Thomas Birmingham, who has been the executive chef at Ruth Lake Country Club in Hinsdale for about 2.5 years, recently was nominated by his peers and inducted into Les Amis d’Escoffier Society of Chicago, a fraternity of epicures and connoisseurs, dating back to 1936, and dedicated to the high standards of the culinary profession.
Q: As executive chef, do you spend more time cooking or managing?
A: I’m a working chef. About 50 to 70 percent of my time is hands-on in the kitchen; the rest is administrative.
Q: What type of menu do you offer at Ruth Lake?
A: It’s a seasonal menu. I do a lot of seafood. Especially on the weekend, we’ll have high-end fish specials. During the week, we serve more comfort meals, like meat loaf and fried chicken.
Q: I would have thought that people dining at a country club would expect fancier meals.
A: We have high-end steaks on the menu all the time. But a lot of members consider this a home to them. They don’t always want that high-end meal or something extravagant. On the weekends when people tend to bring guests, there may be higher expectations for the dining experience.
Q: What qualified you for induction into Les Amis d’Escoffier Society?
A: I think by staying involved in the industry so long, about 30 years. By being visible in the business and I volunteer. I’m treasurer of the Chicago Club Chefs Association. It’s an honor and a privilege.
Q: Did you always want to be a chef?
A: No. Out of high school, I started taking classes for engineering. But I had been cooking since I was 12. I have five brothers and sisters and I would make Sunday brunch.
Q: How did you learn to cook?
A: I just burnt stuff. That’s how you learn to cook. You make mistakes. If you screw it up once, it won’t be as expensive the next time.
Q: What is something you would like to change about yourself?
A: I would like to have more time with family and friends. I don’t, because of the workload. My friends and family don’t have a full understanding of the demands of my job. But it’s a double-edged sword because I’m happy in the kitchen. They don’t understand how I can spend so much time here and still love what I do.
Q: What do you like about working in a country club?
A: I like the freedom of the menus in a country club. I can experiment. In a restaurant, you are a little bit more bound to a corporate structure or a menu that doesn’t change.
Q: What would you do for a living, if you weren’t a chef?
A: I would be a golf club superintendent. I like to work outside. I like to garden and plant. The golf superintendent and I always debate who has the better job. He likes to spend his time off grilling.
Q: What other hobbies do you have?
A: I like antiques. I refinish furniture and do some woodworking. I like wine. I like fishing. I like anything outdoors. On my day off, I don’t spend any time inside.