Food & Wine Affair 2013: Ten Questions for Desmond Chef Chris Calhoun
Managing one’s self on the job is hard enough. Try overseeing 100 employees at a major hotel property, and the challenges multiply exponentially.
It’s all in a day’s work for Chris Calhoun, director of food and beverage and executive chef for host venue the Desmond Hotel. Handsome and youthful at 36, Calhoun relishes the task of running each of the property’s three dining outlets—the Hunt Room, Fox & Hounds Gastropub and the Sunset Grille—along with a vast catering operation and the scores of staffers who represent them. Somehow, Calhoun has also found time to, once again, conceive and execute this year’s Winemaker’s Dinner. We caught up with Calhoun to ask about his own past—and the present and future of the culinary world.
MLT: What are your earliest food memories?
CC: I was maybe 7, and my grandmother would make homemade oatmeal bread. She would add steamed stems of peeled broccoli. The taste of semi-crunchy and sweet together—a taste from broccoli no one ever gets as a kid—made vegetables beautiful. And that bread ... You wanted to cut it as it came out of the oven but, no, Grandmom wouldn’t let you. “Patience, patience, patience. Let it cool.” Finally, we’d slice it and spread butter over it.
MLT: When did you have your first sip of wine?
CC: My grandfather was a huge wine aficionado. My first sip was probably at 9 years old at Thanksgiving dinner—a cabernet. I remember thinking it was intriguing. He taught me to appreciate wine, sipping and then swirling along my palate.
MLT: Did you have a culinary inspiration?
CC: In high school, I cooked at the Chaddsford Tavern until I was 18. Mark Speena was the chef there. He recognized I was eager and dedicated, and he took me under his wing. It made a huge impact on me professionally. Mark wasn’t one of the screamers that defined the kitchen trend at that time. He was a good communicator. He laid a foundation for me.
MLT: Who else molded you professionally?
CC: For seven years, I was in Atlanta working for Guenter Seeger at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. He was very meticulous. Chef wasn’t nice and he wasn’t the devil, but he was a major influence on how I operate.
MLT: In 2012 you won the Philly Cooks “Dish of the Year” award for your poached halibut served atop braised tomato-orange-braised Lacinato heirloom kale, with pommes allumettes. Were you surprised by this win?
CC: No. We are very proud of the award. We’re humble and we don’t lack confidence. I feel good about my background and I’m not intimidated. We won because we made a dish that was good enough to portion into 3,000 samples—something good enough for the judges, and something I would cook for my own mother. It was a fun event. I loved the competition.
MLT: Do you have favorite go-to red and white wines?
CC: I personally splurge on a bottle of Rochioli pinot noir. For me, the quaffable go-to white wines that are great representations of an original-style sauvignon blanc are Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria; both are from New Zealand. They’re each what sauvignon blancs were originally intended to be—not the grapefruity wine it is today.
MLT: Any favorite wine-and-food pairings?
CC: I’m a fan of pairing light-bodied reds with meaty, muscular fish—like tuna and salmon. Red wine doesn’t have to mean red meat. White fish—when you take into account what you’re making it with—can both complement and contrast well with a lighter red wine.
MLT: What are your thoughts on the local food scene?
CC: The location here is awesome. We’re surrounded by farms, we’re close to the ocean; people still hunt, gather, farm and fish. We have access to other cities, and are in the center of the most highly concentrated part of the country. This is all why we’re ahead of the [food] scene in general.
MLT: Any predictions on the future of the culinary world?
CC: I see the insistence on larger portion sizes decreasing, and meat proteins will shrink with them. The customer will not want 24 ounces of red meat; the size will be portioned to a healthy five or so. We’ll follow the recommended daily allowance more than ever before. The watchword in the future of food will be healthy.
MLT: Are there any foods you absolutely love or avoid?
CC: I love malt—a chocolate malted milkshake, malty beers. I enjoy cooked onions, but I haven’t run across a raw one I’ve been fond of.