Industry Insiders: James Overbaugh, The Peninsula’s Man of Action

A sustainable, pollution free kitchen is exactly what executive chef James Overbaugh is creating at The Belvedere At The Peninsula Hotel. We spoke with him about Julia Child, oysters and going green.

Describe a day on the job. I oversee the entire operation here with two restaurants, banquet rooms, club bar, living rooms and cafeteria. I have a great team to assist me with the process. It’s an extremely diverse job. We could be training to serve a brand new dish at the Belvedere or upgrading guests, or be up on the roof putting together something new for a VIP banquet, or preparing special requests for our stars after the Oscars.

How’d you start in the business? Years ago, I started opening oysters and clams on the East coast; cracking lobsters and working the appetizers station at about 15 years old. I’d had no previous exposure to the culinary world. I lived to get to work, to be around food, to touch food and it led to better and better operations. I had mentors at an early age, and made a big change by going to the CIA in Hyde Park, New York in 1989. It was 25 years last fall since I began working in a kitchen.

What are your go-to places? There’s a restaurant called Dali in Sommerville, Massachusetts that I discovered on Valentines Day when I was about 21. It was written up in Food and Wine, and for me it’s still one of the most delicious menus I’ve had in the United States. I was recently in Vegas and went to SW, the new steakhouse at the Wynn Hotel. It’s so Vegas. They have a Lake of Dreams, and Steve Wynn style and some pretty intense things come out of that lake.

How is it working at the Peninsula? Ours is a hotel with legendary status, and sometimes I’m struck by this timeless restaurant, the different faces of the Belvedere. It’s the power breakfast and lunch place where people are doing deals on vacation. Here we are in a bad economy, and we’re doing extremely well. It’s a spacious, elegant, comfortable restaurant where you can have a private conversation. When it gets to the dinner hour, people are staying there for a longer time, and since we have a seasonal menu, the cuisine evolves.

Who are your mentors? Nobody has done more to pursue the culinary arts than Julia Child. It was much more challenging when she was coming up, and she was so real, so honest, so sincere, not to mention talented. She brought fine cuisine home and made it a part of the American mentality. I had two opportunities to meet her before she passed away, once when she sat next to me at table. I’d read her biography and meeting her just did more to impress on me her extraordinary nature. Another icon of mine is Charlie Trotter, for more than just his beautiful cookbooks or the reputation of his restaurant. When I came here in 1995, I took a post at a Relais Chateau restaurant, and in January, 1996, I did ten days in his kitchen. He really knows how to create and lead an extraordinary team. The morale and the camaraderie were incredible. Are there good things going on in hospitality right now? I create tremendous relationship with farmers, and I’m passionate about the connection to the land, so I watch with a degree of interest some of these programs that have cropped up outside of the core of the hospitality industry where farms are dealing directly with schools, and promoting local products. When you realize the importance of eating foods without a negative impact on the environment — local farming, sustainable techniques, the commitment to these principles – as a chef, there’s nothing more important you can do than take local produce and bring it to your clientele.

What’s the hardest part about going green? As much as I’m excited about the environmental movement in our industry, it’s all about right and wrong. We need to change our course. It doesn’t happen over night, and maybe as much as we’re talking about organizing produce and green resources, they’re often more expensive. I’m in a healthy demographic area here, but a trend that concerns me is that while we’re so committed to these new initiatives, the more and more I look at the rise of restaurants focused on delivering value for giving the greatest portions and not necessarily of the greatest quality from a produce viewpoint, it’s not local. To do things right is becoming more expensive, so unfortunately the average American’s ability to afford it is decreasing. A lot of establishments are dropping their standards because people can’t afford to do it right. True fine dining is becoming less common as it becomes more expensive, so the margins get thinner.