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.”
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.”