Being a chef is not only about cooking — that’s the easy part. The job is more of taking care of and managing your people. When you’re a chef, you have a slew of different people from different backgrounds with different personalities under you, and it’s up to you to reel them in to work toward a common goal of punctuality, professionalism and creating quality food. You learn how to nurture, mentor and guide each person, helping them to all work together as a team. And, to be respected, you also need to respect every single person in your kitchen.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Camille Whitall of George’s at Alys Beach.
Camille Withall was destined to work in the culinary industry. As a child in Manila, Philippines, Camille shadowed her mother in the kitchen preparing meals for her parents and three sisters. Those early lessons proved useful during her eight-year tenure as a chef for private clubs, resorts, and independent fine dining establishments in the U.S. and the Philippines.
After graduating with a degree in Commerce Advertising Management from De La Salle University in Manila, Camille worked for her father’s agrichemical company handling human resources, administration and marketing. Camille quickly discovered that the corporate world wasn’t for her. She decided to enroll in the culinary arts program at the American Hospitality Academy in Manila, pursuing her passion for food.
In 2008, Camille traversed the Pacific for an internship in the kitchen at the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort in Destin, Florida. There, she gained invaluable kitchen experience including pastry, banquets, casual club fare and fine dining. After her internship, she took a job as a line cook at Restaurant Fire in Grayton Beach, Florida, and worked her way up to Executive Chef. The years spent at Fire taught her about Napa-style, farm-to-table cuisine with a strong Southern influence. Camille joined the George’s family as Sous Chef in January 2014 and is now Executive Chef. When she’s not in the kitchen, Camille enjoys reading, going to the beach and traveling the world to learn about food.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
I went to college and graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, neither in any way related to cooking. After graduation, I immediately began helping out my parents with the family business and became uninspired with where my career was headed. I’ve always loved food growing up — eating and cooking it — and when an opportunity to go to the culinary school opened up, I dove right in and thought, ‘I could really do this.’ Every aspect of it was amazing. From learning about food and all the different ingredients to the pace and pressure, I was all about it and never looked back.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I was lucky enough to be exposed earlier on to New American cuisine during my internship days. I like how it assimilates so many culinary styles and flavors to create something simple but great. From then on, I was able to work with different chefs in Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort and learned a lot from different cuisines that each chef specialized in. It was the perfect setup for a professional cook in the making. As I was getting more confident with my skills, I was able to go under the wing of the late Chef Carl Schaubhut at Restaurant Fire, and was absorbed in his talent and technique in utilizing different, fresh ingredients and flavors through Napa-style farm-to-table cuisine. So, I have always gravitated to using different components and discovering endless possibilities through what’s freshly available, and I usually add a little bit from my Asian heritage to what I make from time to time. Luckily, serving as George’s Executive Chef allows me to do just that.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Years ago when I was a young line cook, we were cooking an important dinner. As we were garnishing a plate with arugula leaves for a VIP, my chef asked me to look for another piece of arugula that looked exactly like what was in his hand. In fear of failing or getting yelled at, I wasn’t sure at that time, I dove in there and looked for the closest looking leaf I could find, examining every pointy corner of every leaf. Years later as we became closer, I mentioned to him that that was the most difficult thing he ever asked me to do. We laughed about it, but I think in hindsight, it taught me that attention to detail in everything you do is of utmost importance. I also learned that as a cook, it was important for me personally to always strive for perfection and not settle for mediocrity.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
I think being away from family who live in the Philippines has been the hardest. Not being able to celebrate birthdays and holidays with them took some getting used to. Doing what I love to do definitely helps distract me when I miss them the most.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Sometimes, if there is some sort of familiarity to what you present to the guests no matter how “out of the box” or new to their palate your dish is, it resonates a lot with them. It can either remind them of home, or something they’ve had before, but the way you’ve elevated it has made it better. Also, if your dish is well-balanced and is full of flavor, it is most likely going to be a real winner. It can be something they’ve never tried or have always thought they disliked, but has now become something they love.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
A perfect meal would have a good balance of flavors and be enjoyed with loved ones — always with loved ones.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
For me, creativity can come from anything, really — a show I might’ve seen, a dish I had that a friend made or one I had in a restaurant, another country or state, or even saw in a cookbook. For example, our dishwasher would often bring me pupusas, a Salvadorian dish that’s similar to a pancake, but made with masa and filled with meat and cheese for lunch. I would be inspired to make my own spin on it.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I always write down ideas for our seasonal menus, and it always excites me and my team to create new things. With slight changes being made and new dishes being added to the menu every season at George’s, we are able to offer something different every time for our regulars and new guests to try out.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Allow yourself some rest and work-life balance, which is always easier said than done. Spend some time with family or a loved one, or just yourself a few hours a week. Try to take a weekend vacation somewhere just to take yourself physically away from work, too. That trip alone could help reset your mind and body. If you feel you’re experiencing burnout, don’t be afraid to speak up.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- If you really love what you do, you’ll be able to learn more than what any school could teach you. Working in a kitchen is really hard — grueling, physically, mentally and sometimes even emotionally. But, through all the chaos, there is always passion there to cook, to create, to feed. This career, as hard as it may be, can teach you so much about food and people. Every day is different, but if you’re happy where you are, you’ll be surprised at all the things you will absorb.
- While taking time to learn new things, it also means a lot to mentor your cooks. You may not see it often, and they may not show interest at times because they’re just trying to survive the hustle and bustle. When they learn something from you, even something as simple as a trick to knowing the doneness of fish, they will be appreciative and it will resonate with them a lot. It might even get them more inspired to work harder and increase their confidence as a professional cook. You’ll see in time that the more they learn from you, the better they get at their craft and the better they carry themselves professionally.
- Being a chef is not only about cooking — that’s the easy part. The job is more of taking care of and managing your people. When you’re a chef, you have a slew of different people from different backgrounds with different personalities under you, and it’s up to you to reel them in to work toward a common goal of punctuality, professionalism and creating quality food. You learn how to nurture, mentor and guide each person, helping them to all work together as a team. And, to be respected, you also need to respect every single person in your kitchen.
- Mise en place everything — not just your food, but your whole kitchen life. We learn how to prepare each ingredient and how to use cooking utensils before creating a dish, but they don’t exactly teach you in school how to organize yourself when cooking is not your only job. As a chef, there are a hundred things you need to accomplish in a day and it gets overwhelming. I have learned that being organized helps keep my day running smoothly. I’ve always typed up recipes and placed them in a binder with exact ingredients for my team and I to use. I create charts and checklists for every project and task I need, from order guides to prep sheets and timelines for daily jobs. This helps your staff stay organized, as well, and allows them to have more control of accomplishing their own duties. Organization provides us consistency and steadiness in chaos, which are keys to restaurant success.
- I never really knew the meaning of work-life balance until I became a chef. Day in and day out, as you work endlessly and tirelessly in this industry, you become burnt out before you know it sometimes. You have to be overly aware of your well-being. Remind yourself to spend time with your loved ones and spend time alone. Take a breather in whatever way, shape or form. Especially for me, as I have a growing family, I learn to take time for them and remind myself of what really matters at the end of the day. Having this balance will help you keep loving what you do.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Our Famous Market Fish Sandwich on our lunch menu has always been a go-to. It comes golden fried or grilled and is served with fries. We have many guests who come to George’s straight from the airport or the road just so they can dig into it as soon as possible. It’s that good!
Also, our Catch of the Day changes seasonally, featuring what’s available to us seafood- and produce-wise, and that’s where our daily creativity really comes through.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Absolutely, thank you again for having me!!