The Fried Chicken Chronicles
An Arizona chef dives head first into Carolina cuisine
What do you get when you put a west coast boy smack dab in the middle of a Southern kitchen? Seasonal world cuisine with a side of mashed potatoes, as it turns out. In another attempt to explore the chefs within the prestigious country club industry, I got to know Chef Francisco Villalba (lovingly known as Chef Frankie). At The Reserve Club at Woodside in Aiken, SC, he takes on everything from down-home cooking to themed events to one hell of a July 4th party for over 400 guests. Though his passion for the culinary arts has taken him far from his roots, he’s becoming grounded (and quite well-versed) in making meatloaf and mingling with shrimp boat captains. This is his story.
Chef Francisco Villalba | The Reserve Club at Woodside | Aiken, SC
What was your journey to getting where you are today in your culinary career?
Chef Francisco Villalba: When I got out of high school, I had a very different path. I was at a regular college where I had received a full ride for soccer, and I was in the Nursing Program. I started cooking at a bar and after a while—realized that it was my thing (but I didn’t want to be a grill cook).
I wanted to be a professional chef. I studied at the Art Institute of Phoenix and got my Associates Degree in culinary as well as Hotel and Restaurant Management. While I was in school, I was hired at a 4-diamond hotel in Arizona. I was in over my head, but I stuck it out and developed my culinary repertoire. If you want to be good at something and do something you love, you educate yourself along the way and learn quickly.
I was the Executive Sous Chef at the country club I came from in Scottsdale, AZ. The company who manages them is responsible for properties all over the world, and an opportunity for the Executive Chef position opened up here. I applied and was given a shot on a big leap of faith.
What drew you into the country club environment versus working in a regular restaurant?
Chef Francisco Villalba: When I was working in the hotel industry, I was the chef of the conference center and was feeding anywhere from 300 – 2,000 a day. Customers started to just feel like numbers. Now I get to work directly with people and cater to them. I fell in love with the private club aspect through being able to have a more personalized relationship with the members. In this field, I get to listen to our guests, provide them with what they want, tackle any obstacles, and keep people happy.
Do you operate and create menus for both dining areas—the main dining room and Latitudes? And, is there one where you feel more comfortable, or that fits best with your culinary point of view?
Chef Francisco Villalba: I do operate both. In the main dining room, we serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and that’s our comfort food zone (like fried chicken and meatloaf). Since I’m from Arizona and still learning about Southern cuisine, that’s an exploratory area for me. Latitudes is only open Friday and Saturday for dinner and it’s a la carte service as well as higher-end entrees. At Latitudes, I get to play a little bit more and use more elevated ingredients.
My culinary style is seasonal world cuisine. I’m first generation Mexican American so I grew up with that Latin flair. I love to use different ingredients with different culinary techniques, make beautiful dishes, and please palates. From that standpoint, Latitudes is more challenging in a good way because it’s more rewarding. And, I get to have more fun than just putting down meat and potatoes.
What local ingredients and resources from the area do you enjoy using most in your kitchen creations?
Chef Francisco Villalba: I source my meats locally, as well as from Atlanta, and my pork comes from in town. I get my seafood from the coast. My salmon comes from Florida, and I have a good relationship with a shrimp boat captain from Louisiana. Since I came from the desert and am not used to having fresh products so readily available—it’s really nice! As far as produce goes, my menu cycles are based on what’s being harvested in the area.
What other fun culinary events have you created for Woodside members, and which one seems to be the hit?
Chef Francisco Villalba: We had a great 4th of July event where we fed over 450 people. It was a miracle that we pulled that one off! We had fireworks on the lawn, live music, and everyone ate well and had a great time. For Halloween, we did a murder mystery dinner and I just made a super fun menu where we used items like beet juice to mimic blood spatters! For the holidays, instead of doing a Thanksgiving buffet, we do pick-up orders. That way, people who don’t want to cook or dirty up their house (but want to entertain) have easy access to the luxury of having someone else cook for them.
Your recipe is very fall-centric, so I’m assuming you enjoy cooking your way through the seasons! Strictly speaking food, what’s your favorite time of the year (and what ingredients do you love most from that season)?
Chef Francisco Villalba: I would definitely say the summer. Fresh and light seafood is my go-to! I’m a fan of freshness and I cook with a lot of fruit and citrus, so the summer is the perfect time of year to brighten up the palate.