Home Eats Culinary Spotlight: The Craft of Chef Jenny Drilon

Culinary Spotlight: The Craft of Chef Jenny Drilon

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It all started at the iconic R.J. Grunts in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1980. The original Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc. (LEYE) restaurant was then home to a rising culinary star. Executive Chef Jenny Drilon shares her personal journey behind her culinary triumph, which ultimately led to a career at Toast Hotel Group. “I was working at R.J. Grunts downtown and they were about to open a fancy French restaurant called Ambria. A pastry chef didn’t come in and so, they said ‘hmmm, what about that little girl down the street, over at Grunts who’s going to go to chef school?’ And so, I started working over there and it was really school for me; it was an old French kitchen with all the positions and so, I worked my way around the kitchen, which for me, was much better than being in school. I got to work, and get paid,” said Drilon. She currently oversees all culinary operations at Bentwood Tavern and Terrace Room in New Buffalo, Michigan.

Big-name chefs like Jenny Drilon are shaping Southwest Michigan’s culinary scene. Before landing at Marina Grand Resort’s Bentwood Tavern and Harbor Grand Hotel’s Terrace Room on Lake Michigan, Drilon got her education on the job at famed eateries, Ambria and R.J. Grunts. “I prepped all day and so I made all the sauces; I learned how to be the saucier then, I cut the meat, I prepped the specials. Between those two restaurants, I really got my whole schooling on the job,” expressed Drilon. Featuring classical French sustenance with a contemporary spin, Ambria was a culinary tour de force of the 1980s and 1990s—a megastar fine-dining destination for socialites and yuppies alike.

With an emphasis on practical training through participation, Drilon has a knack for manifesting concepts that resonate well with patrons. Drilon’s talents have led to command performances at dining hot spots Corner Bakery, Avanzare, and Un Grand Café among others. Drilon credits her mentor, Chef Gabino Sotelino, founder of Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba for her culinary finesse. A golden opportunity came and she rose to the occasion. ”I worked for Lettuce Entertain You in the City and there were a lot of theme restaurants, and I did help open many of them: Ambria, Un Grand Café, Avanzare, Café Ba-Ba-Reeba, Corner Bakery. And, by the time I came out here we opened the taco stand, but then I went into the Gordon Beach Inn. And, I think at that point, I took a little bit of everything and some of my favorites and really made a menu that was something for everybody because we were in a hotel just like here. We need to appeal to many different people.

We still have our niche per se—fresh food, simple food—[these] are probably things I’m most known for. Good quality, simple, homemade food,” said Drilon.

Drilon opened a taco stand in New Buffalo called Orizaba In 1993.

“I decided I wanted to leave Chicago and I had a piece of property, and I have always come out to the dunes and I loved the dunes. I drove up and down the coast, up and down the coast trying to decide where I was going to open a place and that’s when we found the little [drive-in] and opened Orizaba, in what is now Rio’s,” expressed Drilon.

Full of joie de vivre, Drilon combines personal intelligence with inspiring leadership. “Ambria was French and I really got my base there. But the time we went on to do Café Ba-Ba-Reeba—that was very exciting to do all the Spanish food, travel to Spain and try Tapas, and see a Paella [a rice dish made with vegetables and meat or seafood]. We had a Paella chef from Valencia come over and Italy was good. But, Avanzare was more northern; it wasn’t run-of-the-mill Italian at the time,” said Drilon.

Her pursuit of knowledge is evidenced through her dynamic craft. “I’d say Corner Bakery was really one of my favorites. Because it was just something always in the back of my head that I wanted to do and to really learn. One of the hardest things I ever did [was] to make the schedule for those breads. It was the toughest thing. Because, [with] Sourdough bread it’s like having a baby.

You have to feed it three times a day; you have to figure out when you are going to make the dough and how long is it going to take to rise. And, when you are going get in the oven to have it all on the rack by 6:30 a.m. in the morning. So, making the schedule is probably one of the hardest things that I ever did, but very rewarding also,” said Drilon.

Drilon prepares gourmet meals with patience and sensibility and credits patissier George Bay who helped her perfect her pastry skills at Ambria. “[George] had gone to [Le] Cordon Bleu and so, he would come over at night after he got out after work and, he would teach me French pastries and, then I would make them the next day and he would come the next night until we opened the restaurant. And, that’s how we got our opening line up. It was a very different start in that kitchen. I was really the only American.

I was a stranger in my own country. There were people from everywhere in that kitchen—French, Spanish, Mexican—I mean there were people from all over,” expounded Drilon.

Supported by her sous chefs, senior chefs and a strong staff, Drilon aims to please. Through food and culinary training, Drilon encourages the team to select locally sourced ingredients.

“What’s most rewarding is making people smile, and [seeing patrons] rub their tummies, [complimenting us on] a great meal—that’s really great. And, watching an employee learn really how to make something and be happy that they mastered a technique or a soup or whatever it is because it takes a while and it takes practice so, making people happy and smile is really the greatest reward I think of working in the kitchen,” expressed Drilon.

Beyond engaging and uplifting foodie aficionados, Drilon spells out what sets her dining experience apart from other eateries.

“Our restaurants here in New Buffalo—Bentwood and Terrace Room—surprise people all the time by how many things we make homemade. I mean, we surprise salesmen who come in to try to sell us stuff.” [The salespeople are astonished]: ‘really you make that? You make that? You make that?’ We make almost everything. So, I think what really sets us apart is that we do make 99% of the food that you are getting,” said Drilon.

Apart from outings that build a common understanding and unique perspective, Drilon accounts for how she leads her team: “Basically, most of the staff has been here at least eight years.

So, the staff stays, which is a very unusual thing in the restaurant business. We have a lot of staff that’s been here a long time. I think they enjoy working here; they enjoy actually making food and learning how to make food instead of working someplace that takes it out of box or a can or a bag. So, I think that’s something that’s very exciting for them. And, also they get to see people’s happy faces by being right out here watching them eat the things that we make for them and we work side by side,” said Drilon.

Her kitchen allows collaborators the opportunity to explore expressive possibilities, build camaraderie, and find direction in the world of culinary arts.

Drilon addresses the part of her work that she finds most rewarding: “The staff that has been with me so long and all work hard and long. But, Chef Alberto Ilescas has been here from the beginning. And, he is my right hand man and is doing a lot of work and he will be the heir apparent one day. And, I just want people to know he is the guy that is really doing a lot of this work now that I am getting a lot older not working quite as hard as I always did,” said Drilon. She intends to bequeath her culinary know how to her loyal staff, which will not only pave the way for up-and-coming culinary maestros, but also help them build upon time-tested recipes, refine execution, and unleash their own artistic flair.

If you want to know where to get a fresh cooked from scratch meal or scrumptious supper, look no further than Bentwood Tavern and Terrace Room—New Buffalo’s only waterfront restaurants. Led by Jenny Drilon, Toast Hotel Group’s long-time master chef, taste sanctuaries Bentwood Tavern and Terrace Room are homes to the best wine lists. You’ll be tempted by the super fresh draught craft beer selection sure to complement the fresh, savory menu. Style, décor, sound, and menu work in unison to uplift guests at each restaurant, but in different ways.

Bentwood Tavern is playful mix of contemporary and classic American and artisan comfort cuisine, while Terrace Room features made-by-hand traditional rustic Italian fare inspired by the countryside.

With a view to sustainability, Drilon makes the most of exceptional resources and communicates with a vision that empowers her staff to share their ideas and celebrate their creations. “My inspiration comes from everywhere. It could be from TV; it could be from a magazine; it could be from going out to eat, and it could be from something that is available. It could be from something that’s in the refrigerator that I need to use.

Seasonality plays a big part in it plus what do I want to eat now. I really like things to be on the menu that go with the seasons. So, I don’t want to eat right now fresh corn in October. I’m looking right now to change my side dish into the next season,” expressed Drilon.

Bentwood Tavern’s original menu still exudes a hand-made greatness few can replicate. From farm-to-table pizza to Thai-style Chilean Sea Bass, Drilon’s legendary commitment to simple yet exciting food is clearly evident. The gourmet pizzas are fired in a wood-burning oven and the fresh seafood to Amish roasted chicken, steaks and chops are simply divine. The large outdoor patio offers seating with spectacular views of the harbor and Lake Michigan. Drilon serves fresh, gustatory delights in a lively, vibrant nautical atmosphere.

Renowned for her tantalizing culinary innovation, Drilon builds on old favorites with a new twist. Don’t miss Mexican street Tacos & Tequila Tuesdays. Drilon stays true to her style while pushing the envelope. On the third Thursday of the month, Sushi Thursday highlights maki, nigiri, sashimi and Asian-inspired cocktails. Also worth noting is Bentwood Tavern’s Give-Back Program. Five nights each year—January through May—50% of all food and beverage revenue is donated to support important non-profits in the community.

A short walk from Bentwood Tavern by way of lake and harbor will bring you to the Frank Lloyd Wright-styled Harbor Grand Hotel and its highly acclaimed Terrace Room. Reward yourself with a culinary experience you won’t forget. Terrace Room is located at 111 West Water Street in New Buffalo, MI 49117. For reservations please call 269.469.7950 or to learn more visit terraceroomhg.com and harborgrand.com

Lake Michigan’s New Buffalo Harbor and waterfront restaurants are sophisticated delights not to be missed. For reservations at Bentwood Tavern call 269.469.1699 or drop by 600 West Water Street New Buffalo, MI 49117. For all the delicious details, swing by bentwoodtavern.com and marinagrandresort.com. Whether you’re looking to just grab a quick bite or aiming to redefine your dining experience by trying something utterly new, Chef Jenny Drilon delivers when it comes to memorable, delicious fare. In either case, your moment of sumptuous satisfaction awaits.

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Alexander Fatouros
Alexander Fatouros regularly reports on art, music and culture for the New Buffalo Times. Based in NYC, he is also a modern marketer—part artist, part scientist with a client list that includes AT&T, The New York Times, Perdue Farms and Johnson & Johnson