Chefs at Work

An Interview with Mark Rigano

An Interview with Mark Rigano

Executive Chef / Director of Food and Beverage
Toscana Country Club

by David Meyers

Mark Rigano imageMark – What made you choose a career in the Food and Beverage industry and how has your career evolved through the year?

I grew up in Mequon Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb, and as a young boy I always had a love for cooking, however never thought I would become a chef at that time.  It is interesting thinking back now about that influence as I have been in the business more than 20 years.  I began working in restaurants at 14 years old and it has always been fun for me.  My mother was a good home cook and my father worked for a bank in Milwaukee.  As I was growing up I had planned on following my father’s footsteps.  I worked for my father in the summers and it really was not fulfilling for me.  Dad gave me some good advice, tell me that most people have to work a good part of their lives unless they get lucky, so find something that you love to do and make it your career.  If you are doing something you love coupled with passion for your work, you will be successful.

I followed my father’s advice and here I am today.  My education includes attending the University of Wisconsin, at Stout, where I received a Bachelor’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism with a concentration in Marketing.  I worked in Milwaukee under a CEC as an apprentice in my summers away from school.  While at UW Stout, I was a teaching assistant for two instructors managing the restaurant operations courses.  After graduating UW Stout, I attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park where I graduated with Honors.  What a great school!  While in New York, I used my weekends to stage at various Manhattan restaurants.  I acquired an abundance form these experiences from just keeping my eyes open and watching systems and techniques used by various chefs.  I have forged my own style of cooking and management from these earlier experiences.  The great thing about a variety of experience is that you get to see what works as well as what does not work in your formative years.

Mark Rigano imageWhile attending the CIA, I did not consider myself a typical student.  I did not use the CIA as a school to learn the basics.  I had been in the industry for 8 years before attending CIA and I already possessed a good foundation from my previous experience and training.  I treated CIA like a master’s degree in Culinary Arts; I used my time at the school to learn as much as I could during the short 2-year period.  I kind of manipulated my extern experience at the CIA, I was afraid of obtaining an extern where I would be stuck peeling potatoes, not that there is anything wrong with that responsibility, I simply wanted more.  I had the opportunity to work for a former Ritz Carlton Executive Chef, Bruno Mella.  Externships were only to be at establishments that had been open for at least a year.  In my case, I was going on to Dallas, Texas to open a new restaurant from ground-up.  Who wouldn’t tell a partial story to get that type of experience?  Needless to say that experience proved invaluable.

Upon graduating from CIA, I found employment at The America Club in Kohler, Wisconsin.  I was originally hired as the Sous Chef for Black Wolf Run, one of their two golf courses.  After six months of employment, I was promoted to the Chef De Cuisine of the Immigrant Room, the Resort’s premier restaurant, another invaluable experience for me.  Rhys Lewis was the Executive Chef of the American Club and a busy man however never to busy to field thoughtful questions.  I learned organization and logistics from Rhys as well as character counts.

After 4 years at The American Club I left to become the Executive Chef of Merrill Hills Country Club in Waukesha, Wisconsin.  This was my first experience in the Country Club business.   Merrill Hills was a member owned club that needed help in developing the culinary vision and department.  I worked with the local culinary school to hire career orientated staff, redirecting their culinary operation.  While with Merrill Hills I viewed total management transition and was given the opportunity to manage front of house operations in addition to being the Executive Chef.  A responsibility the industry now call Chef & B.  I really enjoyed this responsibility as it stretched my abilities while calling upon use my education and training experiences.  We developed an efficient food and beverage operation based on the Chef and “B” concept.  I had 5 successful years at Merrill Hills Country before moving to California.

Mark – How did you land the Executive Chef then Director of Food and Beverage positions with Toscana Country Club?

That is a bit of a fun story.  I was originally hired as the Executive Chef, so I will start with that.  I was looking for a warm place to move when the opportunity for Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells, California surfaced.  I had never heard of Indian Wells, but I was told that it was in the Palm Springs Area.  I was the last candidate to apply for the position – they liked my education and the fact that I had 5-diamond experience.  I flew to California for a series of formal interviews and a cooking exercise.  I remember when I interviewed with the GM he asked me specifically what my goals were.  I told him that at some point I want to be sitting in his chair as a GM of a similar property.  He told me that I might not be what he is looking for; he stated that he needed a hands-on Chef who has passion.  I told him that you asked me what my goals were; I never said that I was not hands-on or passionate chef.  He was interested but I still did not feel convinced that I had him convinced.  I was the youngest applicant of the bunch at 32 years old.

Mark Rigano imageI was to do a cooking demonstration for 8 people at another club in the area.  They had given me $500 to secure my materials and told me that I would have 3 hours the following day to prepare tasting.  I felt that I did not travel this far not to show them what my true abilities.  With that in mind, they did not give me specific rules so I call on my instincts.  I went to a local store, bought a cutting board, storage containers and a large cooler.  I brought meats with me on the plane from my own supplier anticipating the need.  I went to 2 different grocery stores to find the right product.  That night, I turned my hotel room in to a prep kitchen and finished all of my mise en place for the next day.  I prepared 6 courses for 8 people and served then in one hour and 45 minutes.  They could not figure out how I did it (and I was not going to tell them either).  I worked the crowd well in between each course and I could see in the GM’s eyes I had the job.

This is now my sixth season at Toscana and I am still having fun.  When I started at the club it was just a foundation.  I have been directly involved with the opening and developing all food and beverage operational standards and culture.  After my first season at Toscana CC I was approached by the GM to become the Chef and “B” (Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage).  This was an opportunity that I could not pass this up, as it was an opportunity to continue advancing my career.  Additional, and particularly during our off season, I assume corporate responsibilities for quality control assisting our other properties.

Mark – Can you share with us your responsibilities and role as the Chef & B?

The role can be complicated yet manageable if you have good systems and the correct support staff.  The position has the feel similar of a chef-owner.  Our company is not the typical structure, but it works well because we have good people.  I am responsible for all food and beverage operations and report directly to the GM.  We are very dialed into our members and consider ourselves in the “YES” business.  Our business is about creating great experiences for our members and their guests.  We run our business in the same manner as a 5-diamond property however we are a private club.  It all comes down to training, leadership and passion.

“Hire right or manage hard”, “Pay peanuts get monkeys”.  We almost always get it right and focus on quality hires.  Our staff is the key to our success, it does not matter what your knowledge is as a manager or a culinarians – it’s all about personnel!  You are only as good as the people you work with and your leadership abilities, you must lead by example at all times.  Our business is in a competitive country club market that is seasonal, “Big Challenge”.  We focus on recruiting and retaining career orientated management and line staff.  We have been very fortunate, blessed, to develop and maintain a great staff.

Cooking is the EASIEST function of my position.  I always say there is no such thing as perfection, we strive for consistency, however as a goal, we try to come close as you can get to perfection.  We listen to our members as their feedback is important, as is filtering out the vocal minority so we always deliver what is expected by the greatest majority.  We manage the vocal minority through involvement, educating them and using surveys and comment cards as a tool to achieve our overall goals.

We have refined and successfully use a member profile system in our POS system as a tool to anticipate their particular needs.   Our basic management philosophy is simple and straight forward.  As simple as it is, being genuine is a key to great member service.  We train our staff with steps to maximize member & guest service.  These steps include: name recognition, being genuine, follow through, ask questions, sell yourself, under promise over deliver, go the extra mile, keep your composure at all times, undivided attention, personal touch-handshake, hand written notes, 3-ring rule, consistency and passion. Steps toward Excellence!

Finally, I do not view myself or team to be in competition with anyone or any other clubs – we focus on our members’ needs, simply the most important factor in creating a great club culture.  We teach our staff to have pride and make a difference in our member’s lives.  We are on stage everyday and the show is all about creating genuine experiences through food and service for our members and their guests.

Editors CommentsFundamental basics, a sensible approach and steadfast dedication to excellence often yield desired result!  Likewise, there is no replacement for doing the work – all sustainable success is earned! Many thanks to Mark for his remarkable insight.

Posted in Chefs at Work

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *