Passion and Innovation Gets New Fairwood Executive Chef Through Tumultuous Year
Posted on June 15, 2021
by Jared Cohen
For Chef Brendan Vermillion, creating memorable experiences through food and beverage goes back to the 1990s when he was part of the culinary team at Silver Creek Valley Country Club in San Jose, California. It was there where he developed a passion for creating menus tailored specifically to the tastes and needs of the club, it’s members and creating amazing experiences. Vermillion credits his connection with Kim Lara, the Food and Beverage Director at Silver Creek Valley, for his career growth and expanding his culinary talents.
Fast forward to early 2020, when “Chef B” departed Silver Creek Valley for a new venture as the Head Chef at Fairwood Golf and Country Club in Renton, Washington, just outside of Seattle.
“When I flew up there for the interview, Anthony Paino (Fairwood’s GM) and I connected like how Kim and I connected,” recalled Chef Brendan. “I hadn’t even been hired yet and all of a sudden we were planning a Valentine’s Day Dinner. So we stopped and Anthony asked, ‘should we do this?’”
Prior to Chef Brendan’s arrival, Paino and the Fairwood team knew revamping the food and beverage side of the club was a big point of emphasis for members.
“Here at Fairwood, there was a lot of opportunity to grow the culinary side of things,” explained Paino. “The club had come off of a long stretch with the same chef and members had let us know that F&B was very important, more so than other things. Finding the right chef was probably the most important thing we could have done in the moment. When Chef Brendan showed interest, it was like hitting the jackpot.”
By early March, as Chef Brendan moved into his new position at Fairwood, he and Paino began to make the big vision they had discussed during the interview process a reality. Their first focus was on assembling a team that would remind members that they made the right decision to join Fairwood. Plans for restaurant and banquet improvements were also in the works before everything was derailed due to COVID-19.
“The day the movers dropped my furniture off at my apartment was the day the governor announced the pandemic,” recalled Chef Brendan “I spent two weeks in the kitchen before we shut down. It was such an odd time because as a new chef, I wanted to meet members, they wanted to meet me, and we weren’t able to shake hands. We just couldn’t get the ball rolling because it was hanging over our heads. My third week here, we went to takeout only and everything paused.”
On March 26th, the leadership team at Fairwood was forced to furlough 87% of the club staff and began adapting to the ever-changing COVID landscape.
“At that point, things were changing so quickly, we started curbside before it really became a thing, we almost felt like it was our idea,” Paino recalled. “But we didn’t stop consulting with ownership and went to a react and inform model with 15% of the staff left.”
Part of the club’s takeout strategy was providing take and bake meals for members. For holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, they provided side-dish offerings – basically everything except the turkey. Since there weren’t big family gatherings with others contributing side dishes, it ended up being a great benefit and made holiday celebrations easier for members.
“We trimmed the menu down to items we thought would travel well,” explained Chef Brendan. “So we tailored the menu for to-go and we changed to do a “family style” dinner which was cooked and ready to be re-heated at home. A big take away from that time is that members realized that if we can do this with one hand tied behind our back, just wait to see what we can do when the restaurant fully opens. There was a sense that something really great is on the way.”
With members able to enjoy golf during the pandemic, Paino and Chef Brendan focused on the Snack Shack at “the turn” elevating the culinary offerings, while using the location to get to know members and build trust.
“I think for a lot of people getting to meet and know Chef Brendan and Sous Chef Juan Uriostegui in the Snack Shack was really cool,” said Paino. “It was out of the ordinary. People were leaving with bags and bags of food, turning the Snack Shack from a stopping point to a destination. I don’t know the last time I’ve seen an Executive Chef working in a snack shack. It made a big impact for that aspect of the club and for Chef Brendan to have firsthand experience there, is one thing that is unique and cool. We now get to rebuild this the way we want to.”
From there, the evolution and innovation of the club’s culinary offerings continued even as the pandemic persisted. Chef Brendan wowed members with an incredible new desert – a homemade ice cream cookie sandwiches – that the membership couldn’t get enough of. It became so popular, staff found that members would visit the club on a lunch break or before going home, simply to get dessert.
“I wanted something that was going to show the membership what the chef could do and not store bought,” Paino said. “It’s nothing earth shattering but the fact that it is homemade and large, they would say ‘oh my gosh.’ We had members who had no reason to be here, show up, grab a few and take them home. Making them homemade made us unique.”
“The feedback I was getting was overwhelmingly positive, not just on the ice cream but the fact that we were pivoting so quickly and keeping the amenities top of mind, it made it so there was no delay,” Paino added.
In the new world of virtual gatherings, Chef Brendan and team continued their innovative ways, developing interactive cooking classes.
“It started with an interactive class to cook along with the chef for the women’s division,” explained Chef Brendan. “We sent out a pamphlet on what to buy ahead of time and they would text in questions and I would respond in real time. We were streaming on Facebook and on Go2Webinar at the same time, fielding questions via the club text line, Facebook comments and webinar comments.”
From left to right: GM Anthony Paino, Line Cook David Sosa, Executive Chef Brendan Vermillion, Sous Chef Juan Uriostegui, Restaurant Manager Kimberly Kekaula
Members enjoyed the cooking and seeing the interaction between the chefs in the kitchen. It was almost like having a backstage pass to see what they do and how they operate.
Among all of the challenges, curveballs and struggles caused by the pandemic, the Fairwood team has displayed unity among the staff and all departments.
“The time we went through together really paid off and today the front and back of the house work so well together,” said Chef Brendan. “There were days when the leadership team, golf pros and others were bussing tables. It was a complete team effort and it made our bond that much stronger. And naturally, I used the cookie sandwiches as bribes.”
“He (Chef Brendan) was the right man for the job for restaurant and banquet planning,” stated Troon Vice President of Operations, Bill O’Brien. “The relationship he has built with his kitchen team is unmatched. They have had to work so closely and so hard for a long time, that created great teamwork and it’s become a close friendship among them. They are in a better place to understand what makes people do their best work. People enjoy Chef’s company immediately when they come in contact with him.”
As the U.S. reopens and returns to a sense of normalcy, so too has Fairwood’s F&B operations. To help guide the club’s bourgeoning culinary team, Kim Lara, the person who helped ignite Chef Brendan’s passion for cooking, is set to join the Fairwood team as its new food and beverage director.
If Chef Brendan landing at Fairwood was “like hitting the jackpot,” as Paino explained, is re-pairing “Chef” B and Kim Lara equivalent to hitting the culinary daily double? The best is evidently yet to come for Fairwood members.