Archive for Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hometown flavor: Former KU student joins Eldridge staff as chef following celebrity culinary adventures

Chris Wofford, the new executive chef at The Eldridge Hotel, is pictured at its restaurant, Ten, 701 Mass. Wofford attended Kansas University before embarking on a culinary career. He is revamping The Eldridge’s menu, starting with new breakfast and lunch entrees.

Chris Wofford, the new executive chef at The Eldridge Hotel, is pictured at its restaurant, Ten, 701 Mass. Wofford attended Kansas University before embarking on a culinary career. He is revamping The Eldridge’s menu, starting with new breakfast and lunch entrees.

September 2, 2009

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Chris Wofford has cooked for both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Among some of his pieces of memorabilia from his exploits are a framed copy of the menu from a visit by president Clinton to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., and a box of M&Ms from Clinton.

Chris Wofford has cooked for both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Among some of his pieces of memorabilia from his exploits are a framed copy of the menu from a visit by president Clinton to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., and a box of M&Ms from Clinton.

Ultimate Mac ‘N’ Cheese

Ultimate Mac ‘N’ Cheese

Midwestern Berry Milk Cake

Midwestern Berry Milk Cake

Beef Bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon

Unless you’re a celebrity or a high-flying traveling salesman, it’s rare to call a hotel home.

But for Chris Wofford, coming to The Eldridge was like stepping through the front door and lazing on the couch.

Not that the hotel’s new executive chef had ever lived in the historic building at 701 Mass. It’s more of a symbolic return for the former Kansas University student, who calls Lawrence home. He is happy to return after culinary adventures took him around the United States and allowed him to cook for two presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and two would-be presidents — Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.

“I had my wedding reception here and had fond memories of The Eldridge,” he says. “It’s nice to be back.”

Now, after trips across the culinary landscape — where the souvenirs include presidential M&Ms; from Bill Clinton and connections to celebrity chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse — he’s finally found a place to settle down.

On the menu? A new spin on the Eldridge’s offerings. His revamped breakfast and lunch menu began Tuesday, and new dinner offerings will be coming next month.

The new menu also brings along a return to home for Wofford in other ways.

First, as a man who grew up in the hotel business — his father worked in hotels — and cooked in them during most of his 18-year culinary career, it’s a return to center after working most recently at the alumni center at the University of Missouri. Secondly, he plans on infusing more of the hometown flavors into the menu of the Eldridge, which he sees as something that is a landmark in the community.

“In Kansas, you get some fantastic product here, so we should really use it. Support the local economy, I believe, and I know the owners believe the same things — that we should support the local economy and the farmers around us and the community,” he says. “So that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

Even before the new menu debuted, he was hard at work shoring up those ideals. He has added a Saturday special based on the goods he finds at the Farmers’ Market in the morning and for Sunday brunch, he has begun making homemade desserts. He’s also been working with the hotel’s catering manager to tweak the Eldridge’s offerings for wedding parties and other special events.

“I’ve been working with her on new banquet menus and trying to get those a little bit more upbeat,” Wofford says. “My training is in classical French and Italian, so that’s going to be my background and then we’ll take it from there with the local and fresher product.”

From pizza to pastries

Wofford started cooking when he came to college at KU, where he majored in political science after attending high school in California. In just a few years he went from working at a Lawrence Godfather’s Pizza to pay his college bills, to manning the line at the Ritz-Carlton in Kansas City.

“A chef of mine that I’d worked with had got a job at the Ritz-Carlton as a chef and asked me if I wanted to come along. And so I jumped at it. I was just a line cook. I was probably the lowest line cook they had, which was a lunch line cook,” Wofford says. “I stayed about five years, worked my way up the ranks, became a banquet chef there, at the Ritz-Carlton. And then decided to go to school for culinary (arts).”

He took two years off from working in restaurants to attend the school — the New England Culinary Institute — before ending up as an apprentice to renowned pastry chef Sebastien Cannone.

“I went to work with Sebastien Cannone in Chicago, which now he runs The French Pastry School,” Wofford says. “I went there because he had just won the world pastry competition, and so I really wanted to work with him and see how (he did it). I had the opportunity to be the first apprentice that he took into his pastry shop.”

After graduating from culinary school, Wofford has spent 11 years as an executive chef and has worked to shape his food ideals into something simple: fresh, seasonal, locally inspired foods.

Which, in this case, means that Lawrence’s landmark hotel is going to be serving up flavors that are uniquely Lawrence as well.

“I’m working with some local farmers to try to get some local produce in here. I want to try to find some local beef and pork — I did that in Des Moines when I was an exec chef up there,” he says, mentioning his stint at Hotel Fort Des Moines. “I’ve met some of the farmers around here, and they’re great. They’ve brought in some fantastic produce, which I use as much as you can get. It’s been perfect.”

Classical Midwestern

Nancy Longhurst, The Eldridge’s general manager, says that she believes this will add up to a memorable dining experience for visitors.

“With the addition of chef Chris, we continue to work at creating excellent choices and memorable experiences for our restaurant guests in Lawrence and throughout the region,” Longhurst says.

Though not too memorable — Wofford wants to make sure familiar dining experiences go along with the locally familiar flavors. This is home, after all.

“I believe the clientele here is fairly classical. I wouldn’t put on the menu any of the far-out reaching things that they do in Chicago or California with the molecular gastronomy. I wouldn’t quite go that far. ... I think more along the lines of classical Midwestern,” Wofford says. “If they can get their nice cut of beef and a well-done potato, things along those lines, I think, go over well here.”

Comments

frankfussman 6 years, 12 months ago

I was at the Eldridge Hotel restaurant recently and the menu did not have any prices listed, like "If you need to ask how much something costs, you can't afford to eat here."

zettapixel 6 years, 12 months ago

huh that's weird... I was just there a couple of a days ago and all the prices were on there.

d_prowess 6 years, 12 months ago

While I look forward to see the changes he brings to their menu, he better not mess with their mac n' cheese!!

4chewnut 6 years, 12 months ago

What happened to their last "new" chef from the Southwest??

Evan Ridenour 6 years, 12 months ago

This is a good thing, while the food wasn't bad by any means it was far from exceptional.

The bar staff could use some additional training with cocktails as well.... I don't think anyone wants to taste soap in their martini.

riverdrifter 6 years, 12 months ago

Eride: Please give us your martini. Name the gin, the vermouth and the mix. You've been jumping all over folks on this'n that boards today. Better get it right...

Evan Ridenour 6 years, 12 months ago

I wasn't aware that speaking my opinion was somehow against the TOS of this site. Oh wait... it isn't. Although... I wonder... instead of commenting on topic you focus on attacking me? An interesting approach for someone who is attempting to call out another poster.

In the spirit of that notion I will expand on my prior comment instead of mocking your hypocrisy further. The cocktails they list are sugary, syrupy, poorly made constructs. Any other cocktail you order are usually placed in a glass that just came out of a dishwasher and is warm with a highly distinctive taste of soap and again, usually poorly made. My opinion is even shared by two of the current bar tenders which of course I cannot name. I only go there because I have friends who work there otherwise I would avoid it like the plague.

But as I mentioned in my prior comment, the food was okay but hopefully now it will be notable. I will have to swing by there for lunch and check it out.

Hawk6643 6 years, 12 months ago

I agree partially with Erdie. I used to work out this place, loved it, and they they tried to become like every other cookie cutter place around. That is one of the reasons I quit. It was great working that at first, unique and different, and then it just turned into every other corporate craphole.

pollywannacracker 6 years, 11 months ago

Well, I didn't read the harrasing comment portion of the agreement. I want to see the new menu. My assumption is that it will probley be riding on the coattails of everyone else. Lets see someone that can really provide the experience that will really expand The Historic Eldridge Hotel and bring a new culinary expansion to the Lawrence area.

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