You know that scene in the final act of Ratatouille? Once Remy has taken over the kitchen operations, Luigi dons skates to serve single-handedly the entire dining room at Gusteau's.
Eric Fullem might need those skates because a golf cart will not fit into an elevator.
By the clientele and employee numbers, Fullem’s post as Executive Chef of JW Marriott Plant Riverside District’s culinary operations is not altogether different from the similar position he held at Sea Island since 2018, but he certainly recognizes the physical expanse of his new gastronomic realm.
“I don’t have a counter, but I would tell you we do about 20,000 steps a day,” he said, not to mention his miles commuting to and from Brunswick.
Because of the “large business aspect” to his role, overseeing operations at all fourteen of the riverfront entertainment center’s eatery options, Fullem is not “running around” to each resto every day, and how could he?
At the same time, navigating its enormity is not a necessity because of the classic brigade system that underpins the property’s food and beverage outlets. Executive sous chef Jacob Hammer assists Fullem in overseeing a half-dozen or so chefs who run their own restos, plus an executive team member who solely oversees pastries across the property and the banquet department executive sous chef.
“I cannot effectively lead one kitchen of cooks and ignore the other thirteen kitchens,” he reasoned, “so it’s really important for me to lead the executive team.”
Since taking the top toque on August 1, Fullem's personal recipe has been going kitchen by kitchen to seek out coaching and praising opportunities while ensuring that his sous chefs are “winning in their own realms, getting their own accolades throughout the day.”
“It’s about leadership,” he said. “I’m a chef who understands that I’m not successful unless the front-of-house is successful and our food doesn’t shine unless it’s sold correctly.”
Undoubtedly undeterred by the commute and plainly ecstatic about the extensive responsibilities, Fullem added with genuine happiness, “I feel like a million bucks.”
THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Before landing on Savannah’s riverfront, Fullem cheffed at Sea Island for a total of eight years, beginning with a two-plus-year stint as a chef de cuisine at the River Bar before a close food friend who was in need of experienced help at The Jayhawk Club in Lawrence, KS, came calling.
“I denied him about a hundred times,” Fullem recalled with a wry laugh, confessing that he was not interested in leaving the Golden Isles for the Amber Waves of Grain.
In the end, his food-and-beverage director friend convinced him to take the leap, and Fullem went to Kansas, a time that proved to be professionally positive in that it gave him his first executive chef role.
Because he had never really wanted to leave Sea Island, he returned a year later and “was very happy” to do so, rejoining that staff as the executive sous chef of the entire property, helping to oversee fourteen food outlets plus in-room dining service.
Fourteen. That number of eateries under one resort ‘roof’ sounds familiar.
Though Fullem was not initially the chef in charge, he was overseeing 130 people, “very comparable to what we have here,” he said of his JW Marriott food and beverage team members.
After serving as sous chef at Sea Island, he did a “tour of duty,” if you will, in each of the resort’s hotels and became the executive chef at the Beach Club, the banquet services executive chef, and finally the executive chef at The Lodge.
“Sea Island is bigger than you would imagine,” Fullem explained, noting the combined volume of hotel rooms, residences, and rental properties, some of which are mega-mansions that sleep dozens and dozens.
“Whether you live there or are vacationing there, you are living the vacation life,” he said, and every restaurant on the posh Glynn County isle is chock-full during the ‘normal’ dinnertime hours. Peak season sees as many as 2500 guests eat and drink at the outlets each day, a total that is “very comparable” to what Fullem has experienced on the riverfront. After eight o’clock, though, Sea Island dining is all but done-and-dusted.
Plant Riverside has proved quite the contrary, and Fullem sees a “constant flow” of traffic that stretches beyond usual mealtime hours: guests stopping at Turbine for an anytime-of-day snack, popping into Baobab Lounge for a pre-check-in cocktail, or staying up a bit later to partake of the “nighttime dining vibe” at Graffito, STC, and Stone & Webster.
“I would say that Plant Riverside is more consistently busier; however, it is less predictable,” he added, due to how the weather dictates traffic at the outdoor eateries and rooftop restos and bars.
“There’s a good flow going on here. It’s just fun because there’s a different kind of activation that’s happening at all times.”
HOPPING ON A MOVING TRAIN
For Fullem, an evident challenge is how to make what is already great greater at a luxury location that is go-go-go.
His predecessor, Kyle Lipetzky, is now the Corporate Director of Culinary for the Kessler Collection, and the two collaborate on what is on the dining dockets.
“It’s nice for me because he still lives locally and comes to Plant Riverside a bit,” Fullem said of Lipetzky, whom he hailed for being “super-successful here for multiple years.”
“I walked into a business that’s only three years old, so the team is positive and the product is inspiring already,” he added. “My goals align with the company goals. My values align with the company values.”
“The most important thing to me, when I came here, was to make sure that I connect,” Fullem continued. Coming onboard, he also had the clear objective “to grow himself.”
Another selling point has been the relative ease of doing what can be done to up the ante, evident in a handful of menu changes, “chipping away with product and people-driven decisions to make things a little bit better.”
“There’s a lot more freedom here,” he said of the lack of customary resort red tape when it comes to being a change agent chef.
Fullem recognized there will be times that he, in this role, will have to make top-down decisions in the best business interests of food quality, volume, and a variety of other factors, but his team has taken well to “being a part of all solutions,” stressing that his mentality was largely ingrained in JW Marriott PRD’s m.o.
“There’s no justice and there’s no good that comes out of a chef who walks in and says, ‘Alright, I’m the new chef. Let’s do it this way.’”
Instead, Fullem has “suggestively [sold]” ideas to his chefs, using this kind of collaboration as a mentoring opportunity. He knows what it is like to be in a position where creativity in the kitchen is curtailed by an over-chef who says, “Do this, this, and this,” so he has strived to make sure that others’ ideas are heard, talked out, and tweaked to make sure that they work for volume.
“Pun intended, there’s a good recipe for how to do things here,” he said. “Certainly, I’m going to put my touch on things, and that goes for the food and the leadership, but I definitely feel good about what I walked into.”
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
Despite JW Marriott’s destination distinction from Day One, another given goal for Fullem was to increase quality across the property’s dining outlets.
“What’s the next level?” he asked rhetorically.
In the last two months, he has “mapped out each individual outlet and started to dig in” to seek improvement, “little bit by little bit” without “stirring the pot” as the “new chef.” Some of the enhancements were admittedly minor, albeit ones that have made it easier for his crew to do their jobs even better.
If you are a guest at a seat, you may not have noticed Fullem’s presence and early influence, but in the way that the team operates, the speed of service, and getting the tools that they need, he has made his mark.
“We had amazing, delicious cookies, but I had had better,” he said. “The muffins, they were great, but I had had better muffins.”
Check those upgrades off the list.
“Just making it better,” he said of his guiding goal at a post which began right when the holiday seasons wafted into the air.
“It has been a very good and long two months because there’s been a lot going on,” Fullem said. “A lot of planning for this busy winter season, for the holidays, for the Christmas Market, for New Year’s Eve,” plus banquet events that are a principal part of the property’s business.
“I haven’t lived or worked in Savannah,” he shared. “It’s been a while since I’ve actually worked in a city setting, so it’s very welcoming. I enjoy it. It’s a change of pace.”Visit https://www.plantriverside.com/eat-drink for detailed information on JW Marriott Plant Riverside District’s various food outlets.