Welcome to Clubhouse Eats, where we celebrate the game’s most delectable food and drink. Hope you brought your appetites.
The first time he attended the Masters, nearly a decade ago, the renowned chef Thomas Keller did what any golf and food enthusiast would do: He wandered the grounds, eating up the atmosphere and savoring the beauty. Then he made a beeline for the concession stand. Spoiler alert: He did not order a chicken biscuit.
“It’s the Masters,” Keller says. “You’ve got to go with the pimento cheese.”
Just as the salmon tartare cornet is a signature for Keller, the Michelin three-star man behind Per Se, in New York, and The French Laundry, in Northern California, the pimento-cheese sandwich is a staple across large swaths of the South. But no version is more famous than the one sold at the Masters, where a spread of gooey goodness squeezed between white bread fetches a scant $1.50. Haute cuisine it isn’t. And that, Keller says, is the point.
“In everything we eat, as with all of our experiences, it’s a matter of managing our expectations,” he says. “I learned that lesson years ago when I dined at my first Michelin three-star restaurant in France. I don’t know what my expectations were, but no restaurant could have
possibly met them, and I wound up ruining the experience for myself.”
When you purchase Augusta’s classic concession item, Keller says, you know that you can count on simple comforts. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“It’s everything you could ask for,” he says. “Right down to the soft white bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth.”
Not that pimento cheese can’t stand up to white-tablecloth settings. At Per Se, Keller serves it on a cracker as a palate teaser. He came up with the concept as a quiet homage after one of multiple return trips to Augusta, where, in addition to being a patron twice, he has played three times as a guest.
On those visits, Keller has enjoyed tours of the club’s epic wine cellar (“When you’ve got three cases of Screaming Eagle per vintage, you know you’ve got pretty good connections,” Keller says) as well as its kitchens. Known for the meticulousness of his restaurants, Keller says that he was struck by the sophistication of Augusta’s operation.
“They’re incredibly impressive, dynamic and flexible,” he says. “Pretty much whatever you want, you can get.”
And you can bank on it being well prepared.
“They know how to cook asparagus, crab cakes, steaks — you name it,” Keller says. “The menu is essentially traditional Southern food, which is appropriate for Augusta.”
Ask for foie gras, though, and you can have that too. In Napa Valley, where he lives and carries a 16 index, Keller is no stranger to feeding hungry golfers. His home course is at Silverado Resort and Spa, a vineyard-fringed retreat just down the road from the French Laundry that hosts a PGA Tour stop, the Fortinet Championship. Every year, when the event rolls around, Keller sets up a concession at Silverado, specializing in two sandwiches, both served on white bread: peanut butter and jelly (“on Wonder Bread, just like you had it when you were 10”) and — wait for it — pimento cheese.
There are, Keller says, as many ways to prepare pimento cheese as there are people who enjoy it.
“It’s like a lot of familiar dishes,” he says. “Different home cooks put different things into it.”
Still, some ingredients are pretty much standard: cream cheese, cheddar, pimentos, salt and pepper. Seasonings vary with personal taste. How Augusta makes its version? Keller says he doesn’t know. But at Silverado, Keller uses garlic and onion powder as a throwback touch, with a dash of vinegar and hot sauce. His goal is to emulate what he has eaten at the Masters.
“I’m not trying to make it better,” Keller says. “I’m just trying to make it accurate.”
He thinks he’s gotten close. But there is one element he can’t replicate.
“I’d love to use the green cellophane wrapping they use at Augusta, but I can’t find it anywhere,” he says. “That must be made specially for them.”