Chateau Elan Chef Trounces Peers in his Latest Challenge

Chefs are not typically a timid sort, and this month's profile subject, Marc Suennemann, executive chef at Chateau Elan Winery & Resort, in Braselton, GA, is no exception to that rule.

After arriving in the U.S. in 1996 from his native Germany with a job in hand at Chateau Elan—but without the ability to speak a word of English—Suennemann simply immersed himself in the language, and the job, and managed to master both. He spent as much time as he could around colleagues to get English down, and tried cooking in different restaurants at the resort to learn the ropes.

Twelve years later, he's fluent in English and overseeing the property's seven restaurants and all banquet functions, but he's still tackling challenges: He just came out on top in two industry cook-offs. How does he do it? MeetingNews tried to find out, when we got him to step away from the stove.

Q Congratulations on winning the International Association of Conference Centers' International Copper Skillet Competition in March and—just before that—the U.S. Copper Skillet competition. Why do you think you won?

A Both competitions were very close, but maybe the proteins I chose pushed me over the top. At both events, we had a choice of three proteins: seared chicken medallions, red snapper, and lamb loin. I used the chicken and the fish both times because I thought the lamb with either of those items would be overpowering. Most of the chefs used the lamb.

Q What do these wins mean to you, and to Chateau Elan Winery & Resort?

A It is a great achievement to win those competitions. For Chateau Elan, it brings business.

Q What is your approach to working with meeting planners?

A I meet almost all of the customers who come in for site visits, and I think that has a great impact on them. We talk about the food and what my team can to do make the event a success. Customers often tell us they don't find this at other properties, so it creates a wow factor and gives thema chance to ask about menu changes.

Q You oversee all banquet functions. What do you like about that?

A You can be creative with buffets, or if a planner asks for something special that's not on our catering menu, that's exciting. If a group wants something different or if the planner can spend more for something unique, we're happy to do that.

Q In addition to banquets, you run Chateau Elan's seven restaurants. Can a planner ever ask for a banquet function to include items from, or similar to, one of the restaurants' menus?

A It's important for us to be flexible toward guests. I mean, if they ask for butter-poached lobster for 400 people, we might tell them that's not the best idea, but we will come up with something that's of good quality and that also will make the group happy.

Q How did you wind up coming from Germany to Chateau Elan?

A I decided to do something different, and then a friend of mine who worked at Chateau Elan called and asked if I would like to work there. I was also considering working on a cruise ship, but I told myself I'd take whatever came through first, so here I am.

Q Why have you stayed there?

A It is an amazing resort because everyone here is friendly and feels comfortable asking each other questions. Members of the service staff know they can come in the kitchen and talk to me, and if I want to talk to our CEO, I can walk into his office. It's not like other hotels where there's screaming. Also, the management here definitely believes in giving young people the opportunity for growth and I took that for myself.

Q I understand that Chateau Elan opened a 1,600-sf culinary studio last year in which you offer cooking classes. How does that impact a group's experience?

A It is just a different recreational option that features a lot of fun, wine, and great food.

Q What's your favorite food?

A My favorite cuisine is Italian. It is simple and not overseasoned so you can taste the food and identify all of the ingredients.

Q But is there one particular ingredient or dish that you favor?

A Proscuitto. And Parmesan. And, in a few months, figs. For chefs, it's important that we like everything.

Contact Rayna Katz at [email protected]

Originally published May 19, 2008