Nearby Attractions: Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing quite like springtime in the South. Birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, photographers—you all know how special the country is when the days get a little brighter and the weather a little warmer. With its 1,800 acres to explore, The Ford Field & River Club is a springtime paradise, and is the perfect starting point for so many excursions into prime, untouched lowcountry land.  

On April 16, members of The Ford and guests are invited to join our naturalist Brittany Dodge at the Deepwater Marina to set out for a springtime paddle of Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge—just two hours from home. Participants will meet at the Deepwater Marina, drive to the refuge then set out for some scenic adventures by kayak and canoe. 

Established as a refuge and breeding ground in 1937, the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge comprises 353,981 acres of National Wilderness Area. It’s also considered a Wetland of International Importance as one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems. The Suwannee and St Marys Rivers both come to a head within the refuge. Visitors can explore the vast wilderness by hiking, canoeing, or kayaking, or on a guided boat tour.

Because of its protected status, the refuge supports a thriving ecosystem of extraordinary wildlife—from more than 600 species of plants to rare swamp animals, birds and more. Spring is the perfect time to visit, with water lilies in bloom and wildflowers coming to life on the canals of the swamp. Below, get a glimpse of what you might encounter on this day trip. Just remember: it’s infinitely better in person. 

5 Wildlife Species You Might Encounter at Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge:

1. American Alligator

With life spans of up to 50 years in the wild, the American alligator is one of the few native species without a natural predator (except for humans and the occasional adversarial alligator). Female a

lligators typically reach lengths of 8.2 feet, while males average around 11.2 feet. They’re found in freshwater—including rivers, swamps, and marshes—from North Carolina to Texas.

2. American Black Bear 

Once at risk of endangerment, the black bear has made a successful comeback—thanks to wildlife management and conservation efforts. Spring sightings of black bears are now fairly common within the South, especially if venturing into dense wooded or swamp regions. These solitary animals range in weight from 200 to 600 pounds, making them the smallest bear species in North America.

3. Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Taking up residence among the Longleaf Pine, these small woodpeckers are likely to be heard before they’re spotted. Keep your ears tuned to the sounds of nature and look out for a black-and-white striped back and white cheek. Though it’s unlikely to be seen without binoculars or a camera, the bird has one standout feature: a tiny red streak (“cockade”) at the top of its cheeks.

Image courtesy of internationalsportsman.com

4. Gopher Tortoise

Protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), gopher tortoises are much smaller than you might imagine. Reaching weights of eight to fifteen pounds, these long-living reptiles (up to 100 years) are primarily herbivores. They provide invaluable services to the local ecosystem: their burrows offer shelter for smaller species, and their droppings spread seeds from many plants.

5. Sandhill Crane

Along the waters of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, you’ll spot many wading birds. The most distinctive is arguably the sandhill crane—a tall, gray bird with a red “crown” at the top of its head. Keep your eyes peeled among tall grasses and shrubs, as you may spot a pair of these beauties nesting together.

5 Birds to Watch for at The Ford this Spring

Spring has arrived in the lowcountry, and The Ford’s 1,800 acres of oak groves, meadows and riverfront are buzzing with an array of winged friends—making now the perfect time to take up birding. Accessible to all ages, birding can be done in any part of the world, and it’s now the fastest-growing outdoor activity in America. According to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 51.3 million Americans report that they watch birds. And more are taking up the hobby all the time.

Come Sunday, March 28, members of The Ford and guests will be able to partake in the season’s Birding Bonanza, led by naturalist Brittany Dodge in partnership with the Ogeechee Audubon Society. During the two-hour event, members will receive a laminated photo field guide, The Ford bird checklist and a Bird Bingo game perfect for practicing one’s skills. 

“Backyard birding really kicks up a notch in spring time, since many birds we learn to recognize at our feeders over the winter are now getting ready for nesting season and looking for prime nesting sites,” says Brittany, who recommends the McAllister Dike trail and the Woodpecker Walking Trail as great (and somewhat secret) areas for birding at The Ford. 

“The coolest birds to me are the raptor-like songbirds, like the loggerheaded shrike or the mini-raptor, the kestrel,” says Brittany. “Though we rarely see these birds here at The Ford, there is one loggerheaded shrike that resides right in front of Lake Sterling, and I always get excited when I see him. I also love seeing the belted kingfishers when they show up during spring and summer, as well as ‘butterbutts’—or yellow rumped warblers. These warblers are true songbirds and pretty easy to spot here at The Ford.”

Brittany’s top tips for new birders? “Get a good set of binoculars and don’t get overwhelmed,” she says. “Learn a few basic birds that are easy to recognize and learn them well. You will eventually be able to distinguish the tougher birds. Going by color is a good start, but learning the silhouettes of birds are the most important!”

Below, we highlight five birds to watch—and listen—for this spring at The Ford. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

This petite, long-tailed forest-dwelling bird is known for its near-constant motion and high-pitched, rather rambling and squeaky calls—birders often hear a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher before they see it. 

Carolina Chickadee

Found in wooded areas, this jaunty chickadee sports a black cap and bib separated by stark white cheeks. Its call echoes its name: “chick-a-deee-deee-deee.” This is a great bird for first-timers to get acquainted with, as warblers and other migrating songbirds often associate with them—spot a chickadee and one will likely find many more species. 

Eastern Bluebird

A ground forager that lives in grasslands, both male and female Eastern Bluebirds boast the striking royal blue hue on their body, head and tail feathers. Their short, wavering call sounds like “tu-a-wee.” 

Tufted Titmouse

This stocky, soft grey and white songbird has a splash of peach under each wing and whistles out a call that sounds like “Peter-Peter-Peter.” It can be seen flitting through forest canopies, hanging from twig-ends and dropping into bird feeders.

Carolina Wren

While the cinnamon-hued Carolina Wren is shy and usually tricky to spot, there is no mistaking its call—one of its startlingly loud exclamations sounds like “teakettle-teakettle!” This wren resides in brushy thickets, lowland swamps, bottomland woods and ravines. 

Savannah Ranked No. 1 in the Nation for New Industry and Development

Living tucked away in The Ford’s magical riverfront setting can make it easy to forget that just 20 miles away is Savannah, our region’s beloved “Hostess City of the South.” Now, this vibrant historic city has a fresh new accolade—the publication Site Selection recently ranked Savannah as the nation’s number one city for new industry and job creating developments. 

Rising to the top spot from number 12 in last year’s rankings, Savannah is a burgeoning economic powerhouse. Site Selection highlighted the growth of the Port of Savannah, Gulfstream Aerospace and local e-commerce retailers in their ranking decisions.

Savannah’s continued growth expands the opportunities for cosmopolitan adventures for members of The Ford, many of whom already enjoy revelling in the charm of Savannah’s cobblestone streets and oak-shaded parks, and exploring its captivating selection of independent boutiques, award-winning restaurants, buzzing bars and breweries, historic buildings and contemporary museums. 

Enjoying a day or a whole weekend in Savannah may entail everything from embarking on horse-drawn carriage rides to catching live music performances. There’s already ample charm to city outings, but with this historic surge in Savannah’s development, we can expect to see even more exciting possibilities in months and years ahead.

Read the full article here

Uncommon Living Redefined

What is Uncommon Living?

Life at The Ford Field & River Club is far from ordinary. It is not only the world-class staff, exceptional beauty of the Georgia Lowcountry, top-rated golf course, immaculate real estate, and unrivaled quality of amenities that make our community so special – but the familiar faces and places of The Ford Field & River Club that make life here so unique.

Our majestic waterfront location once captivated automobile magnate Henry Ford’s imagination, so much so that he built a historic winter retreat on this lush property in the 1930s. Today, the property is one of the nation’s leading luxury communities and private sporting clubs, featuring 400 home sites nestled on 1,800 breathtaking acres. In fact, Town & Country magazine has named The Ford Field & River Club one of the top seven safe havens in the country, recognizing enclaves that offer an outstanding quality of life and exceptional amenities.

Uncommon Amenities

Speaking of amenities, this private sporting community features a challenging Pete Dye golf course, on-site day spa, deepwater marina, world-class equestrian center, state-of-the-art fitness center, shooting preserve, swimming pools, and more than 10 miles of scenic horse, biking, and hiking trails.

The property’s one-of-a-kind homes range from cozy two-bedroom cottages to five-bedroom estate homes, many of which were designed by renowned architects. Each lot and home is unique and convenient to club amenities – many within walking or biking distance for a relaxing lifestyle in the temperate Southern climate.

Uncommon Lowcountry Lifestyle

The Ford Field & River Club’s intimate setting in Georgia’s lush Lowcountry provides the kind of coastal living most people only dream of. This breathtaking community is a sportsman’s paradise and outdoor enthusiast’s dream, where memories are made on land, at sea, and right in your backyard. As much a premier sporting club as it is a private residential community, The Ford Field & River Club is located on the Ogeechee River banks, with the Atlantic Ocean a mere 20 miles away.

A private marina affords members convenient access to inshore and offshore fishing opportunities. Guided fishing trips can be easily arranged through the staff guides at Ogeechee Outfitters, the on-property source for fishing boating supplies, as well as a number of popular outdoor apparel brands.

Our diverse calendar of events immerses members in the laid-back Southern lifestyle for the social butterfly that makes our community so unique – creating a sense of community where neighbors are friends and friends are family.

Uncommon Accolades

At The Ford Field & River Club, we’re no stranger to accolades. The Platinum Clubs of America award ranks The Ford Field & River Club among the top five percent of all clubs in the United States and the top 150 clubs. The Distinguished Club Elite award, another feather in The Ford Field & River Club’s cap, is the only merit-based award program that recognizes private clubs and their management for outstanding delivery of exceptional member experience. Both awards recognize the world-class experience members enjoy every day.

Creating the Platinum Clubs of America experience goes far beyond excellence in amenities and the property’s beauty. Achieving this milestone is the result of an intensive planning process and the execution of a long-range strategy by The Ford Field & River Club management staff and board of directors to recruit world-class talent, invest in infrastructure, increase conservation efforts, adapt to changing times, and take the steps necessary to ensure the legacy of the property for future members.

As defined by Distinguished Clubs, “member experience” is that special combination of qualities that a private club provides its members. It is not just the quality of service, the facilities, or the product provided; it is also the staff’s quality and the management and the overall club governance they deliver.

“These awards reinforce what we already know: Ford enriches the lives of members and their families by fostering enduring friendships and providing a competitively superior variety of first-class amenities,” said Club Board President Jeff Fusile. “These awards are a wonderful validation and much-deserved recognition of everyone’s efforts.”

Uncommon Golf

Included in The Ford Field & River Club‘s member experience is Pete Dye’s signature golf course, which he proclaimed to be his “finest Southern links.” In 2014, The Ford Field & River Club Golf Course underwent a $7.5 million renovation with Pete Dye’s direct involvement and had since received numerous accolades and continuous high praise from renowned golf publications, including Golf Digest “Best Golf Courses in Georgia,” Golfweek’s “Top 100 Best Residential Courses,” and Host for the Georgia PGA Open.

This year, Ford was named one of GOLF Magazine’s top courses in Georgia in its 2020 – 2021 rankings. Of 416 courses in Georgia, The Ford Field & River Club was ranked the 15th best course in the state, alongside such prestigious company as the world-famous Augusta National. In 2016, The Ford Field & River Club received certification in Environmental Planning from the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses (ACSP).

Our version of laid-back luxury living celebrates all the great outdoors has to offer, traditions steeped in Southern charm, and a sense of community you won’t find anywhere else. This is Uncommon Living at The Ford Field & River Club.

Plant Riverside District

Nestled on the waterfront of Savannah’s historic River Street, Plant Riverside District is a sprawling fusion of luxury and lights. From walls composed of sparkling geodes to hotel rooms laced in European elegance, it is safe to say there is something for everyone here—almost too much for a single day trip.

The music strumming from bars, the slew of visitors, the glass storefronts that look like terrariums filled with delightful wares—it’s overwhelming at first, especially if you had grown accustomed to what was once the sleepier end of River Street.

“What is this place?” a man asks in wonder as he stands beneath the colossal, 137-foot, chrome-dipped dinosaur skeleton that hangs from the ceiling of the JW Marriott lobby.

Plant Riverside is many things, but conventional is not one of them. It houses a collection of shops and galleries, an intimate outdoor performance venue, and more than a dozen restaurants, including three rooftop bars with stunning views of Savannah and South Carolina. Then there’s the hotel itself, so imperceptibly woven into the fabric of the district’s sights, that it takes you by surprise when you suddenly discover you’re standing in the lobby.

Like the hotel lobby, it feels as if the district’s many amenities are without borders—you find yourself entering, exploring and exiting spaces without even realizing it. Around each turn are visual delights like suspended models of an ancient species of bird with expansive wings and the entryway to the base of one of two iconic smokestacks around which Plant Riverside District was built, revealing the sky hundreds of feet above.

The overall design is a study in opposites—where high-tech and old-world, sleek and textured, old and new seamlessly blend together. In this way, Plant Riverside is a successful renovation, bringing modern experiences to the Hostess City while remaining respectful of its rich history.

The history of Plant Riverside really begins with the two towering smokestacks that crown the former power plant, climbing high into the firmament. At the turn of the century, the site housed the Savannah Power Company Riverside Station, which helped to power the city’s infrastructure during the transition from gas to electric. With WWII raging in Europe, the Port of Savannah was converted into a predominantly military cargo port. When the war ended, the riverfront became dilapidated and undesirable and fell into decay for the next several decades.

The power plant, however, endured. Smoke poured heartily from the stacks until the plant closed in the late ’80s. It remained vacant for decades in spite of the fact that tourism along the opposite end of River Street had been flowing steadily for almost 50 years.

“The Savannah Power Company Riverside Station was the largest and most prominent industrial building near downtown, making it a desirable adaptive reuse project,” says Robin Williams, chair of architectural history at Savannah College of Art and Design. He explains that due to its location at the west end of the waterfront, it made perfect sense to place a hotel where the vast majority of visitors would come to explore Savannah’s distant past.

Richard Kessler, a Savannah native and renowned hotel developer, happened to be the man with the ingenuity and the means of acquiring such a rare piece of real estate. Hidden away within the rusty rafters of the high-vaulted skylights and the charmingly crooked alleyway underpasses, Kessler saw the glint of a gold mine. He and his team of designers, including architect Christian Sottile, an international, award-winning urban designer and dean of SCAD School of Building Arts, set out to imbue every brick with energy.

Each moment spent roaming among the boutiques and exotic restaurants brings a range of fresh, exciting and dazzling sensations back to River Street. This experience is only enhanced when you notice it’s framed by a building that has watched Savannah grow for more than a century.

“The goal of preservation is to preserve historic architectural fabric,” Williams explains. “Unlike other forms of cultural expression, architecture must answer to practical realities of being useful.” With renewed purpose—to attract tourists and locals alike with enchanting one-of-a-kind experiences—the once-forgotten Power Plant has remained true to its roots by bringing new energy to Savannah’s waterfront.

PlantRiverside.com

Annie, Get Your Gun

Most people know the story of Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter who traveled across the country with her husband and her rifle, showing how she could not only compete with but also outshoot most of the marksmen who dared to challenge her. Oakley was ahead of her time in the early 1900s, breaking into a male-dominated sport and paving the way for the growing number of markswomen to take aim at shooting.

Drawing on the historic figure’s efforts to advance women, the Annie Oakley Shooters formed to encourage and empower more women to participate in clay shooting sports. “The Annies,” as they like to refer to themselves, formed in the early 2000s in Atlanta when a group of women wanted to join in shooting events even though only a few had ever even handled a gun. That’s not to say they couldn’t learn, of course. For everyone, there is always a first—the first golf swing, horseback ride, swim stroke or pitch. These women wanted to take their first shot, and when they did, they fell in love with it. Then they wanted other women to join them—to form a community of markswomen.

When the group of shooting friends decided to host a women’s clay shooting competition, the first Annie Oakley Tournament was launched in 2004 and has since become an annual event. Today, the Annies are one of the fastest growing women’s shooting clubs in the country, with groups assembling in central and southeastern Florida, northern and southeastern Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

The Lowcountry Annie Oakleys, the Savannah chapter, operates out of Forest City Gun Club, the oldest continually running gun club in the country. Each month, 30-40 markswomen gather at Forest City for an afternoon of clay sports shooting and good company. The ladies spend two hours honing their skills as sharpshooters by taking lessons or firing off a hundred rounds. After they pull, aim, fire and repeat, the women often convene at local haunts in the nearby Sandfly district to refuel with lunch before returning to their work, be it at home or in the office.

“I’ve been with the Annies for about five years now,” explains Peggy Gillenwater, a resident at The Ford Field & River Club and member of Forest City. “We are a really inclusive group that lets in women from all across the spectrum of shooting experience.” This includes novices, experts, and everything in between. “But we all come to have fun,” adds Gillenwater, which is how she has managed to convince another Ford resident to participate even though she’s never held a gun.

There are about eight Ford residents who belong to the Annies, and when they’re not at Forest City, the women can practice in their own backyard, relatively speaking. “We have two certified shooting instructors at Ford, Mike and Danny,” says Gillenwater. “They teach at the nearby Dorchester Shooting Preserve, which is actually perfect for us because as residents of Ford we are also members at Dorchester.” The 5,000-acre hunting preserve offers a world-class sporting clays course with 15 fully automatic stations for shooters of all levels.

The group’s current membership is primarily women 50 and older, which the women particularly enjoy. “The older generation is mature and there’s less drama,” says Carrie Bazemore, a Savannah resident and member of the Lowcountry Annies for the past three years. “This is important because it takes a lot of focus to learn the sport and gain good technique.” Though Bazemore also adds that the group is very welcoming of youngblood. “We certainly don’t want to prevent the younger generation from joining in,” she says.

Alongside the fun of shotguns and sporting clays, the Annies use their good aim to fund good causes. “Shooting is such a great outlet for me,” expresses Bazemore, “but I also participate to help out with the charities.” Since the club’s inception, it has brought enormous sums of money to local charities, reaching their goal of raising one million dollars in the span of just five years.

“I’ve been to a lot of gun club charity events in the area and I have to say the Annies do an amazing job,” notes Gillenwater. Some recipients of these funds include Dwaine and Cynthia Willett Children’s Hospital, Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, and Jasper County Boys and Girls Club. The Annies have also generously awarded $108,000 to CURE Childhood Cancer, another $108,000 to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Coastal Empire and $54,000 to the United Way of the Coastal Empire.

“We want to see around 40 teams sign up for these charity events,” Gillenwater explains. She says that teams of four people usually pay an entry fee around $1,000 to $1,250, which goes toward the chosen charity and helps cover the cost of hosting the event. “Of course, the alcohol helps enliven things,” Gillenwater says, laughing. “Auctions always work better when there’s a little bit of wine going around.”

Bazemore shares a quote from Annie Oakley herself, saying, “God intended women to be outside as well as men, and they do not know what they are missing when they stay cooped up in the house.” But getting women outside is only part of the equation. “I feel like the group empowers me,” Bazemore exclaims. “Shooting a gun empowers me.” Add this all together and it’s clear that building a supportive group of women who care as much about growing their sport as they do about lifting up their community is what the Lowcountry Annies is all about.

AnnieOakleyShooters.com

Tale of Two Spaces

Savannah is known for seamlessly honoring the past while updating for the future, making it the most well-preserved city in America. Every building has a story to tell. Some of these stories are told by the people who remember, and some are told by the buildings themselves.

The Vault Kitchen + Market opened in 2017 and quickly became the Hostess City’s dining locale de jour that had everyone talking. Three years and a pandemic later, they’re still talking about this chic Asian-fusion restaurant tucked into Savannah’s emerging Starland District, which is why you’ll still find more locals gathering there than tourists. Owners Sean and Ele Tran took the former Bank of America location that served the community for more than 50 years and transformed it into a sleek restaurant with a funky industrial vibe.

From the artful lockbox sculpture of a bull decorating one wall (a nod to Wall Street, one would imagine), to an intimate dining space inside an actual bank vault, The Vault’s atmosphere is a treasury created by clever deposits of whimsy. Stacks of safety deposit boxes adorn the bar and even the restrooms are paved with nickels. Despite its conservative and clerkish origins, the modernized space is open and airy with high, beam-exposed ceilings and an open-view kitchen—that is, if you get there before the crowds.

While the interior space is intimate, the outdoor dining option is an excellent option. The covered space is expansive to accommodate large groups and social distancing.

Locals are a discerning lot when it comes to dining, but they’ve long been won over by the success of The Vault’s owners who have a collective of 11 stellar restaurants throughout Savannah. With each new opening, Savannahians may fear that the culinary couple may be spreading themselves too thin, but we quickly eat our words—with a heap of steaming pork and duck dumplings, and thick slices of fresh sushi aptly named The Bank Roll.

The dishes at all of Sean and Ele’s restaurants are fresh, thoughtful and delicious. At The Vault, you can bet on the Spicy Tuna Tartare from the appetizer menu and the flavorful Miso Salmon as a main dish, and with menu prices running between $4.95 and $16.95, you won’t break the bank.

TheVaultKitchen.com, 912.201.1950

Good Bones

Often referred to as “the boneyard,” Driftwood Beach is a relatively small stretch of Jekyll Island’s 10 miles of unspoiled shoreline, but it’s easily the most picturesque. Located on the island’s north end, it’s so protected by trees that it’s not visible from the roadway. But park and venture down winding trails and in just a few yards you’ll emerge onto a beach scattered with ancient driftwood monuments bleached by the sun and preserved by the salty air.

Looking out across the length of the beach, it’s as if the ocean had washed the bones of prehistoric animals onto the shore, where they bleached over time. The limbs are gnarled and knotted, reaching out in various directions before being fixed in time and space. It’s both eerie and beautiful—a tension reminiscent of the Southern Gothic tradition; like Flannery O’Connor herself had crafted this scene.

I have lived in Savannah for two decades, and yet I only just recently discovered Driftwood Beach when a friend took me there on a day trip this past summer. I had been to Jekyll Island a number of times over the years for tennis tournaments, conventions and retreats—once I even rode my bicycle around the island’s perimeter as the first 10 miles of a century ride, but I had completely missed this gem of a site.

What made the view even more breathtaking was the giant belly of the capsized cargo ship “Golden Ray” in the distance. Lying on its side, all that was visible was its red ballast, dwarfing the St. Simons’ coastline beyond it. While the ship will eventually be dismantled and removed, its menacing presence adds another layer of enchantment to the experience, the industrial metal form lying in stark contrast to the organic shapes around it.

We visited midweek as to avoid the onslaught of tourists that seem to know more than I, filling the beach at steady rates. But it was also six months into the pandemic, so we were able to spread out, snap photos as we negotiated around the driftwood, and cool off in the surf, running our toes along the ocean floor to find sand dollars and spiral shells as big as our hands.

Driftwood Beach alone is worth the drive, but the barrier island has even more to offer—most notably a fascinating history dating back 3,500 years. While the earliest inhabitants of the southernmost island of the Golden Isles were Native Americans who traveled there to hunt and fish, the first settlers were British colonists, claiming the land for England. General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733, and along with it, Jekyll Island. It was then purchased in 1886 as a private winter retreat for some of the wealthiest families in America, including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers.

What’s referred to as the “Club Era” marked the opening of the prestigious Jekyll Island Club and the construction of spacious vacation homes and outbuildings to serve elite families. Now part of the National Historic Landmark District, visitors can tour these historic sites and stop in at the Mosaic Jekyll Island Museum.

The Great Depression and WWII brought the Club Era to a close and Jekyll Island was purchased by the state of Georgia in 1947 and opened to the public as a State Park a year later. To preserve its history and natural beauty, only 35 percent of the island has been developed, offering lodging, shopping, dining, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and a variety of ways to enjoy the outdoors with trails, bike paths, tennis courts, golf courses and even a water park. The remaining 65 percent has been left in its natural state. This includes five unique, family friendly beaches of which Driftwood is only one—though make it the first on your list.

Visiting Jekyll Island
All vehicles entering the island must purchase a parking pass at the main gate. Single- and multi-day passes are $8, an annual pass is $55. Walkers and bicyclists do not need to pay a fee to visit the island.

Jekyllisland.com

Meet Executive Chef Frank Chiasera

The Southeast has a magical way of pulling you back if you stray too far for too long. Maybe it’s the languishing live oaks, the winding waterways, or the way the sun’s rays dance off the swaying marsh grasses, giving them a golden hue. Or maybe it’s all of this plus more, nestled in a small, unique and oft-overlooked part of the country.

It is for Frank Chiasera.

Chiasera grew up in Niagara Falls, New York—a fact that his drawn-out vowels belie before he even has the chance to tell you. At 16, he recalls walking down to the corner Italian restaurant and getting his very first job as a dishwasher. He has been in kitchens ever since.

Chiasera remained in New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and upon graduation, he worked in a couple of popular restaurants before entering the world of member clubs. “I really love the member experience,” he says. “I get to know the membership; I get to know what they like and dislike, but I also understand their dietary needs and preferences and my menus reflect that.”

He first ventured to Mississippi in his mid-20s, cutting his teeth as a line cook before being offered a sous chef position at the Harbour Club, Charleston’s premier private business and social club. As is characteristic of the industry, Chiasera later pinballed around the eastern seaboard, with stints at the Citrus Club in Orlando and Colleton River Plantation in Bluffton, South Carolina, where he committed to buying a home. Nonetheless, a position at the Peninsula Club in Charlotte lured him northward, but he kept the house on Hilton Head, knowing that he’d eventually return to the place that captured his heart.

“When I was first at Colleton, I don’t think I really appreciated the beauty until I moved to Charlotte and there’s no ocean,” Chiasera admits. Eventually, he and his wife, along with their three teenage daughters, returned to their home in South Carolina for the long term, and that’s when he joined the Ford family as Executive Chef. “Now, I have made it a point to not take for granted how beautiful my surroundings are,” he says. Since returning, he and his wife have committed to getting outdoors more, which includes adding a couple of kayaks to the mix. “I really want to take advantage of the gorgeous surroundings,” he says.

Chiasera is right at home at Ford, appreciating not only the surroundings, but also the flexibility, creativity and challenges that the position affords him. “The great thing about a member club is that our menus change weekly, so our challenge is to keep it fresh and different, yet consistent,” he says.

As an example, Chiasera notes how the kitchen currently has Grilled Octopus and Burrata Cheese & Sliced Tomato Salad as appetizers and that they’ll also throw in a classic like Chicken Piccata. “We’re all over the board,” he says. “Everything from Mexican to curries—you name it. We try to push the envelope.”

One of the things he loves best about Ford is that he has the freedom to experiment with the menu. “I base my menus around what the membership likes,” he says. “So, if I run a new item and it doesn’t sell, it comes off the next week. If they love it, we’ll run it an extra week and put it in the rotation for down the road.” As such, the membership really helps shape the menu.

So do the seasons. A garden on property supplies a good deal of herbs, seasonal fruits and vegetables which Chiasera then incorporates in the menu. Throughout the year, the garden yields beets, radishes, asparagus, figs, grapes, squash, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries. There’s even a small pecan orchard on property. “We’ve just started some hydroponic growing trees, so we’ll see how those come out,” he says. “The garden has been a lot of fun and the membership loves it when we put those items on the menus.”

The property also boasts a number of citrus trees. “We have kumquat, lime, grapefruit, tangelo, tangerine and orange trees,” Chiasera says. But the garden and orchards are new territory for the chef. “I’m still learning. In the future we’re going to focus on fewer items but more yield so we can run the items longer,” he says.

In spite of his New York upbringing and working in a fast and furious industry, Chiasera remains personable and unhurried. In fact, dare I say, laidback? Maybe the South has made him its own. This influence is certainly evident in his penchant for comfort food when it comes to cooking for his family. “I love doing one-pot meals, especially in the wintertime,” he says. “Whether it’s a jambalaya or a chicken stew—I enjoy hearty meals.”

Chiasera, along with his wife and daughters, makes a point to go back to New York at least once a year to visit his family and hometown. He goes, but he doesn’t stay. Instead, he returns to the roots he’s happy to have set here in the Southeast.

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