Meet the Executive Chef and Director of Food & Beverage at Cuscowilla Golf Club & Resort on Georgia’s Lake Oconee.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Georgia’s Lake Oconee region is known for its upscale resorts. Yet few foodies might rank it high on a list of where to go for a world-class dining experience. That’s a huge oversight.
Chef Gerald Schmidt, C.E.C.—those letters after his name indicate that he’s certified as an executive chef by the American Culinary Federation—has an impressive resume, including stints at the Stanhope Hotel and Grand Hyatt Trumpets Dining Room in New York City, the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, and The Citrus Club, Grande Floridian Beach Resort, and Les Chefs de France at Epcot in Orlando, Fla.
He’s also cooked for a President in Washington, D.C.
A graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he was mentored by Jean Vergnes, chef de cuisine at The Colony and co-founder/co-owner of the world famous Le Cirque, both in New York City.
Getaways for Grownups recently talked to Chef Schmidt by phone to learn more.
What sparked your love of cooking?
I was actually going to be an architect; I’d received a scholarship to architectural school. I was totally enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright’s ability to bring the outside in. Both my grandmothers were great cooks; one Italian, one German. I’d worked in restaurants since I was 14, started washing dishes then moved up to pantry then line cook. I was running a kitchen by the time I was a senior in high school. I was 17 and wanted to buy a car, a new car; that was my goal. I realized one day that architecture and food have a cross over. You can live in a cramped hut and eat rice or you can live in a mansion and eat caviar, both food and shelter are the sustenance of life. You need food, you need shelter, but what you eat and where you live depends on geography and economic status. I started taking food-related courses at a community college and fell in love with it, so I continued on and the rest is history. Inspiration came from my grandmothers—actually, my German grandmother is still alive and actively bakes; she does it all by hand, no measurements.
You were one of the finalists for the position of White House chef for President George W. Bush. What is involved in that process?
You get invited, you don’t apply. When I was working at Reynolds Plantation, Mr. Reynolds was ambassador to Switzerland. There was a dinner we’d done that was for the inside circle to the Bushes and this lady who was there—I still don’t know to this day who it was—who’d eaten the dinner that I’d prepared and got a hold of Mrs. Bush’s ear and within three days I was on the phone with the press secretary to come up. That happened, and then after the initial interview I was asked to come back and prepare five various different meals for them. It was an experience!
You’re very involved with the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the oldest and largest food and wine society in the world. Tell us more.
The background of the organization is that it was started in 1248 to pay homage to the royal order of goose roasters who’d prepared food for the French royal family, but there was this thing called the revolution and then everybody didn’t want to be associated with the royal family. Back in 1950 in Paris there was a resurgence to bring back the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and now it’s worldwide. Basically, the gist of it is that people who share a common passion for fine wine and fine food and the balance and intrigue between the two. [Chaîne is based on the traditions and practices of the old French royal guild of meat roasters; at culinary events,] politics and religion are never discussed at the table, when the food is served you start eating immediately rather than wait for the whole table to be served, and there’s no salt and pepper unless people ask for it.
I formed the Lake Oconee chapter, the third largest starting chapter (second behind Atlanta and third behind New York). That was back in 2000 and I’ve been actively involved for the last 13 years. In 2011, I was presented the Grand Officer Maître Rotissuer ribbon. I’ve also been awarded a Silver Star of Excellence award.
You grew up in Michigan; what brought you south?
I’m somebody who really wanted to move on with life and see different places; I’m not one who wants to live where I grew up. I moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. I did my externship at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida—everybody wants to at some point move to Florida.
Yes. Living and working in New York City cooked me. I worked five years at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City; in the kitchen at 6 a.m., working ‘til 11:30 at night for seven days a week for the most part. It was a very rigorous position, a high expectation property. We were considered an Upper East Side address so we had a considerable amount of rock stars to kings and queens to whoever staying there; it was considered an off-the-beaten path property. At some point I decided to move back to Orlando, the area was up and coming.
In Georgia, you worked for Reynolds Plantation for many years and are now at Cuscowilla Golf Club & Resort, which is also on Lake Oconee.
We’re doing phenomenal here.
That’s great news. During a recent media dinner at Cuscowilla, you served charcuterie. These days, many Atlanta menus offer charcuterie, but yours was very different.
Charcuterie truly is dying out—you can find a few chefs doing it, including Anne Quatrano at Abattoir. It was taught years ago but is more talked about now. It happens to be my favorite thing to do. I love doing it and think I’m good at it. I had good instructors and mentors. I like to do it because people will remember it and those who enjoy it respect what’s involved with it and appreciate it. For that dinner I made tête pressée (‘pressed head’ in French, head cheese is another way of saying it), it’s something that is not done very much. I had the luck of knowing some farmers in the area and getting the head and trotters to make it. I’m lucky to have that [farmer access] and the dish kind of showed the local flair. The galantine featured quail from Plantation Quail International in Greensboro, Ga., which is the largest quail producer in the U.S.—I thought it was fitting to do. And obviously the trout was from North Georgia. It all made sense to shed light on the area a bit, and the plate offered some diversification of flavor, textures and animals.
If you’re doing charcuterie correctly the process is time consuming and it has to be articulately done. You have to make sure each step you take is done 100 percent; you can’t slip off that. There’s a great deal of process in doing all this stuff. A lot of chefs don’t want to do it, they may not have the patience, know-how, equipment or skill. It’s a huge time sacrifice, it really is. And that’s the cool part about it. When I go to do that, I know how much time and energy I’m putting into it and when it comes out well it’s like a personal accolade to me.
Yes, though we’re eclectic. We focus on very fresh fish, high-quality ingredients. Captain Greg Abrams runs four boats out of Pensacola, Florida, and he is a great resource for quality fish for us. We offer prime steaks and sell a good amount of them. Our fresh ingredients are prepared and presented in an appropriate way, not overplayed. It’s just good food. Our wine list is not huge, but it’s precise. What I mean by that is that every wine on the list we’ve paneled as a group. That allows the staff to participate in building the wine list and also fosters learning and knowledge about the wine, so if guests have questions about wine the staff can readily answer. We have about 65 to 80 wine selections.
Are the restaurants at Cuscowilla for open to the public or for resort guests only?
Yes, we’re open for dinner for guests and local residents from inside and outside the resort gates. We have two restaurants: Golf House Grill and Waterside.
Cuscowilla on Lake Oconee
126 Cuscowilla Dr.
Eatonton, GA 31024
-Photos courtesy Cuscowilla