Acquired Taste

Greg Proper didn’t choose to become a chef. It chose him.

“I began bussing tables when I was 8, at a Greek restaurant where my mom was the manager,” recalls the Chicago transplant,now in his eleventh year as the Executive Chef at BIGHORN.

When his mother’s job took the family to an upscale Miami hotel, Proper really began cutting his teeth in the kitchen and restaurant business. “The next thing I knew, I was on a shift and on the line,” he says.

Eventually, an offer from Orange County lured Greg to the West Coast, where he went on to work for the Ritz Carlton for a decade at the Kapalua Maui, Laguna Niguel and Rancho Mirage properties.

“Learning hands-on in the kitchens of great chefs is really the best education you can ask for,” Greg says.

At BIGHORN, Greg says he loves how active  he gets to be in the kitchen, whether he’s preparing food for one of its restaurants, a private party, The Marketplace or in-home dining. 

“For me, cooking is about trying to capture flavors and memories of when you were a kid,” he says. “I want Members to have a memorable experience when dining with us — I want them to feel something.”

Chef Greg enjoys stretching the boundaries of such classic comfort dishes as mac ’n’ cheese and chicken pot pie by tossing in unexpected ingredients like poblano peppers or lobster. The presentation is also probably fancier than what most remember from childhood.

“The oven-baked pot pies I had as a kid definitely didn’t have a puff-pastry dome,” he chuckles.

Inspired by trends and feedback from Members, Greg updates the menu annually, while keeping staples like the steaks and salads. He also puts creative twists on Club favorites like flatbread with anything from figs, butternut squash and goat cheese to a crispy shrimp tempura.

In addition to offering classics with a sophisticated twist, what really sets BIGHORN apart is the (formerly) Secret Menu — a beloved archive of meals from menus-past that guests can still order.

“The other secret,” shares Greg, “is that we’ll make just about anything a guest asks for, as long as we have the ingredients. That’s something you won’t find anywhere else.”

But what makes a meal truly special, he says, is the “love you put into it.” The hobby painter equates his craft to an art that he puts a lot passion into and loves sharing with people, from the sous-chefs he inspires, to the guests whose dining experiences and events he helps make memorable.

“As chefs, we have one of the best careers out there,” he says. “I love passing on my excitement about what we do to everyone else.” Juan Blanchard, BIGHORN’s Clubhouse Manager and Sommelier, developed a palate for wine — and then a passion for studying it — as a result of working at golf Club restaurants.

“I’ve worked in food and beverage for most of my life,” Juan says. “I have always been around and enjoyed wine. Working in places that were so wine-centric, it was a natural progression for me to become a sommelier.”

For Juan, that meant waking up earlier than the roosters to study before getting his kids off to school and heading to a full-time job. When he was able, he joined a blind-tasting group to advance his skills.

A recent addition to BIGHORN, Juan says one of the greatest joys of his role as a somm is showcasing new wines for guests. Of the Club’s 350 bottle selections, 40 are currently also offered by the glass, allowing guests to sample with less commitment.

“I am very excited to introduce new selections to BIGHORN’s by-the-glass program,” Juan says. “It’s an excellent opportunity to expose people to different wines and explore new regions and grape varieties unknown to them.”

When it comes to great-tasting wine, Juan says it’s all about balance.

“Take for example the 2016 Domaine Huet Vouvray ‘Le Haut Lieu’ Demi-Sec,” he says. “This wine comes from the Loire Valley in France and is made from the Chenin Blanc grape. This grape provides a ton of mouth-puckering acidity, but when balanced with residual sugar, it becomes a delicious harmony on your palate.”

Another example is a wine whose tannins are too aggressive to taste until the aging process balances the flavor.

Delicious food and wine pairings also depend on balance.

“It’s about matching textures and complementary flavors — like a full-bodied red wine paired with a marbled, juicy ribeye,” Juan notes. That’s why a light sole goes nicely with a crisp white wine, and why a sweeter varietal is best saved for dessert.

“Of course, these rules can all be broken,” Juan concedes. The best rule is to “drink what you like.”

As for which varietals the Club will continue to offer by the glass or add to the bottle selection, that will be up to Members.

“At the end of the day,” says Juan, “I pick wines that I believe will over deliver

every time.”

Nick Stendebach has long worked with different media. When he lost his graphic design job in Manhattan following 9/11, he turned to another creative passion: cooking.

“I am an artist first,” says the painter and sculptor. “I have always loved cooking — It’s more art, just a different medium.”

After training at the New York Restaurant School in Manhattan, Nick went on to work for upscale clubs and restaurants, and eventually found himself in the desert.

As the Chef de Cuisine at BIGHORN’s Canyons Steakhouse, where he’s entering his fifth season, Nick enjoys creating new dishes as well as putting his personal spin on such classics as the rich Bolognese, which he makes “light and refreshing,” and Seared Organic Ora King Salmon served with sticky rice, baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and a savory soy ginger broth. His burgers are made with a blend of Wagyu and Kobe beef, making this Steakhouse staple moister, fattier — and irresistibly delicious.

Nick says he draws inspiration “everywhere,” from discovering different cultures to dining in small restaurants where he finds great flavors and then adapts them to a fine-dining experience. Popular dishes he’s invented for the Steakhouse include soft-shell crab sautéed with Old Bay seasoning, served with a roasted red-pepper tartar sauce, and salmon sashimi drizzled generously with ponzu-mushroom dressing.

Soon he’ll introduce a rotating wild game entrée of the week. “I’m starting with a braised rabbit stew,” says Nick. “And I also have some good venison recipes I want to experiment with.”

If you have any recommendations about what game you’d like to see on the list of specials, well, he’s also inspired by your ideas. For Nick, preparing a meal goes beyond just taste.

“I love to paint a meal using the five senses,” he says. “The beautiful view of the valley and first-class service set the stage. When your dish arrives, you see it, smell it and taste it, while hearing the sounds of enjoyment of others around you. It’s a completed work of art for you to enjoy. One thing does not make a meal special. Everything does.”

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