If the hospitality industry is a wardrobe, country club dining is a tailored suit: classic, tasteful, steeped in tradition and, in some cases, the tiniest bit predictable. The latter doesn’t apply to Hickory Hills Country Club in Springfield, Missouri. Melinda Burrows is the club’s executive chef, and she manages to honor the classics – a well-marbled steak, a juicy pork chop – while incorporating fresh, local ingredients with innovative recipes that she’s picked up during her decades of industry experience.
Burrows trained as a chef at the School Ritz-Escoffier in Paris, France, eventually returning to her hometown of Seattle to study commercial cooking. There, she trained under renowned chefs including James Beard award-winning chef Tamara Murphy. After moving to Los Angeles with her family, Burrows worked as a private chef for a slew of celebrities – Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and Brad Pitt, to name a few. After almost two decades of rubbing elbows with the rich and famous in Los Angeles, Burrows relocated to the Midwest to serve as executive chef at Wichita State University in her husband’s hometown of Wichita, Kansas. From there, she made her way to the Springfield area, first working as executive chef at the Branson, Missouri Hilton, then taking the helm at Hickory Hills nearly five years ago.
For Burrows, the move to Springfield was full of little coincidences – for example, the fact that she found herself in Brad Pitt’s hometown after cooking for him in Los Angeles. Most serendipitous, however, was her discovery of Missouri’s rich local farming culture. Burrows and her family now operate a small farm in Kissee Mills, Missouri, where they wrangle dozens of hens that provide the eggs for the Hickory Hills kitchen. She’s also passionate about supporting other local farmers – like Dawson Heritage Farm in Jerico Springs, Missouri, where Burrows periodically orders whole hogs for butchering classes with her Hickory Hills kitchen staff. Burrows points out that, while her background has taught her to honor the classics, Missouri’s unique access to farm-fresh ingredients makes all the difference in her cuisine. “We just found our little piece of paradise,” she says. “My members have come to expect [locally-sourced dishes], and they appreciate it. They know that I care about what’s going into their bodies.”
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Madagascar vanilla beans are pretty fun to use for whipped cream and for crème brûlée. They’re actually quite expensive now, so you really need to utilize them in a smart fashion. You split the bean, and the paste comes out with the most amazing smell. Then, you’ll throw the bean pod into your milk to flavor your custard, and you’ll finish up by drying the pods out and grinding them. They’re exotic.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? It’s really pretty neat. Take the Urban Roots Farm folks, for example – they’re awesome. You also have other farmers that are part of the food scene like Edgewood Creamery or Wisdom Hollow in Forsyth with their hydroponic greens. There’s a lot of energy toward having those products right here in our backyard, in the Ozarks. You’ve got Dexter cows being raised locally; you’ve got Mountain Springs Trout Farm.
Who are Springfield chefs you admire at the moment? Drake Tillman was doing pop-up dining events, and we met at a food event at the eFactory [Missouri State University’s entrepreneurial incubator] last year. You have these younger chefs [like Tillman] who are doing cool, trendy things. Then, of course, you have Harvest Restaurant in Rogersville with chef Craig [von Foerster] and his wife, Tamara.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? I still make a lot of Mexican food. I make a great carne guisada, which is a traditional Mexican dish. I also make a good biscuits and gravy. It’s a Midwestern dish, and one that I hadn’t really had before I moved here, but I think I’ve perfected it now.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Get Auguste Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine. It’s an excellent resource. Also, don’t be afraid to try things, and be forgiving of yourself if it doesn’t work out. Of course, you also need to build up a list of five to seven things that are your own – dishes you can execute well every time.
What is your first food memory? My grandmother was a huge influence on why I’m a chef. When I think of her, I always think of a certain smell – a Mexican spice blend that combined black peppercorn, fresh garlic and cumin seeds. She was an incredible cook, and I’ll always remember the best food memories with her, like making fresh tortillas with lard, making rice, making beans. You’d open her spice cabinet, and the most incredible smells would just waft out.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D, and what inspires that process? I’ve earned the trust [of the patrons at the country club]. With country club food, you have your steaks, your pork chops, your salmon. You have to have those, but I have earned the trust of my members and they love to see the next thing that I’m going to do that’s different. I really just maintain awareness of tradition and classic cuisine, but mix it up a little bit.
Hickory Hills Country Club, 3909 E. Cherry St., Springfield, Missouri, 417.866.4384, hickoryhillscountryclub.com