: Perry, you have now been at Hillwood for about as long as I have been in my position, 11 years. During that time, I have seen a desire to eat less volume/weight of protein items and a heightened interest in creative and healthier components to those dishes. Have you realized the same thing at your club?
A: Most certainly—and today, our dedication to local fresh ingredients is a must. The days of a 12-oz. filet or a 20-oz. ribeye are over. As a whole, our dining community is a more educated group, with health being a main focus. We are bridging the gap between our fitness facility and our cuisine by advertising our food in a healthier direction.
Q: Finally, Chef, as one of the premier private club facilities in Nashville, you do your share of weddings and large functions. Can you tell us about the really innovative small-plate/action-station selections on your banquet menu for receptions? Does this concept sell well, and is it worth the front-of-the-house labor dollars that must be spent to execute them properly?
A: We have a small-plate menu that we offer as part of our banquet package. But our main specialty is our “Shrimp and Grits” Station. As a part of our job, we create a dish and figure out a way to execute it as a small-plate offering. We feel it is money well-spent—and well-made.
One of my favorite stations is “Dessert Mini-Burgers with a Side of Fries and a Milk Shake.” It features a mini-burger made with flavored macaroons as the buns, ganache as the burger, a strawberry as a tomato and kiwi as the pickle. We use puff pastry as the fries, mini-verrines as the vessels for the milk shakes, and raspberry and mango puree as ketchup and mustard. We recently did it for a buffet dinner for 500—with no attendant—and they loved it.