Francis Turck is what they call a “half-backer.” Born in New York, he spent most of his life in Palm Beach, Florida, and eventually moved halfway back to the Upstate, where he works as senior executive chef for The Cliffs. It’s a big job. Based at Keowee Vineyards, Turck is responsible for the culinary operations of that club, in addition to assisting the other six Cliffs properties with menu development, staffing, and special projects. Before coming to The Cliffs 13 years ago, Turck earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, and did a stint behind the stoves with renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Manhattan. Under the new management of South Street Partners, Turck and his Cliffs team are in the process of kicking up their culinary game.
How did you get interested in cooking? // “My mother worked in a restaurant in Palm Beach for close to 30 years, so I was around the restaurant scene since I was very young. By the time I was 14, I was folding pizza boxes at a place; then the next thing you know, I’m a busboy at a seafood restaurant. My ‘aha’ moment was when I arrived one morning for my busboy shift and the Sunday brunch omelet chef didn’t show up. The chef said, ‘You are now my omelet guy.’ So at 15 years old, I was thrown into the fire and that was it. I never turned back from that moment.”
That must have been pretty scary. // “It was a very high-volume restaurant right on the ocean, known for their Sunday brunch. I think I had a line of 50 people waiting for omelets, so yeah, I was scared. But it was really cool, because I ended up getting a small scholarship from that restaurant to help me go to culinary school.”
How would you describe your cooking style? // “Definitely fresh ingredients, bold flavors. I love Mediterranean cuisine. I love acidity in food. I use a lot of fresh lemon zest in things like grilled lamb with garlic and grated lemon zest over the top—little pops of flavor people aren’t expecting.”
I hear you’re using molecular gastronomy in some of your dishes. In what ways do you incorporate that element? // “We use it in our day-to-day menus as more of a specific component—maybe it’s an heirloom tomato foam, or balsamic ‘caviar.’ All these new tools with molecular gastronomy have opened up the playing field. We use liquid nitrogen, smoking guns, immersion blenders, ISI siphons. And we’re buying ingredients that were never in the kitchen before: sodium alginate and soy lecithin and agar agar and tapioca pearls. Molecular cooking is whimsical; there’s a lot of play involved.”
What are the challenges of cooking at a country club versus a restaurant? // “You have to keep it fun. It’s the members’ restaurant on a property where they live, and they’re going to want a great BLT sandwich as well as that dining experience that’s off the charts. So you have to be able to do all of it. There are times when people come to the club on a Saturday night, and one table’s looking for simplicity and one table’s there for the amazing experience, and it’s our job to create experiences for both.”
What do you enjoy most about cooking at The Cliffs? // “By far, I love making memorable experiences for people. I’ve gotten to know our members very well, and I know a lot of their preferences. There’s a term we like to use here, ‘random acts of kindness.’ If I’m able to do something special and unexpected for somebody, I love to do that.”
Photograph by Paul Mehaffey