A Day in the Life of Executive Chef Huey Gratto
Few of us have ever experienced firsthand the inner-workings of a busy restaurant kitchen and witnessed just how extensive the responsibilities are for the kitchen boss, the executive chef. I was recently granted an exclusive inside look at Greg Norman Australian Grille and spent a good part of the day with Executive Chef Huey Gratto as he went through his typical 11-hour workday. He drives to the popular Barefoot Landing restaurant in North Myrtle Beach from his home in Surfside Beach five days per week.
A good chef, I would discover, must be part creative genius, part administrative whizz kid, both friend and boss to his staff, have his head on a swivel, be a culinary master who’d better be quick on his feet, and one who is ready to grow the business and solve problems, which inevitably show up in the least opportune moments.
Meeting Chef Gratto on his way in Norman’s back door, we find some of his staff have been in for hours preparing food for the day’s guests, beginning with lunch patrons due in the front door at the opening bell, 11:30 a.m.
“My dish guys come in around 6 a.m.,” says Gratto, 40 years old, tall and friendly. He relocated from his hometown of North East, Pennsylvania, nine years ago, and worked his way up the Greg Norman’s food chain. He has the respect of and good rapport with his staff of 19, including sous chef Zac Sondrini, already in and busy sharpening his knife set with a whetstone.
“We have 12 stations,” says Gratto, “grill, sauté, broil, vegetable, hot apps, prep, Garmache (salads, cold fruit, etc.), pastry, expo 1, expo 2, and a floater.
Trained in the same kitchen he now leads, chef Gratto was a quick learner with his own ambitions and drive, but also shows a real humility in explaining his speedy ascension.
“I give credit to my brother, chef Gabe Gratto,” he says, “who was really well trained in culinary school and other restaurants. He taught me so much. But I had a hunger and creativity and the freedom to experiment and suggest new items. My GM, David Harrell, has always had my back and is open to creative changes and helped to get them approved.”
One of the changes Gratto is most pleased with was the move several years ago from Choice steaks, which are very good, to U.S.D.A. Prime steaks, which are the best.
“When I took over, I pitched moving to all Prime, the absolute best,” he says. “When people make reservations and walk in here, they expect the best you can get.
We had to push hard, but we got it done.”
Greg Norman Australian Grille opened in 1999 and has consistently ranked as visitors' and locals' favorite as it has evolved in its now 24-year history. The restaurant sells a surprising number of Prime Australian Wagyu steaks, which are pricey, around $125, but their best seller is a classic Prime Rib in 12-, 14-, and 20-ounce cuts.
“Our Wagyu steaks are rated a number nine out of ten for tenderness on the Australian marbling scale,” says Gratto. “They are our best reviewed steaks. I’ve tried Japanese, Australian, and American Wagyu. I won’t even serve the American Wagyu. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it can’t touch the Australian and Japanese beef. I pick it up myself at the airport when its flown in.”
Each case of the Australian beef is worth many thousands of dollars retail, and not much less wholesale.
New Zealand Lollipop Lamb Chops (only available at dinner) are among the best-selling appetizers. They get special attention early in the day, as they may go through 40 pounds each night.
“We use an espresso bean coffee rub, with ground mustard and salt and pepper. They rest in the cooler like this until they get cooked to order with a nice char and are served at dinnertime.”
As the first tickets roll in, Norman’s popular Aussie Kangaroo appetizer finds its way into the kitchen.
“All our Kangaroo served is wild caught,” says Gratto. “Kangaroos are very abundant in Australia and reproduce like rabbits, and are kind of a nuisance, so the government allows for harvesting — just the males. They get processed quickly and shipped. We recommend serving them mid-rare, and the meat is delicious.”
Some of the “delicious” comes from the prep. They are braised in bacon confit, seared in a pan, and served with fruit salsa, curried peanuts, and a house-made balsamic glaze.
Additional apps roll in, such as Hot Crab Dip, Jumbo Shrimp, Broiled Escargot, Yellowfin Tuna, and salads. Lunch orders this day also include a blackened chicken breast sandwich, smoked salmon BLT, Classic Reuben, burgers, and Wagyu hot dog.
The wood-fired grill, seen and admired by guests in the main dining room, requires a lot of work and is a big expense for the restaurant, but flavors it creates are unmatched.
With the lunch rush on, Gratto flies through the kitchen from the grill to the line, to the walk-in cooler, to expo, and back. It’s busy, but there aren’t any trainwrecks on this day. He is proud of the food coming from this large kitchen and attentive staff, and proud that Norman’s is unique in a very crowded Grand Strand field.
“We’re not like any other restaurant on the beach,” says Gratto. “You won’t find frozen and recooked crab legs here, but you will find wild kangaroo, ostrich, and all Prime steaks. Our seafood specials depend on what’s fresh, in season, and sustainable. We serve Antarctic salmon, which is among the best I’ve ever had.”
Additionally, beer-battered haddock and shrimp, and daily fresh catches are also on the lunch menu.
Gratto takes time to research and learn new techniques, which has added to Norman’s respected place in the regionally growing culinary scene.
“I like to use the tallow system,” he says, “which is saving all the beef trimmings and cooking them down with some rosemary, straining it and then we baste the steaks in it as they cook. It really adds so much flavor.”
A small army of staff and managers handle cooking and delivering the meals to the restaurant’s guests. With Norman’s recently enclosed and heated/airconditioned porch, most of the daytime guests opt for a prime window seat on the Intracoastal Waterway overlooking the marina, passing boats, and the homes of Barefoot Resort. Gratto is everywhere.
“As I moved up, I found I was less on the line,” he says with a smile, knowing the heat and hectic pace of this particular workstation is among the kitchen’s toughest. “I’m expected more to lead, so I usually find myself rockin’ the expo line, keeping an eye on everything. I have an amazing staff, who handle it all with professionalism. They care about the quality of the food, and it shows.”
With the lunch rush over, Gratto takes time in his upstairs office.
“Every day, I place orders for meat and produce. With the exception of the Australian specialties, I like to order as much locally as possible. Most all of my seafood comes from Mr. Fish, I get microgreens from Microledon Farm in Conway, and we use A& A Produce as well. We seat 370, and did more than 950 meals for Thanksgiving. We can go through a lot of food on any given night.”
“I probably put in an hour each day placing orders, scheduling staff, and one of my favorite parts of the job: researching new dishes.”
“At this point in the day, we regroup to get ready for dinner,” he says. “We do a lot of private parties, occasional wine pairings, and bourbon parties, in addition to our regular reservation and walk-in business. I make sure every station is ready to go, I do any last-minute filleting to make sure we have enough product ready.”
The first dinner guests arrive, early birds, and Norman’s starts to really buzz. The lounge (called “The Shark Pub”) is filled with happy hour celebrants, top shelf bourbon drinkers, wine lovers, and those who are satisfied with the more casual seating options at the bar, or the few booths and tables. In nice weather, an open-air unprotected patio seats more customers and entertains with with occasional live acoustic music. The enclosed porch is beginning to fill as well. Soon the entire restaurant will fill, and Norman’s show kitchen becomes the heart and soul of the restaurant, and Gratto feels the responsibility. Managing people you once shared the same job title with is “part of the deal,” he says, and the chef manages this balancing act well.
“The more you move up,” Gratto explains, “the more you change your relationships from strictly being friends and co-workers to being the boss, and that can be tricky.”
He has looked at the books, knows how many reservations are expected, and can estimate the walk-in business pretty well.
“We already know Friday has a big walk-in percentage,“ he remarks, “but Saturdays stay fairly close to the reservations. The best offense is a good defense.”
Dinner is in full swing and it’s an average night. Everything goes smoothly and the kitchen runs with an organized frantic pace that might look like chaos to an outsider, but Gratto, Sous Chef Sondrini, and the managers all know what’s happening and have each other’s backs.
Norman’s sells a lot of steaks tonight, along with their Spiced Ahi Tuna, Salmon Rockefeller, topped with creamed spinach, bacon and Parmesan, served with garlic mashed potatoes and house hollandaise sauce, and plenty of additional entrees.
Desserts, all made in-house, begin to fill the expo line. The Pavlova is an oversized soft, airy baked meringue cookie topped with citrus crema and seasonal fruit. A Molten Lava Cake comes hot with a warm chocolate “lava” center served a la mode and drizzled with raspberry coulis. Crème Brulee, cobblers, and other sweets round out the offering, all made in-house.
“I run a 95 percent scratch kitchen,” says Gratto, meaning that nearly every sauce, every reduction, glaze, salad dressings, and dessert is made from scratch. “Our stocks are made from bones we roast in the oven, our lobster sauce is made from a reduction starting with lobster shells…we don’t cut corners.”
With dinner mostly over, now it’s time to clean, log the food sold, prep the list for the next day and look ahead at the projections. Running out of food is as bad as having too much food left over, and this balancing act is one of the real tricks to running a successful kitchen.
Gratto has finished for the day, and chalks up this massive undertaking as just another day at the office. “I head home, relax, and prepare to do it all over again tomorrow.”
Visit www.gregnormanaustraliangrille.com, or call 843-361-0000. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m- 3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; dinner 4 - 8 p.m. Sun.- Thurs., and 4 - 9 p.m. Fri and Sat. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Hours may vary with season