Elmendorf, TX – Ranch cuisine has never looked this good!
Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard has named San Antonio chef Chris Cook to a position as food and beverage director and executive chef. Cook will be overseeing all of the food and wine endeavors on the ranch’s culinary program, as well as overseeing The Kitchen at Sandy Oaks. Cook is also working with the ranch ownership to implement exciting plans for new culinary events and business ventures.
For Cook, this is a new experience, a short step or two away from his most recent position at the venerable Emily Morgan Hotel in San Antonio. Or from Brasserie Pavil, where he was executive sous chef.
At Sandy Oaks, where he began working earlier in the year part time, Cook moves from traditional fine dining settings to a rural setting – and one that offers good dining, but quite a bit more.
Saundra Winokur founded Sandy Oaks in 1998, one of the pioneers in Texas to take on the agricultural endeavor of growing olive trees for production. Since purchasing that expanse of rolling terrain covering more than 260 acres, with sandy, red soil and plenty of sunshine, her 40-acre orchard of roughly 10,000 trees has thrived.
“We have really strived for excellence in our management of our olive orchard and production of high-quality olive oil at Sandy Oaks. Our mission is education, of course, for those who want to grow their own trees. But, we have also built a beautiful, cultivated retreat for those who love food and wine, appreciate a fresh and healthful approach to food and who want to take some of that experience home with them,” Winokur says.
Cook, says Winokur, has already shown himself as someone who gets it when it comes to Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard and the many facets of its business. These include not just the pursuit of great products and prepared food, but an overall dedication to quality that starts with the ranch crop and has permeated the entire environment making Sandy Oaks a place to visit – and spend time.
Cook wanted to be a part of it all, she said. He hit the ground running at the first event, where he was asked to step in to run the kitchen with just two days’ notice.
“It went very well, everything that had been put in place worked, the teamwork of the staff, the back of the house, kitchen,” said the chef. “I’ve experienced a lot coming up in the business, so what I had to do just came as second nature. And, you can accomplish anything if you’re organized.”
The chef has described himself as a “minimalist with a vision.” He likes to marry creativity with simplicity using seasonally fresh ingredients. Using textures, flavors and ingenuity coming from more than 20 years in the business, Cook likes to surprise patrons, bring inspiring combinations and balance to his dishes.
Since leaving Oro, at the Emily Morgan, the Johnson and Wales University-educated chef been involved in catering as part of the San Antonio Chef’s Cooperative — with some successes. But, as he noted, “Every chef wants a place they can put away their knives and not worry have to about them.”
Jazz on Sandy Oaks patio adds great musical ambiance to the a serene, country setting at Sandy Oaks.
Cook will be overseeing many aspects of ranch’s culinary endeavors, which include putting out a line of excellent skin care products made with olive oil and pantry items, such as Olive Leaf Jelly, jarred olives and of course, Sandy Oaks’ high-quality olive oil.
Cook also will be directing his energy toward building the ranch’s attractions as a destination. One of his new tasks will be to help guide a new venture at Sandy Oaks: This summer, the ranch begins offering its grounds for weddings, rehearsal dinners and other special events. He has instituted a new summer menu and, with the help of new front-of-the-house staffer, Ramon Florez, will be honing the food and service at The Kitchen at Sandy Oaks.
In the meantime, the chef has presided over several successful special events, such as the ranch’s popular Passport Series of dinners, where guests are transported to other countries for tastes of its wines, cheeses, olives and food, and learn some of the culinary traditions and history.
In taking Sandy Oaks’ culinary program to a new level, Cook thinks of the term “rural” as one would a renowned winery with vineyard-based restaurant in Napa-Sonoma wine country, or a Texas Hill Country venture of the same caliber. In addition to its farming and ranching implications, “rural” also encompasses elegant country living as a temporary or long-term getaway for city folks looking for a respite from city hubbub.
In the last decade or two, however, the country scene, especially with respect to agriculture, has taken on a new, far more significant meaning. Farm-to-table movements, sustainability, buying locally, eating and cooking healthfully, have all been encompassed in Sandy Oaks philosophy.
Building business at Sandy Oaks, Cook says, simply means to bring people in who are drawn by the kinds of things Winokur, and the ranch stand for.
“She’s a woman farmer, she operates on sustainable and organic principles, her products are excellent and she is an educator. The ranch has a richness of the kind that many people seek by going to wineries and resorts in the Hill Country – and Sandy Oaks has this much and more to offer,” says Cook.
Photos by Christabel Cook
Sandy Oaks nursery, with healthy baby olive trees.