As a kid growing up in Worthington, Pa., Jeremy Critchfield worked in a pizza shop.
He had little idea then that he’d become the executive chef at Nemacolin Woodlands, the western Pennsylvania resort that entertains the rich and famous. A visit to the IUP Academy of Culinary Arts helped him choose his career path. After graduating from the academy in 1993, he spent ten years at a variety of restaurants and resorts around the country before landing the dream job that has become his passion.
Also the director of the five-diamond resort’s food and beverage operations, Critchfield has responsibility for roughly five hundred employees who work in numerous restaurants and taverns ranging from the most elegant to the fun and casual. He is serving his second tenure with Nemacolin during a career that is full of top-rate experiences, including the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Florida, and Sea Island Company in Georgia.
Critchfield’s title suggests restaurant management, but a recent conversation with him did not reveal much detail about food, kitchens, or front-of-the-house operations. Leadership, the hospitality industry, and managing a great staff are as important to him as the experience he and his staff provide to patrons and have occupied his attention for the last half decade.
Nemacolin, located in Fayette County, is his passion—“One of my favorite subjects!” The owners, the Hardy family, who also own the 84 Lumber chain, are simple in their expectations—“take care of the guests, and treat them as you would like to be treated,” he exclaims. Critchfield insists his business is about the people—those who are employed by the resort and the guests themselves. Putting people, service, and quality first is his mantra. He says his business is selling experience.
After graciously agreeing to spend a day with IUP’s videographer and photographer, Critchfield took additional time to answer questions about one of America’s premier resorts and the balancing act it requires to be in his position.
What’s a typical day like? Do you have a typical day?
There aren’t a lot of those here. I get to work between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. typically, depending on what’s going on, and leave between 5:00 and 10:00 p.m. The first thing I do is check with my assistant to see what’s going on. I organize myself for the day, read over the recaps from each restaurant from the night before, review the financials, and then I start talking to people—my managers, my chefs. I like to hear what’s happening with their associates, their guests, their facilities, their products. I talk to the four directors who report to me—about their projects, their vision, and their ideas. In the middle of that, I’ll probably expedite a dinner service—I do that once or twice a week—and lend a hand at banquets.
What does expediting mean?
An expediter is a kitchen position that works between the kitchen and the front of the house. The person in the position sets the tempo and pace of service, brings all the orders together and checks them for accuracy, and then sends it to the dining room to be delivered to the right table properly. That’s just something I’ve always enjoyed. It’s a position, especially if you’re a restaurant chef, that you spend a lot of time doing—inspecting every plate that leaves the kitchen, ensuring any special requests that have been made are being met. This ranges from not putting mayo on a club sandwich to making sure that something that is being served to a child with food allergies is right. It’s a pretty key role. It balances the flow of service.
What’s the best part of your day?
It doesn’t happen here every day, but there’s nothing like when someone bursts into my office and says, “Hey, Chef, you’re never going to believe what we just did!” It’s awesome. I’m not necessarily a people person, but I love to develop people and watch them grow and rise up to meet challenges. I’ve certainly fired my share, but everyone on my staff in a leadership position now has grown here, and many have been promoted from within. There are a number of people I’ve worked with who are now working elsewhere and doing very well.
You said you have around five hundred people reporting to you at Nemacolin. How many are IUP alumni?
I have four in food and beverage—the front of the house—and ten to twelve in the kitchens. Some we bring in from externships, and many of them stay after graduation and work their way up or move up.
You said you are in the business of selling the experience. In these economic times, many people are now living closer to the bone. How are you and others at Nemacolin adapting, as it pertains to the experience you provide?
It’s funny you use that word, because one of the things we say here at Nemacolin is our only constant is change, whether that’s financially or operationally. Our strength is that we aren’t a corporate property, and we’re not unionized, so we can change in the blink of an eye. We know our business very well, and we take really good care of our people. So, when we know business is down and we have cancellations and people aren’t spending as much when they’re here, we can adjust our business model. For example, we might not bring additional staff in but instead give the existing staff more hours. We try to do more with less, but our “less” is better than many places’ “more.” We have people who really care. And, when you have trained, motivated people who have a sense of ownership, you get more out of them. The sense of ownership is very strong here, and, honestly, that’s why we continue to kick our competitors’ butts…. It goes back to the people here.
You are probably managing more than you thought you would when you were in school. Did you think you would be doing this?
I had no inkling when I was in culinary school that I would be sitting here seventeen years later.
Do you have many chances to get back into the kitchen?
Oh, yeah. Actually, this last year I’ve spent more time in the kitchen than I have in the last five.
I’ve spent time learning this operation, working with the people, and getting them into the right positions, getting the right systems into place. There are areas running that I have more confidence in now. Those four directors I mentioned do really well, and it’s allowing me to push onto them what I’ve been doing the last four years. It’s beginning to allow me to be in the kitchens a lot more, and I’m really excited about that.
What about personally? Do you share your talent with family and friends?
I do. I cook at home for my wife and me—quick things. But, now I’m finding I have time on Sundays, when I’m off, to make a pot of soup or jerky or whatever I make and drop it off at a friend’s house. I’m launching a business on my own this year. It will be Internet based, and it’s all about…well, if you know anything about Albert Wutsch [director of the IUP Academy of Culinary Arts, who also is nationally known for wild game preparation], it’s about hunting and preparing wild game. That’s been a passion of mine since before anything else—while I was growing up. And, the more I talk to people, I’m finding there is such a need for it. It’s easy for me, and I want to share it.
The name of the company is HuntChef.com. I plan on having upward of fifteen hundred recipes—I haven’t decided if they’ll be free or if there will be a small membership fee. Once I get it up and running, I’ll see where it takes me. I don’t really have a business plan. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for myself and if I can make a couple of bucks a year and work on it on my own, we’ll see where it goes.
Do you have any other passions? I know when you were in school, you were known for your ice sculpture and won several competitions.
I haven’t cut ice in the last several years, but I hope to get back into that in the next year, too. I love to cook, and it’s not that I’ve taken time off from it, but in the last five years, I’ve really grown myself as a leader and manager versus as a culinarian. Now, knowing what I know about food and leadership and having a financial perspective, and knowing what our guests want when they come here…I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have a feeling it’s going to be something really good. I’ve got here the only five-star and five-diamond restaurant between Philadelphia and Chicago. I have a great banquet and catering operation. There are people who might say, “That’s kind of tough to improve on.” I have a feeling I might spend the next year blowing it up and rebuilding it all from the ashes.
Jalapeno Cheese Grits with Low Country Shrimp
Editor’s Note: How could we not ask an executive chef to share a recipe with our readers? Jeremy Critchfield provided one of his favorites, this one a dish he prepared for patrons of Sea Island Resort.
Jalapeno Cheese Grits
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups Quaker grits
- 1 stick butter
- 1½ tablespoon garlic salt
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ cup jalapenos, diced
- 3 cups white cheddar cheese (reserve)
In saucepan, bring water, milk, and butter to boil. Add salt, garlic salt, jalapenos, and grits. Stir well and return to boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Allow grits to thicken, stirring occasionally. Stir in 3 cups shredded white cheddar cheese.
Low Country Shrimp
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 cup each green and red pepper, diced
- 1 cup white onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pound small shrimp, tail off, peeled
- 1 cup cream
- 1 roasted red peppers, pureed
- dash hot sauce
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
Place olive oil in large skillet. Sauté the vegetables—garlic, peppers, and onions—until they become translucent. Stir in shrimp and spices. Add cream. Cook over high heat until reduced by half. Stir in cilantro and roasted red pepper puree. Serve over jalapeno cheese grits.
What chefs and hospitality professionals do you draw inspiration from?
I’ve never been a very good follower, but there are people I admire, because I’d like to have more of their qualities. Take Mario Batali, for example. He’s a one-man empire, an incredible chef. His skill in the kitchen matches his skill as a businessman and as a teacher. I really respect him for those qualities. Those are three things that are important to me and want to improve. Albert Wutsch is another. Pardon my French, but he can kick your ass for doing something wrong but make you feel good about it. And, he has so much patience—and I don’t have it.
I look at some chefs and think, if I’d have just stayed with restaurants, I might have been there. But, that’s just not me. Some of the big-city, cutting-edge restaurant chefs—I admire them for their cowboy talents—they push the envelope. They train and study very hard. They work like machines. I admire them for their ambition and drive.
There are some others. John Folse. Again another one-man company. He manufactures packaged foods. He has plants to produce sauces and gravies. Sometimes I stand back and look at what some of these guys have accomplished and realize I have more work to do. I don’t want to do what someone else has done.
You find inspiration in the darnedest places.
What do you make of the proliferation of food shows, TV chefs, and cooking reality shows?
I don’t watch any of them. I don’t even watch the Food Network. It’s great, though. Between the Food Network, the Internet, YouTube, and other sources, America should eat better. They should make Americans better cooks. I think those are very good things. As far as the rest, it’s just kind of entertainment.
You don’t think it impacts your industry or the true professionals?
I don’t think so. If anything, I think it heavily influences people’s perceptions of their dining experiences. You know, if you go and order a cheeseburger and think, “Well so-and-so on this show did it like this.” That’s the last the thing the operator of that restaurant wants to hear.
So, as a professional, you pretty much turn it off?
Yeah. I focus on me—on my people and my operation.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you or your industry?
For me…I like to stay hungry and stay challenged. That’s my biggest thing. I get bored easily…I wear three unique hats. I love the service culture, I am a raging capitalist, and I love the kitchen. I think I’m balancing them pretty well.