The Southeast has a magical way of pulling you back if you stray too far for too long. Maybe it’s the languishing live oaks, the winding waterways, or the way the sun’s rays dance off the swaying marsh grasses, giving them a golden hue. Or maybe it’s all of this plus more, nestled in a small, unique and oft-overlooked part of the country.
It is for Frank Chiasera.
Chiasera grew up in Niagara Falls, New York—a fact that his drawn-out vowels belie before he even has the chance to tell you. At 16, he recalls walking down to the corner Italian restaurant and getting his very first job as a dishwasher. He has been in kitchens ever since.
Chiasera remained in New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and upon graduation, he worked in a couple of popular restaurants before entering the world of member clubs. “I really love the member experience,” he says. “I get to know the membership; I get to know what they like and dislike, but I also understand their dietary needs and preferences and my menus reflect that.”
He first ventured to Mississippi in his mid-20s, cutting his teeth as a line cook before being offered a sous chef position at the Harbour Club, Charleston’s premier private business and social club. As is characteristic of the industry, Chiasera later pinballed around the eastern seaboard, with stints at the Citrus Club in Orlando and Colleton River Plantation in Bluffton, South Carolina, where he committed to buying a home. Nonetheless, a position at the Peninsula Club in Charlotte lured him northward, but he kept the house on Hilton Head, knowing that he’d eventually return to the place that captured his heart.
“When I was first at Colleton, I don’t think I really appreciated the beauty until I moved to Charlotte and there’s no ocean,” Chiasera admits. Eventually, he and his wife, along with their three teenage daughters, returned to their home in South Carolina for the long term, and that’s when he joined the Ford family as Executive Chef. “Now, I have made it a point to not take for granted how beautiful my surroundings are,” he says. Since returning, he and his wife have committed to getting outdoors more, which includes adding a couple of kayaks to the mix. “I really want to take advantage of the gorgeous surroundings,” he says.
Chiasera is right at home at Ford, appreciating not only the surroundings, but also the flexibility, creativity and challenges that the position affords him. “The great thing about a member club is that our menus change weekly, so our challenge is to keep it fresh and different, yet consistent,” he says.
As an example, Chiasera notes how the kitchen currently has Grilled Octopus and Burrata Cheese & Sliced Tomato Salad as appetizers and that they’ll also throw in a classic like Chicken Piccata. “We’re all over the board,” he says. “Everything from Mexican to curries—you name it. We try to push the envelope.”
One of the things he loves best about Ford is that he has the freedom to experiment with the menu. “I base my menus around what the membership likes,” he says. “So, if I run a new item and it doesn’t sell, it comes off the next week. If they love it, we’ll run it an extra week and put it in the rotation for down the road.” As such, the membership really helps shape the menu.
So do the seasons. A garden on property supplies a good deal of herbs, seasonal fruits and vegetables which Chiasera then incorporates in the menu. Throughout the year, the garden yields beets, radishes, asparagus, figs, grapes, squash, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries. There’s even a small pecan orchard on property. “We’ve just started some hydroponic growing trees, so we’ll see how those come out,” he says. “The garden has been a lot of fun and the membership loves it when we put those items on the menus.”
The property also boasts a number of citrus trees. “We have kumquat, lime, grapefruit, tangelo, tangerine and orange trees,” Chiasera says. But the garden and orchards are new territory for the chef. “I’m still learning. In the future we’re going to focus on fewer items but more yield so we can run the items longer,” he says.
In spite of his New York upbringing and working in a fast and furious industry, Chiasera remains personable and unhurried. In fact, dare I say, laidback? Maybe the South has made him its own. This influence is certainly evident in his penchant for comfort food when it comes to cooking for his family. “I love doing one-pot meals, especially in the wintertime,” he says. “Whether it’s a jambalaya or a chicken stew—I enjoy hearty meals.”
Chiasera, along with his wife and daughters, makes a point to go back to New York at least once a year to visit his family and hometown. He goes, but he doesn’t stay. Instead, he returns to the roots he’s happy to have set here in the Southeast.