Country Club Chef, Cooking-Class Hero

David Pinckney has eaten, breathed, and slept fine dining since he was 16 and washing dishes to earn money for college in his hometown, Knoxville, Tenn. At The Orangery, a family-owned landmark specializing in continental cuisine (think Roger Vergé, André Soltner, quiche), Pinckney, the son of two professors, progressed through pantry, grill, sauté, and sous chef. By the age of 24, he had earned his degree in business, another gig at a local TV station, and a job offer from a bank. But The Orangery burned down, then offered him the position of executive chef on reopening in 1986. Pinckney says, “I thought I’d try it for a few years.”

Except for a two-year break in 1998, when he opened a couple of restaurants for friends, Pinckney continued to draw crowds and celebrities as head chef at The Orangery’s four private dining rooms, ballroom, and piano bar. The restaurant’s kitchen window gave onto the golf course of a neighboring country club. Pinckney had been looking at the Number 12 hole for decades when Cherokee Country Club called in 2006 with a “nice little offer.”

A bastion of Southern privilege where even today, “coming out” can refer to debutantes, the hundred-year-old club was in massive renovations when Pinckney took over. About $2 million had gone to the golf course along with another $11 million to the rest of the facilities. A chunk of the membership had gone, too—as often happens with such changes. Then the economy tanked and the recession hit.

Today, a mid-afternoon stroll through Cherokee Country Club with Chef David is closer to a power walk. Blowing through set after set of swinging doors, through the club’s 300-seat grand ballroom, its multiple private dining rooms, pubs, kitchens, and storage areas, Pinckney blows away some misconceptions about the life of today’s country club chef.

Myth: Chicken parm, melba toast, repeat X 7

Fact: It’s Knoxville, not Blandsville.

Has he ever thought of being a chef in another market—one bigger or smaller than 500,000 people? Chef David gestures at the spectacular view of the Tennessee River stretching southward below the terrace wall behind him. “There are a lot of chain restaurants here,” he concedes, but over the decades, he says, even in smaller cities like this, he’s seen people’s palates become steadily more sophisticated. “Travel, food TV, greater availability of new products, new ways of getting them here, better local products like prime pork, beef from local farmers …”

For example? “We just flew in some barramundi I’m cooking with,” he says. “I did a demo last week at a (nearby) hydroponic farm—part of a culinary competition at UT (the University of Tennessee). They had a live tilapia down there with all the vegetables and microgreens.”

We charge through a series of linked dining rooms. Servers with open collars and unknotted neckties are hauling in racks of glassware.

Fact: Clubs have to change it up more than restaurants.

Pinckney’s expecting 150 covers for Wednesday Night Buffet. “It’s fried chicken, prime rib, a couple of fish, veggies , two salad bars, a dessert table. Then we have parties in two private rooms.” And all that will change. Because their members dine at the club so frequently, country club chefs are constantly altering menus. That, in turn, makes it especially important to keep track of diners’ preferences, allergies, and patterns. It’s one reason club chefs liken their jobs to being the personal chef to hundreds of people. And unlike in restaurants, the supply of customers is finite. Lose enough members and chef is out of a job.

A right turn, another right, and back in the grand ballroom, Pinckney explains a layout to a crew unbending table legs, adding, “We’ll do ice sculptures for buffets in here.” He recently learned that carvers use roughed out templates for the bulk of the sculpture, then sculpt only the details by hand. “Kind of seems like cheating,” he says.

Fact: Country club chefs get around.

Chefs as well-liked as Pinckney can get some state-of-the-art help in keeping things fresh—making menus interesting not just for diners but for themselves—from club members and their friends in high places, although Pinckney’s reputation alone seems to bring adventure and inspiration his way. True and Alinea in Chicago, French Laundry and Meadowwood in California are a few of the more memorable culinary temples he’s visited.

And then just yesterday, says Pinckney, “We did a beer dinner and a cooking class with Rick Bayless at Blackberry Farm. He did a ceviche for the first course, then a snapper with a yellow mole, then a filet of ribeye with black mole and”—Pinckney’s voice lowers—”foie gras.”

We’re off down a long carpeted hallway to see the first of the club’s six ice machines. An elderly fellow holding a pair of hard-soled shoes hurries towards us.

“Hey, Mr. Turner,” Pinckney calls, “Getting ready to play golf?”

Myth: “Links” as in golf, not as in sausage.

Fact: It’s like running five restaurants at once.

A work crew is pulling down sheetrock in the popular pub area, where the bar will extend in a horseshoe curve past where a wall used to be. Plans we retrieve from a stack near the entryway show an additional 10 bar seats, plus 30 more on the floor. To do the remodel, they’ll have to break down a room-sized metal cooler with a rooftop compressor, move it, then rebuild it elsewhere. Right now it’s empty but for a wall bristling with beer lines. “They’ve gotten a lot done today,” Pinckney says, and indicates a west-facing window. “Until now, people in here couldn’t get a view of the river.” The pub reopens in two months. “Our challenge right now is, Where do we serve?”

We charge to a freight elevator and emerge into a back hallway with a small service kitchen and a Manitowoc Neo ice machine with a 3-inch blue digital screen. There’s another one on this floor dispensing half-cubes that Chef uses just for fish, plus two more big rigs upstairs, one at the golf club, one at the pool that tends to run out of the nugget ice …

Can you get enough ice machines in this life?

“No!” says Pinckney. They’ve never flat run out at the Club, he says, but they’ve gotten close. It’s the South. Eight hundred people is the stated limit for the indoor seating in the club’s rooms, but that number can balloon in wedding and outdoor situations.

There’s an old-school gilt-trimmed espresso machine beside a coffee station we pass. Chef produces one of the inch-tall cartridges it takes, a precursor to the Keurig pod. “They used to give you that for free with the coffee you bought,” he says. “Now they’re, like, 800 bucks.”

Chef David’s office is a tiny cube with photo-plastered walls—Guy Fieri, Jack Hanna—and a swivel chair full of … golf balls? He says he play Mondays, with a few other local chefs he calls by their first names. His daughter’s out of the nest, sophomore, pre-med. We sigh over the cost of college. After 40 years in the business and now with a staff of 20, Pinckney’s workdays have finally gone to 12 hours from more than 14.

Myth: Endangered species

Fact: Country clubs can survive.

Membership at Cherokee Country Club is back up—at its highest since Pinckney came on board eight years ago. They’ve added 80 families, he says, many of them young. Golf’s picked up over the last year, and the tennis program is going gangbusters.

Pinckney won’t take credit for any of this. It’s as though his decades as a favorite teacher packing out weekly cooking classes at a local gallery/studio, his goodwill equity from The Orangery, his reputation and social network couldn’t possibly have helped Cherokee survive the great recession.

Only last year, Pinckney hosted Chef John Besh and Blackberry Farm’s Chef Josh Feathers for a dinner of lamb, pork cheeks, and “a big crazy salad” served from Cherokee’s kitchens to a historic gathering of Medal of Honor winners.

Pinckney loves to dine in New Orleans, above all at Besh’s Restaurant August, he explains. We’re looking over the Mardi Gras-inspired menu he’s bringing to the first class he’s teaching at Chef Supplies by KaTom. The second is slated for June 15, 2015.

Evidently, some of those who can teach can also do.

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing. Connect with Elaine Evans on Google+