Jeff Sommer doesn’t eat lunch — at least not in the conventional way.
The new executive chef at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino gets his midday calories by tasting food prepared by his sous chefs and line cooks. On a recent day, he wandered through the main kitchen, sniffing and tasting. The room was organized chaos at its finest, though he assured this was nothing compared with preparations for a large banquet.
“It gets really crazy in here,” he said.
Sommer looked the part with double-breasted white chef’s coat, black apron, black slacks and shiny shoes. He stands 6 foot, 4 inches — so tall that he bumps a traditional chef hat against oven hoods and other low-hanging encroachments. Years ago, he traded his chef hat for a black beanie.
Sommer skirted an extensive assortment of ranges, fryers, grills, broilers and the cooks tending them. The whir of fans mixed with the sound of chopping, stirring and blending. Chef Jeff, as people call him, paused to sample from a pot of huckleberry barbecue sauce.
“The huckleberry isn’t strong enough,” he advised the cook. “The acidity is there. The sweetness is there. The horseradish is overpowering the huckleberry.”
Sommer didn’t come off as imperious, just helpful and encyclopedic.
He chatted with another cook who prepared pork loin for pork verde, and then eyeballed a pan of bread pudding and a plate of cinnamon-encrusted tortillas. He tasted from simmering pots of cioppino and jambalaya and offered ideas on how to tweak the flavor.
Such is the life of an executive chef.
Sommer comes to Wildhorse via New Orleans where he was executive chef at the Loews Hotel, a luxury hotel where he learned about Cajon cooking and other regional cuisine. His resume also includes chef at the Overlook Club House on the Reynolds Plantaton in Greensboro, Georgia, and various chef positions with the Ritz-Carlton company.
Sommer’s love of food and cooking kicked in during boyhood. At his grandparents lakeside cottage in Wisconsin, he learned to prepare fish he and his grandfather pulled from the lake. In the winter, they prepared venison and sauerkraut braised rabbit with game they had hunted themselves. He learned to butcher, smoke and cure. The boy also spent time with his grandmother and mother, tending garden and working in the kitchen.
“I made zucchini bread and jams and jellies with them,” Sommer said.
He tried new things on his own, though he admits “some of it got fed to the dog.”
Professionally, he started at the bottom. After a gig as busboy at age 16, he moved to the kitchen, peeling carrots, and worked his way up. He found an established chef, Chuck Schuster, who agreed to mentor the teenager. Sommer stayed with Schuster for four years.
He enlisted in the Army as a mechanic during the Gulf War to earn money for tuition to the Culinary Institute of America, which Sommer calls “the Harvard of culinary schools.” He met his wife of 24 years, Cherrieanna, at the institute. Until moving to Pendleton, she worked as head baker at a New Orleans’ bakery called Bittersweet Confections, known for its wedding cakes. The couple, who splits the cooking at home, has a grown son and daughter.
During Sommer’s first visit to Wildhorse, he found himself intrigued with the idea of becoming the head chef. He would oversee the resort’s existing five venues (Plateau, Hot Rock Cafe, Traditions Dining, Wild Roast Coffee & Deli and the Wildhorse Sports Bar), plus he would help design five more eateries that will come with a planned expansion of the resort.
Sommer said he connected with Wildhorse leaders and their vision. In his first 90 days as executive chef, Sommer worked at establishing routines and goals. He walks the property each morning, checking in with managers and employees at each eatery. He spends time in his little office off the main kitchen, going over menus and pricing. He improves procedures for plating and presentation and works on upgrading sanitation practices to match his clean freak standards. He cultivates his own culinary vision for the place, such as procuring as much local food as possible from area farmers and growing herbs and certain other foods on site. He spends time creating his own recipes, tweaking them until “they are tried and true.” In his world, you start with good, simple ingredients and transform them into something amazing.
“I don’t want to overcomplicate the food,” he said. “I believe in simple.”
Jose Gutierrez, the resort’s executive sous chef welcomes Sommer’s team approach.
“He comes with new ideas, but he’s learning the local ways, too,” Gutierrez said.
Sommer starts his days with a basic breakfast (tea-infused oatmeal, yogurt and a protein shake), which he eats after doing cardio and weights in the gym in his garage. He credits his love of athletics for keeping the weight off even though he’s surrounded by food all day. In high school, he did football, basketball, track and wrestling. As an adult, he shifted to mountain biking, kickboxing and archery.
When asked, he offers advice to aspiring chefs.
“Have realistic understanding of the business,” he offered. “You’ll be working your way up from the bottom. You’ll be peeling onions. These are the tasks that take you to the roots of what cooking is. You learn the best ingredients. You learn not to cut your fingers off.”
As Sommer navigated the huge kitchen on Wednesday, somehow, despite his constant proximity to food, his white chef’s jacket remained immaculate. He explained that white is actually practical for chefs because it doesn’t absorb heat, rather reflects it back. Plus, the coat can be bleached unlike dyed material.
As he navigated from pot to pot, he seemed in his natural habitat. The culinary world never gets boring, Sommer explained. There’s always new recipes to learn and invent and new technologies to incorporate.
“In this career, you’re never going to stop learning,” he said. “There’s always something new out there every day.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.