Wednesday August 8, 2012

LENOX

It was quiet on a typical morning at the com missary, the kitchen that produces or preps nearly all the food served at Tanglewood -- from the concessions to meals-to-go, to catered events to the members' supper clubs at Highwood and Seranak.

As deliveries kept coming in, 30 people put away groceries, prepped sandwiches, salads, picnics and parties, came and went and consulted on menus with "Chef."

That would be executive chef Claudia Fitzgerald, an independent hospitality professional from Norfolk, Va., who runs her commissary with friendly and drama-less efficiency.

Fitzgerald began culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Norfolk when she was 34.

Growing up, she said, "We were always cooking. My mother was chef so that's why I was always cooking, but I never thought I would be a chef. I had no goals or aspirations at all when I was young. I was a late bloomer."

She was working setting up systems and procedures for a small chain of steakhouses when she decided to become a chef.

"The more I kept peeking around in the kitchen, the more I wanted to be in the kitchen, in the cooking part of the kitchen and I wanted to go into a more professional kitchen," she said.

After graduation, she said, "I wanted to work with this one chef up at the Colonial Williamsburg. He was the cream of the crop. He was and still is the ‘Guru of Culinary.' I basically just worked my way up the ranks until I was chef de cuisine.


Advertisement

I started doing all the cooking, all the cooking, all the cooking in every position."

Fitzgerald worked there from 1992 until 2004 when she retired.

"I stayed at Colonial Williamsburg so many years because there was so much opportunity to move up through the ranks," she said.

She took a month off when she retired but became really bored.

"I needed to get back to work. I worked for the Augusta [Masters Golf Tournament]. I still work for them."

Tanglewood learned of her "through the grapevine."

"It was one of those chef's friend of a friend of a friend of a friend," she said. "It's all based on job performance. That was in 2006. It was supposed to be only for a couple of weeks. They needed some help in the kitchen. It turned out to be two months."

She was asked to come back the next year. She cooked again in 2007 and 2008, when she became the commissary's main cook.

"They had had me up at Seranak one year. They had me all over the place. I got this position because I was everywhere on the property," she said. "That's how I really like to do things. I wanna start low and I wanna know every aspect of the operation. That's how I like it: grounded."

And that is how Fitzgerald runs the commissary.

Kids are grounded

She said, "The kids are grounded because I gave them the proper directions, the day's directions from start to finish. I think they want direction.

"Here everyone gets a direction. Every day. Every hour. All the time. And you have to be there with them."

Which she is -- everywhere she needs to be without any kind of bustle or fuss. Available to help her staff with whatever they need. Not only the young ones, but longtime professionals as well.

That morning, Jackie Hew itt, premium services manager for Boston Gour met, who oversees the food of the Highwood and Seranak supper clubs, came to consult with Fitzgerald about a tasting at Highwood that day for the John Williams post-concert 80th birthday party.

Highwood chef Keverne Glasgow came down to go over a menu with Fitzgerald. Peter Breslan, Seranak salad and dessert chef, quietly made salads at one of the well-stocked commissary counters for a small Seranak tea the next day.

And Domaine Carter, a chef with Boston Gourmet for 12 years, who is spending his first summer at Tanglewood, marinated steaks for a special dinner at the Formal Gardens and got Fitzgerald's instruction and help cutting an enormous swordfish filet for kebabs.

Fitzgerald took time cutting a few proper size pieces, even trimming the fish of the dark meat.

Banquet directions

Papers taped to a wall detailed complete banquet directions.

"It's what the client actually wants. It has the linens, the time, the menu, how many servers. It has a total information package," Fitzgerald said. "The catering goes on every day. That's part of Tangle wood."

"This past Saturday we had four events. There were two parties at the Formal Garden, one at one time and the other right after, but they were 60 people; they were small. In the Tent Club there was one for 300 people -- an appreciation dinner. There was a tea at Seranak. And then we have the concessions and the café and the grille," Fitzgerald went on.

Part of her job is coordinating Centerplate, which is strong in concessions, and gourmet catering, which is strong in catering. The two came together to form Boston Gourmet in 2010 to provide food service to the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood as well as at Symphony Hall in Boston.

Carmelo Pena of Pittsfield has worked the salad bar for 15 years. That morning, basil fragrance filled that corner of the kitchen as he roughly chopped fresh basil to add to the day's salad bar pasta. He made a chicken salad, roasted mushrooms, marinated mushrooms.

Exciting salads

Fitzgerald said she gives "direction to Carmelo on new and exciting items for the salad bar, which after 15 years can be challenging. Guests do want certain things," she noted. "Carmelo makes sure of it. Ed and myself ensure there are different and more exciting items."

That is Ed Bencivenga, Fitzgerald's sous chef, who is in charge of café and grille production. Fitzgerald even gives Bencivenga "production direction. He makes sure it happens and does an outstanding job."

She said that Pena's and Bencivenga's experience makes them invaluable for her.

Even she has gotten advanced culinary and hospitality training. The initials on her name tag -- CCC and CHS -- attest to that.

Take lots of tests

"CCC is certified chef de cuisine with the American Culinary Federation. CHS is a certified hospitality supervisor -- that's with American Hotel-Motel Association," Fitzgerald said and explained what she did to get them.

"You take a lot of tests," she began. "You have to have serve-safe qualification. You have to take certified courses in management and in nutrition and sanitation.

"And you have to cook. That goes without saying because you would never get to that level if you couldn't cook.

"A lot of kids that I see don't have goals. That's how I was at that age," she reiterated.

But she did notice Miles Herr, a 19-year-old college student from Lenox who just finished his fifth summer at the commissary.

"He has a natural talent, he has discipline, he has knife skills and he is wanting to learn, wanting to know more," Fitzgerald said.

"His passion and creativity is in the arts, but I see it coming over into the culinary arts," she said. "It is his voice. He loves to sing and he is very involved in Barrington Stage Company."

She said she believes he will be always be in the kitchen.

"He first came here when he was 15. He came to a job fair and said, ‘I wanna apply for a job.' I asked him, ‘What can you do?' He said, ‘I don't know but I wanna work.'

Cross-train everyone

"When a teen is brand new here they're assigned an area to work in," Fitzgerald explained. "I try to cross-train everyone who works in the café.

"Miles can be a self starter," Fitzgerald said, "But he's still learning. He's very talented, but he still definitely needs that culinary direction. Miles would be an interesting story to follow throughout his life. Oh, and yeah. He'll be back next year."

Dana Boomsma is a pastry chef intern from Johnson & Wales.

"She probably has the best experience in her life in our kitchen," Fitzgerald said. "She's one of our best people. She's very organized and she's very disciplined."

When her staff finished the day's pre-made sandwiches with an hour left before lunch, she taught a couple of young men new to the station how to peel and cut fresh cantaloupes and pineapples for grab-and-go fruit cups.

Give kids support

"It's important to give kids support no matter what they do or what they wanna do and it's important to take an interest. You have to build relationships with your staff. Here, people actually see each other as people. We try and go all in the same direction when we work."

"I cross-train everybody These kids can go anywhere on the property and do anything.

"They know to expect the unexpected, that's why they come back. This year I only have three new people out of the 30.

"I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that everything I had said could of been said in a few words: ‘Teaching young adults life skills, not just culinary.' That is what I do."