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Chef Interview:
Percy Whatley

Interview by Gayle Keck

How did you start cooking?

When I first got here [California] in 1989 as a 20-year old with no direction, I was just here to enjoy the mountains and be a young adult on my own. The seasonal work at Yosemite enabled me to make pretty good money and get through school.

When did you get serious?

After school, I landed in The Ahwahnee kitchen, and I instantly realized I didn’t know as much about this industry as I should. The chef at that time mentored me to get into a culinary program and get educated – to get all those “book studies” done. He was a CIA alum, and I’m really happy that I chose the Culinary Institute.

Why’s that?

It is the best program in the country, if not the world. It’s the best way to get a very well-rounded curriculum of the fundamentals of culinary and baking. Just look at the talent base and the faculty there; the continuing education programs. I loved the program and loved the passion that all the faculty members have for food. Extraordinary!

You decided early on that you wanted to be in the corporate hotel scene. Why that path?

Mainly for the stability and the benefits. There’s nothing worse than a broken leg and suddenly you’re $15,000 in debt! But I like the larger staff environment as well. The dynamics and the diversity of creating a team in that environment poses its challenges – but when you do meet and overcome those challenges, it feels really extraordinary when everybody’s running on all eight cylinders and moving in the same direction. There’s 60 people in my brigade – it’s not small!

That’s huge! Do you do room service too?

Yes. The hotel is only 123 rooms, but the food and beverage operation will feed 2,000 people a day because it’s a destination dining hotel.

Do you need to cook differently for customers at Yosemite?

Yes, we have a very broad spectrum of people and a really broad spectrum of expectations, so we have to find a middle ground. On one hand, a guest who’s been returning for 40 years will just go ballistic if prime rib’s not on the menu – and there are a lot of those guests – so we have prime rib. Then we have international guests who really don’t understand American food, so we have to have some simple preparations on the menu that can be easily explained. And then we have people who want a super-fine dining, mind-blowing experience.

You have to have three different mental dining rooms!

Right! On top of that, in the summer, it’s “turn and burn.” People want to get in and out and go for a nice, long walk because it’s light until nine o’clock. In the fall and winter we do a more leisurely service.

You do a lot of special events in the off-season, too, don’t you – like the seven-course Bracebridge Pageant dinners?

Yes, the logistics involved for the Bracebridge are extraordinary – not just feeding the people attending, but 100 cast and crew as well. All the moving parts, all of the focus on making it special is one gigantic feat!

What are some of the other events?

We start off in November with our wine dinners, our Vintners’ Holidays, over five weeks, with eight winemakers every week – big hitters too: Silver Oak, Ravenswood, Rombauer. There are 1½-hour wine-tasting sessions, then we wrap it all up with a gala dinner. I write the menu according to the wines the vintners are choosing to pour, rather than the other way around. It’s a wonderful experience for us in the back of the house, because we can really put the subtleties in the food to pair with those wines.

I have to say, the quality of food in Yosemite has radically improved since I first started going there.

An enormous amount of effort and love has gone into shaping the culinary operations here. We really do owe it to our corporate chef, Roland Henin. He’s been my mentor over the last 12 or 13 years and has really made a huge impact. We, as chefs, are not ourselves without a mentor – we don’t become who we are.

What was his biggest impact on you?

Sustainability. We were buying asparagus year-round because it was available. It’s an easy vegetable to deal with in large, high-volume situations. But Roland came and looked in our walk-in in the wintertime and said, “What the hell is this?” Being an older gentleman from France, he grew up in a culture where you did not have certain things year-round. 


He said, “Get back to basics. Get away from forcing things onto people that really shouldn’t be there.” It made sense to us here in Yosemite quite quickly. Asparagus tastes terrible in the winter!

Have you faced any challenges due to the park’s isolation or weather conditions?

Oh, yeah. It’s tough! We had to get really, really creative for our pork. We do buy Midwest pork, but I think it’s the best on the market, from Becker Lane Farm. Everything is full-circle organic. He ships whole carcasses to Oakland, but there’s no way to get them out of the Bay Area. Our fish people go to the Bay Area every few days, so the processer in Oakland takes it to a drop-off point in San Francisco and my fish guy goes out of his way to pick it up for us.

What’s one pantry item you can’t do without?

Butter! It’s a much more diverse ingredient than non-cooks would think. It’s a main ingredient in pastry. It’s great on toast [LAUGHS]! The mounting of butters into sauces and soups gives them the kind of intense, rich, mouth-feel that is always missing in puree soups. Without butter, it’s not the same.

Do you have a favorite butter?

I love Plugra. And the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company – their butter is over the top.

Favorite tools?

Definitely a thermal circulator. Having the ability to vacuum-pack something and cook it has changed our world.

How does it impact a big kitchen like yours, versus a smaller kitchen?

We have four line cooks on a really busy night. Each station could be responsible for over 100 plates. So preparing something to be cooked sous vide – when all the work goes into it prior – means it’s not a distraction, so the cook doesn’t lose focus. All they have to do is open a bag and give it a sear. You don’t have to babysit it in the oven; you don’t have to baste it. It softens the load and makes things much, much easier to execute at the level of cooking that we want it to be. With sous vide, chicken is always moist, it’s always cooked at the proper temperature.

Most chefs seem to see sous vide in a very narrow, but extremely useful context.

You can take that technique too far, where people aren’t cooking any more. So if you do implement it into a kitchen brigade, my recommendation is to be careful what you’re using it for – because it’s important for young cooks to actually know how to cook for their next step.

Any advice for young cooks?

Push yourself to a point beyond where you think you can’t push yourself any more – and then push one step further. Never say “I can’t do it.” Always be looking over someone’s shoulder. Always ask, “Can I do this better? Can I work harder at this one particular thing?” Never lose that focus - and never stop learning.

I hear that from all the chefs I interview!
What have you learned recently?

I learn a lot from our Chef’s Holidays, where chefs from across the country come and work in our kitchen – like Michael Cimarusti [of Providence in LA]. We definitely learned a few things from him! But the biggest learning experience was probably doing the Bocuse d’Or for the second time. 

How did you get involved in the Bocuse d’Or?

It was Roland, my mentor, who was a mentor to Thomas Keller, as well. Roland reached out to me and said “You’re the best chef in our company – you should go for it.” I applied and had no idea what the hell I was doing, so Roland coached me.

Your second time, you won Best Meat in the Bocuse d’Or USA. What did you do differently?

The first time I did it, in 2008, I went more for the shock and awe of the presentation, instead of cooking for the judges the best I know how to cook. In 2010, I focused on the depth of flavors, the balance and harmony in flavors versus some foo-foo, weird-looking presentation. The judges are just going to take one bite – and that bite had better be the best bite that they’ve ever eaten!

How much did you train?

While preparing for the competition, I was working at my job for 12 hours, and then I was training on top of that – five, six, seven hours a day. It was a really freaked-out schedule!

Any advice for a chef considering competing in the Bocuse?

Get ready for the rollercoaster of your lifetime. The training process needs to be extraordinarily focused. You need to get used to being exhausted on a very consistent basis,
and you work through that. It’s very emotionally and
physically draining – but at the end, whether you’re on the podium or not, you feel really good about your

I understand the physical exhaustion. But why is it so emotionally exhausting?

After every training day, you’re evaluating your stuff and
reflecting on what just happened: something went wrong or the flavor profile wasn’t quite there or you tried something completely different and it didn’t work out at all.

In the recent Bocuse d’Or finals, the US placed tenth out of 24 teams. What do you think we need to do to move up?

That’s my big question, too! Are we trying too hard? Are there too many decision-makers? Too many opinions?
Personally, my approach would be, let the natural flow of the training allow the chef to cook his or her heart out. Maybe that would help because, you know, food is love, and if we don’t love our food, it really does show.

How do you show that love when you have 250-300 covers a night at The Ahwahnee?

The biggest thing for me is to try to promote that love through the cooks we hire, to nurture passion for the
industry and the food and allow them to love the food that they’re cooking. Luckily I have a really passionate brigade, and the ones who are really, really passionate are working on the dinner line. That’s the trophy at The Ahwahnee. If you don’t have the passion, you’re flipping eggs at breakfast.

What are you proudest of, in your career so far?

Becoming Executive Chef at The Ahwahnee. When I started in the kitchen in 1994, I had this subconscious goal of achieving that.

What would your “last meal” be?

Definitely pork belly. Crispy pork belly, with scallops and a truffle sauce. And oxtail stew, as well. I like the funky cuts that the chefs love so much. And nothing beats a great boudin noir.

Can I get any of these things on your menu?

Not right now. We have to hide the pork belly on our menu. It has to be one of the sub-garnitures, an accoutrement to a larger cut.

Pork belly needs a better name. It needs a PR agency, I think.

Ha! Pork belly PR! The funny thing is, over the course of a week, we’ll sell 500 pounds of bacon at breakfast, but we can’t move ten pounds of pork belly at dinner!

Inspiration for Executive Chefs
NOW: Executive Chef, The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park; Regional Executive Chef, West Coast Operations, Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts

THEN: Wawona Hotel; Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe;
Curry Village burger stand

MENTOR: Roland Henin

INSPIRATIONAL FRIENDS: Traci Des Jardins; Gavin Kaysen

KUDOS: Two-time Bocuse d’Or USA semifinalist (?winner, Best Meat Presentation, 2010); ACF Cold Foods Competition, bronze and silver medals

AGE: 42

GREW UP: Las Cruces, New Mexico

EDUCATION: Culinary Institute of America; Certified
Executive Chef; Certified ProChef III; The College of the Redwoods, business management degree

DINING OUT: Bar Boulud, NY; Yuet Lee – best Cantonese in San Francisco; grabbing tacos at Mijita in the Ferry Building; take-out charcuterie at San Francisco’s Boccalone.