When you talk to someone who speaks passionately about the place they work for it’s an uplifting experience. That’s exactly what our interview, with French Lick’s Food & Beverage Manager, Tom O’Connor, was like.
The French Lick Resort and its sister hotel, West Baden Springs, boast 4 golf courses, stables, pools, spas, 16 dining venues, 13 retail outlets, a conference center, hospitality and event catering and more. To say it is an extraordinary place, would be a gross understatement.
“Everyone needs to come to French Lick at least one time in their life,” prides O’Connor. “There are 105 things to do here! The gaming, [yes, there’s a casino there too], golf, tennis, hiking, horseback riding, basketball, bowling, youth activities – we’re a family friendly, historic and sports oriented facility in the heart of the Hoosier forest.”
O’Connor never stops spouting the resort’s historical accolades either. “I try to interface a lot of French Lick’s rich history,” he says, “it’s the string that runs through a lot of things we do here.” Located about 60 miles from Louisville, Kentucky, bourbon is also a really big deal at French Lick.
There are many things people may be surprised to hear you do, like selecting a barrel of bourbon at the Woodford Reserve Distillery.
The barrel arrived last week. 180 bottles followed with our “personal select” label – it makes us unique. We have the #1 Manhattan in the state; we went to a competition in Indy among the best bartenders. We try a lot of different syrups [they create their own]; one that was great was vanilla bean and fresh cherry juice. There is a shop here that sells Bavarian nuts, so we took coated candy almonds, our personal
Woodford Reserve, and then rimmed the glass with cherry juice and pulverized almonds – rolled the cherries in that too.
Our concentration on bourbon is because of the Kentucky namesake, the running of the derby and the history of the derby – French Lick has housed many Derby horses.
The aristocracy used to stay here from Derby Day to Memorial Day. They had their own horse trains come in. Trunks would be coming and going all day long because the women wouldn’t wear the same dress twice.
O’Connor playfully told us the Cakewalk was invented at French Lick too.
There used to be a lot of Jamaican workers here who couldn’t speak English. But every night at 9, they’d cakewalk (in a competitive style around the dining room) with flambé on their heads.
You just released news of hosting a major golf championship, what does that mean for you?
The 2015 Senior PGA Championship will be the first time in 91 years we’ve held a major! The scope of exposure to the resort is global. It puts us in the limelight for what we can easily facility between our golf and hospitality staff – that we can entertain a major event. It’s been seven years since the renovation – we are now at that level.
When will you start the hospitality planning for this event?
The tournament underwriter is KitchenAid. They will have a big promotional tent of course, and there is opportunity now for other sponsor tents. We are also the site for the 2014 Porche International Conference and the LPGA Legends Tournament will be here in September. There’ll be 80-90 hall-of- famers here… there’s still a few sponsor slots oooooo-pen.
Okay, we’ll talk to our team about that. You are quite the salesman!
I assist where necessary, even sales as it relates to food and events. I collaborate with the marketing department… it’s the culmination of experience. It’s also extremely rewarding. I’ve ran into people who’ve been around here for many years; what the Cook family did for this location – they restored an entire community.
What can possibly prepare anyone to manage these types of operations?
I will be here 5 years in October, before that I had a catering company, before then, restaurants. I’ve managed country clubs and hotels. I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales – the original one in Rhode Island.
What made you want to be on the operations side versus being a chef?
I always aspired in management because I could utilize my knowledge of culinary arts to deal directly with the client – not that the rewards aren’t there as a culinarian – but you are part of a profound opportunity to be involved with things like weddings. I make my staff acutely aware that our customers are going to be having a life experience – they’re here for a memorable experience that will last a lifetime.
When this position came up, it all came together, I did my time. All along the way, you apply the young culinarian in you. I remember a facilities teacher telling my class that 75% of us wouldn’t be there [in the industry] in two years and friends of mine weren’t. I tried IBM for 6 months and didn’t know what to do with my weekends.
I still have the drive to attend to the guest experience; here you can actually apply a passion. My dad said, ‘you’ll never go hungry or be out of work’, and he was right.
Where did you grow up?
I was raised in northern Jersey. My dad worked in NY as a sales director for a textile company. I’d go to the city with my dad and we’d watch the Macy’s parade from the 23rd floor of his office building. We’d also go to Rock Center to watch the skaters and to the Rainbow Room.
I remember after the first showing of the Sound of Music at Radio City, our entire family had tableside flambé at the Rainbow Room – which I revived at the resort – fine tableside service. It brings back the memory of what French Lick was in the 20s, 30s, and 40s… Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee, Crepes Suzette – you can have all of them after having some of the best steaks in the world – thanks to Buedel.
1875 is a superb venue, we’re proud to serve you. Thanks for saying so!
What are the top three things you’ve learned over the course of your career?
One – You must possess a passion beyond worrying about being compensated – once you start putting hours to dollars your future is limited.
Two – Approach every day with excitement; there are no two days alike. And, that your guest will have a profound experience so they’ll want to return. You can have the best food in the world, but without good interaction, they won’t come back.
Three – Constantly be educated. I watched the Food Network this morning – I felt like a neophyte. I didn’t know you could eat that or think the influx of molecular gastronomy would be in my life. We’re like doctors.
Stay with authentic based products. Farm to table has become a part of our fabric here, don’t sacrifice your culinary techniques for canned. Be original; resort back to production of the food item – don’t compromise. It takes extra time and talent to do this, not F-A-Ts.
What do you mean by that?
Food Assembly Technicians – what cooking schools are pushing out. The art of Escoffier has to be maintained and practiced, or the art will be lost … stay true to the basic mother sauces…béarnaise…hollandaise…
Can those kinds of standards be maintained at smaller hospitality levels?
They can do it cost effectively by minimizing labor and increasing technical knowledge – individuals need to be more faceted. The cost is less when you use raw products. For example, if you made cheesecake the difference would be something like 63¢ / sliver vs. $2 / pre-made slivers.
You also have to watch every second. If someone brings in something manufactured, your costs go out the window. When there are more units in a chain, then there’s more profit – that’s how the big boys can do it.
The biggest expense is labor. I always say, ‘When your staff goes home, you’re making money.’