For the Sept-Oct issue of National Culinary Review, we caught up with the executive chef at the iconic Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.
Nestled in the heart of the Appalachian mountains and steeped in rich history, the origins of iconic West Virginia resort The Greenbrier date as far back as 1778, with a list of famous former guests that includes at least 27 presidents, not to mention many other important figures from the U.S. and around the world.
Spanning 11,000 acres of land, featuring interiors outfitted with signature Greenbrier green leather upholstery, elegant chandeliers, majestic red painted walls, decorative woodwork, archways, marble pillars, stained glass and ornate fixtures, the resort drips with old-fashioned luxury at every turn. Even the kitchen doesn’t fail to impress, its vast sea of workhorse machines perfectly laid out for European-style execution — ideal environs for a chef looking to make an impact.
Chef Bryan Skelding knows this. It’s no surprise, then, that he jumped at the chance to not only work a summer season at the resort, but also come back years later in 2009 — and stay. For the last seven years, Chef Skelding has helmed the kitchen at The Greenbrier.
The same year Chef Skelding came back, the Justice family of West Virginia (as in Jim Justice, the state’s governor) swooped in to not only buy out the treasured property, but also make major renovations to the grounds and facilities. Today, the resort has 20 restaurants and lounges, a state-of-the-art spa and fitness center, an outdoor golf course and indoor driving range, and 36 retail shops, as well as a brand-new, 100,000-square-foot casino.
A Wisconsin native, Chef Skelding had an urge to travel after graduating from Madison Area Technical College in 1999, and bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii. “Within just a few days, I found a job at the Royal Hawaiian hotel, working with Chef Tom Wong,” he says. One day in Chef Wong’s kitchen, Chef Skelding noticed a plate on the wall covered in signatures. It had been given to Chef Wong after he graduated from the famed apprentice program at The Greenbrier, a place Chef Skelding knew nothing about at the time — a surprise to Chef Wong, to say the very least.
Later, at Chef Wong’s wedding reception, Chef Skelding met Chef Hartmut Handke, one of the first Certified Master Chefs in the country, who helmed The Greenbrier kitchen from 1986 to 1991. Chef Handke offered Chef Skelding a job at his restaurant, Handke’s Cuisine, in Columbus, Ohio. Chef Skelding returned to the mainland to work under Chef Handke’s tutelage for two years.
It was in 2002, at the young age of 25, that Chef Skelding took a temporary job at The Tavern, then The Greenbrier’s top restaurant, to gain experience working at the resort. When the season ended, Chef Peter Timmins, CMC, offered him a job at Saucier at The Greenbrier, but he turned it down, instead heading out to work at L’Orangerie in West Hollywood.
Chef Wong urged him to rethink the offer, based on a mistake he told Chef Skelding he had made when he was younger: turning down a job at the resort and regretting it later. Chef Skelding heeded the advice, calling up Chef Timmins to take the job as Saucier, which he held for two years. He was later promoted to Sous Chef at Sam Snead’s at the Golf Club, a position he held for about two and a half years.
Then, Chef Rich Rosendale, CMC, former executive chef at The Tavern at The Greenbrier, opened up his own restaurant in Columbus, so Chef Skelding returned to Columbus to work as chef de cuisine of Rosendale’s. Just over two years later, Chef Timmins moved on, opening up The Greenbrier’s executive chef position. Chef Rosendale got the job and took Chef Skelding along for the ride as executive sous chef.
“My wife and I were starting a family at the time, and we knew [the area] was a great place to raise a family, so we went for it,” he says.
This was in May 2009, after Governor Justice bought the property. Chef Skelding knew he wanted to be a part of the team rebuilding the legendary property, the initial expansion of which included opening The Casino Club, Prime 44 West, In-Fusion, a new Draper’s and The Forum.
Then, on June 3, 2013, Chef Rosendale left, and Chef Skelding was offered the executive chef position — an offer he could not refuse.
Since then, Chef Skelding has overseen a dizzying array of fine-dining meals, changing menus, parties, weddings and more, with the resort seeing its true heyday in the years since the Justice family bought the property. Now, even during a pandemic, the resort remains almost as busy as ever, clocking more than 80,000 covers in the month of July alone.
Though this year the resort hasn’t seen the large-scale events it normally hosts, plenty of travelers, itching to get out of their homes, have come for a stay. Guests enjoy the golf courses and outdoor activities that remain open, as well as the dining experiences, currently operating at 50% capacity indoors, with masks required in public places and tables spaced apart, some set in a tent outside.
“We are a luxury destination with a very high drive-in market, so I wasn’t surprised to see us rebound as quickly as we have,” says Chef Skelding, who adds that the phone for reservations has been ringing off the hook. “I’ve seen license plates from up and down the East Coast, and even as far away as California.” Indeed, the resort looks like a Colonial-era beacon in the middle of a forest, tucked in a remote part of the state accessible to far out-of-towners only by small aircraft or shuttle from Roanoke Regional Airport in Virginia, roughly 80 miles away.
In the kitchen, Chef Skelding has veered away from his Midwestern roots to focus on local ingredients and dishes from Appalachia, while paying homage to the traditions of the resort’s dining history.
“My cooking style is rooted in classical French, with an American flare and some Appalachian style,” says Chef Skelding, who first learned to love food growing up with a mom who made literally everything from scratch, even fresh muffins in the morning. “I might make a prime rib like the supper clubs I grew up with, but I also enjoy braised lady finger peas, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes. My style has always been ingredient driven — what’s local, close and fresh always has the best flavor.”
He’s also a fan of offal, especially sweetbreads, and has even been known to serve grilled, cooled and sliced calf’s spleen with housemade mustard and baguettes. “I’ve been really into pâté en croûte for the last two years,” he adds.
Chef Skelding heads up a strong culinary team, which consists of Executive Sous Chef Nick Jones and Executive Pastry Chef Jean-François Suteau, along with nearly 250 culinarians and stewards, including a very talented group of chefs de cuisine for the various restaurants, banquets and catering venues. “My favorite thing about my job is my team — I am very fortunate to work with such great people,” he says.
Not to mention, the job’s constantly changing: “No day is ever the same, even though we are somewhat of a seasonal property. Even in the colder months, we are busy working and planning ahead.”
Chef Skelding also stays busy by helping to oversee the three-year, full-time apprentice program, which currently has 15 participants in both pastry and savory tracks. “It’s pretty cool to hear about everything they’re making in the kitchens, and to break out some of the old recipes from past menus; we all get very into it,” he says.
Speaking of mentorship, when it comes to the best advice he’s been given, Chef Skelding says three things stick with him: “Always learn the fundamentals; use the right tool for the right job; and taste everything.”
Outside of work, Chef Skelding enjoys spending time with his wife Sarah — whom he met while she was working special events at The Greenbrier; they married in 2006 — and their two daughters, Lucy (12) and Hatcher (9).
He also enjoys dabbling in video, having recently launched his own YouTube channel, “Greenbrier Kitchen,” to show the inner workings of the resort kitchen. He can be seen posting about kitchen life on his Instagram @bryanskelding as well (#greenbrierculinary).
Right now, Chef Skelding says he is very happy to be working steadily. When asked how he’s been able to pivot during these times, he offers one word: “survival.” “I count my blessings every day that we’re as busy as we are.”
Now more than ever, Chef Skelding says his food has to taste amazing, “not just because people pay a lot of money to come here, but [because] they’re coming here during a time of stress for so many, and [they] want an escape.” For The Greenbrier and Chef Skelding, the long history continues.