Meet Salamander Resort’s new Executive Chef
By Peter Milligan | Photos courtesy of Salamander Resort and Spa
How many careers do you know of that were born out of a prank? For Ryan Arensdorf, the new executive chef at Salamander Resort & Spa, his culinary journey began with just that — a spicy surprise in a seemingly innocent breakfast sandwich that launched him into the profession he never knew he wanted.
Arensdorf recalled one morning when just he and his grandfather were in the house, and his grandfather asked him what he wanted for breakfast.
“So I told him — a bacon sandwich. And in what seemed like a blink of an eye, I had a bacon sandwich in front of me. I took a massive bite. But when I realized what was actually on the sandwich, it was too late. I spit it out as quick as I could, and my grandfather responded with a chuckle and a guilty grin. ‘You didn’t specify what you wanted on your sandwich, so I made it the way I like’m — with Tabasco and black pepper,’ he said. It was in that moment that I realized I could be making food that I liked to eat, instead of going through another traumatic five-alarm bacon sandwich.”
“The kitchen was really my favorite place to be growing up,” said Chef Arensdorf. “My siblings and cousins would look at me and wonder if I was being punished for something, but in reality
I was just watching my mom and grandma cook. I loved it.”
Chef Arensdorf moved to Chicago, immediately after high school to study in the culinary programs at Kendall College. From there, he spent the bulk of his career in the Windy City, first under the tutelage of renowned French chef Martial Noguier, then with Todd Stein, who was best known for manning the kitchens of some of Chicago’s finest and most authentic Italian restaurants. It was these men that shaped Chef Arensdorf’s culinary point of view — the finesse and clean flavors of France and the simplicity and care for fresh ingredients of old-world Italia.
Arensdorf then spent years at some of Chicago’s premier steakhouses, where he mastered the art of selecting and properly cooking the best cuts of beef, pork, veal and game meats.
“The kitchen was really my favorite place to be growing up,”
Not surprisingly, it was not an easy decision to leave a booming career and big-city life to become the new executive chef at Salamander, which — though stunningly beautiful and five-star in both quality and reputation — had a hard time stacking up against the allure of Chicago.
It took an extensive stay at the resort itself to open his eyes to the possibilities and potential that the position held, but it was the one-two punch of Jacob Msyt, Salamander’s director of food and beverage, and then its president Prem Devadas that sealed the deal.
“Prem and Jacob really gave me the reins” said Arensdorf. “We have a shared vision for what the food programs at Salamander can be: a place where everybody can come to have a truly excellent food experience in an absolutely beautiful setting. It’s that freedom, and the complete confidence these guys have in me that makes this job so appealing to me.”
Now, all of Chef Arensdorf’s culinary influences — French fine dining, rustic, true-to-its-roots Italian and big and bold steakhouse fare — are fully on display at Salamander’s flagship restaurant, Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill.
Dainty, amuse-bouche-style appetizers were paired beautifully with local and regional wines and cocktails from the resort’s equally-impressive Gold Cup Bar.
Arensdorf was already taking advantage of local farmers and food purveyors, as well as Salamander’s on-site gardens, to offer truly show-stopping small plates like salt roasted beets with pistachio yogurt and fresh mint, and his French training was clearly seen in dishes like seared foie gras with griddled challah bread and a sneaky delicious cherry and fig mostarda.
But where chef Arensdorf’s chops (pun intended) were truly on display was in the main dishes. Whole roasted fish — for now, branzino, but when the season arrives, local rockfish. A veal porterhouse, which landed on the table with an impressive thud and equally enticing aroma of roasty toasty beef fat and garlic. Thick-cut Delmonico steaks served with what could only be described as pure food genius: smoked pancetta pesto (trust me, sounded strange, tasted incredible).
And finally, chef’s specialty — a double-cut, bone-in pork chop — locally sourced, brined and air-aged, grilled and served with a cippolini onion agrodulce.
Not to be outdone was Chef Arensdorf’s partner-in-crime, Pastry Chef Jason Reaves, whom Salamander guests have gotten to know for his creative and often extravagant desserts. Be sure to save room for stunners like the smoked apple crisp, which arrived under a smoky cloche with a dynamite spiced pecan cookie and ice cream spiked with fresh rosemary from the Salamander gardens. And make sure you don’t skip the massive Black Forest cake, which came in a serving for two, but we won’t tell if you devour the whole thing on your own.
Menus at Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill will change with the seasons, according to Chef Arensdorf, and for now he will concentrate his efforts on continuing to train his staff and engage with guests. But equally important to Chef Arensdorf is cultivating relationships with the local purveyors in the area.
“They’re what make a restaurant truly great,” said Arensdorf. “I can bring the vision, I can cook the food and I can make the food taste good. But you live and die by the quality of your ingredients — so it’s Middleburg’s farmers, fishers, meat providers and the community as a whole that will make Harrimans and the rest of Salamander’s food programs really come to life.” ML