Clean palate

At Inverness Country Club, Executive Chef Ben Vaughn infuses new flavor into club dining

Story by Emily Sparacino

Photographs by Dawn Harrison

When he was about 13 years old, Ben Vaughn took a job at a Greek diner in Florida and noticed what he described as an “electric vibe” among staff members in the kitchen.

The brand of excitement that affected a young Vaughn in that diner is the same brand he has pursued for the last 22 years as a chef.

“I just kind of fell in love with that whole fast-paced lifestyle,” Vaughn, 40, said.

As Inverness Country Club’s executive chef, Vaughn reflected on his career and the lessons he has learned from years of working in the restaurant industry, an industry not designed for the faint-hearted.

Vaughn is originally from Miami, Florida, where Caribbean, Cuban and Floridian styles of food meet in the kitchen.

He learned at a young age how to be creative in cooking with an unpredictable set of ingredients from one day to the next.

“I grew up with a single mom and sister, so we fended for ourselves while she worked two jobs,” Vaughn said. “Every night was an episode of ‘Chopped’ … a mystery basket, if you will.”

After working in several restaurants in Florida, Vaughn moved to Indiana to attend Indiana University. He worked in different restaurants through college.

“It was an experience, being from the South,” he said. “Working through school, I can totally tell the restaurant was calling me more than the school was calling me.”

Vaughn moved back to Miami and enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Although he had already gained practical skills from working in restaurants, Vaughn said he wanted to expand his knowledge of the craft.

“It was helpful to have that foundation of already working,” he said. “It helped (me) kind of figure out what was realistic and what was textbook.”

While in school, Vaughn apprenticed with several chefs in Miami and started to appreciate the farm-to-table movement and sourcing fresh ingredients locally.

“It was a great experience,” he said.

Then, he left Florida to pursue an opportunity to apprentice with chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago.

“It was a non-paying job, so that was difficult, but completely worth it,” Vaughn said, adding he also worked with Homaro Cantu, Trotter’s then sous-chef. “It was a really intense experience. It’s like I almost had everything to lose and everything to gain. It was a lifestyle choice.”

Vaughn went on to apprentice with Cantu, who had opened a restaurant called Moto in Chicago.

“The experience of building something from scratch, you have a completely different set of eyes on that,” Vaughn said. “Developing systems and ingredients and menus … it was quite the experience to be a part of that team.”

After that, Vaughn left to pursue an opportunity in Memphis, Tennessee, to open a restaurant inside of a Hilton hotel.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said, adding the move – a significant change both geographically and professionally for Vaughn – introduced him to a different pace and style of food.

And, as a father, Vaughn was working to support more than just himself.

“The grounding of having a family in Memphis is what kept me in Memphis,” he said. “It became my own little food town.”

Several years later, Vaughn welcomed a son, along with an opportunity to run a restaurant called River Oaks.

In 2007, the restaurant received a regional nomination for a James Beard Foundation award.

JBF is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone,” according to its website. In addition, the Foundation operates the James Beard House in New York City’s Greenwich Village and invites chefs to “perform” there by preparing meals for different groups of people.

Vaughn was invited to cook three dinners at the Beard House, an honor he likened to a musician being chosen to perform at Carnegie Hall.

After leaving River Oaks, Vaughn opened a restaurant – a “tiny eatery” in Memphis’s Midtown area – and named it after his daughter Grace.

“It was a great experience to be able to, ground up, build my vision from farm to plate (and) develop my own staff,” Vaughn said.

Although he had developed a positive reputation as a chef, Vaughn said opening his own restaurant was “one of the scariest and most exciting things ever.”

“It was flooded,” he said of the restaurant. “It was exhausting.”

Then, he took a risk and used revenue from Grace to open Au Fond, a breakfast and lunch, farm-to-table cheese shop that was “a little ahead of its time in Memphis,” Vaughn said.

“We were doing things in there I learned from a large market,” he said. “We were doing things outside of the box.”

The restaurant built a solid following, but in 2008, the economy crashed.

Vaughn and his wife didn’t have business partners, and they had a little girl and a second child on the way.

They sold one of the restaurants and closed the other.

Six months later, Vaughn received an offer to open a restaurant in Atlanta called White Oak.

And then, another surprise came calling.

“We were packing, and someone called me from a casting company for Food Network,” he said. “I thought it was a joke, maybe one of my old employees.”

It wasn’t a joke.

“They wanted me to host the show called ‘Health Inspectors,’” Vaughn said. “We took that opportunity with Food Network, all while moving to Atlanta and opening a restaurant.”

The restaurant was a hit, but the show, despite a healthy following in Canada and the U.S., wasn’t renewed for a second season.

Vaughn also realized his divided attention and temporary absences weren’t good for White Oaks.
“Shooting a TV show all over the country and running a restaurant is almost impossible,” he said.

“Health Inspectors” led Vaughn to other opportunities, including co-hosting a show on A&E’s FYI Network, working with the Travel Channel on a show called “Buffet Buddies” and writing.

Vaughn started writing regular columns for Las Vegas Sun and The Daily Meal.

“I really enjoyed it because it was another version of being able to creatively express myself,” he said. “My wife is a really great writer. She was able to help me find my voice on paper, which was really difficult to do. She was my in-house editor.”

A book deal was the next step for Vaughn.

Vaughn’s first book, “Southern Routes: Secret Recipes from the Best Down-Home Joints in the South,” published in September 2015.

“My intentions for the book were to travel to 10 Southern states and go to meat-and-three restaurants, which seem to best represent Southern food,” Vaughn said. “I was just in love with that philosophy of utilizing ingredients that were only available for hundreds of years. People romanticize Southern food, but it’s actually a food that grew through a lot of sadness, a lot of turmoil in our country and where we came from.”

He said some of the restaurant owners wouldn’t share their recipes. In those cases, he recreated the dishes to the best of his ability and asked the owners to give the dishes a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

The book was picked up immediately by QVC, and sales jumped from 0 to 10,000 copies in eight minutes one day, according to Vaughn.

“I started my own consulting firm during the writing process because I was unavailable to anyone to sit in a restaurant 80 hours a week,” he said.

He also started speaking to students at culinary schools, including Penn State University, Johnson & Wales University and smaller schools like Culinard and Le Cordon Bleu.

In one-hour lectures, Vaughn sought to mentor students in a candid way, shedding light on the hard knocks of the industry and the value of hard work and persistence.

“I was grounded at that point,” Vaughn said. “I’d already put my time in. Speaking to students was super liberating.

“It was a healing process for me of having ups and downs in the industry,” he added. “It was like therapy. Coming out of my mouth and saying it made it real. Mentoring those students was a blast.”

Vaughn said he tried to give students a realistic picture of a typical career in the food industry.

“You don’t walk around in your whites and get pictures taken of you. You work like a dog, manage people, counsel people, talk people through addiction,” Vaughn said. “The schools were really teaching the real guts of what the industry’s like.”

When Vaughn was approached by Inverness Country Club for its executive chef position, he didn’t take the charge lightly.

“I saw it as my largest challenge of my career,” he said. “Country clubs … it’s a member-driven business. You have to have the ability to meet everyone’s taste buds, which can be difficult.”

Vaughn praised ICC General Manager Steve Korson for his extensive knowledge and approach to management.

“He is probably the nicest guy in entire world,” Vaughn said. “He’s a really great individual, and he’s been great to work for the last four months, and super supportive. I was given a blank slate, like a clean palate, and that was exciting.”

Vaughn and his team cook everything from scratch; they make the bread, smoke the meats, grind the burgers and everything in between.

They source all of their ingredients from a 400-mile radius, and an in-house garden is under construction.

“This is a marathon, not a race. It’s about consistency which builds credibility,” Vaughn said. “I can’t just say we’re the best; I have to prove it, day in and day out.”

From his place in the ICC kitchen, Vaughn plans to help take the club to “a phenomenal level,” where there is no question a better club exists for dining.

“Our goal for the club is to be cutting edge without being unfamiliar,” he said. “I cook real food, no bells and whistles, no smoke in mirrors, not an episode of Fear Factor. It’s just real food done well, sourced as close as humanly possible. I think that speaks volumes of the club.”

Vaughn’s second book is slated to be released in April 2018.

Another project Vaughn has devoted time to lately is “The Breakfast Show,” a digital series he hosts on Small Screen Network.

In an independent project not in conjunction with ICC, Vaughn is planning a series of pop-up dinners in Birmingham that will feature only ingredients from Alabama.

“It will be a true experience, something that Birmingham has never seen,” Vaughn said. “We are currently building out the location, and tickets will go on sale this summer. I’m proud and excited to bring such an event to Birmingham, my new home. I credit chefs like Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings for forging the path, but these dinners will be a game changer for the way Birmingham dines out, sensory overload.”

Tickets will be pre-sold and offered online at Vaughn’s web store at BVate.com.

Aside from the books and television shows and digital projects––and even the cooking––Vaughn said he enjoys the less publicized parts of being a chef, including writing menus and experimenting with new uses of common ingredients.

“You can work with very reasonable ingredients and still make them shine,” he said. “Food doesn’t have to have that sensational thing happening. It can be a form of entertainment, but in moderation. It really is the sustainability of life.”

A busy 20 years, a whirlwind, a blast. Whatever descriptions Vaughn uses for his time as a chef thus far are balanced with his focus on the future.

“It’s going to be an exciting few years in Inverness,” Vaughn said.

To follow Vaughn’s culinary adventures, visit BVate.com.