When working to be the best at the job in a second-act career move lands you at the top of the game
Though raised on a citrus farm in Central California’s breadbasket region and schooled at the French Culinary Institute, Chef Kelli Crosson’s path to becoming executive chef of The Lodge at Torrey Pines wasn’t always predictable.
“I was a picky eater,” says Crosson—the approachable chef with her hair pulled back casually—who was recently named to head up the culinary team of San Diego’s AAA Five Diamond award-winning resort overlooking the legendary Torrey Pines Golf Course and the Pacific Ocean beyond. She expounds, “My sister, Jamie, and I were taught a strong work ethic and our family sat down at the dinner table every night. Food was nourishment. We learned not to be wasteful, but the food itself was not the big deal. It was the experience.” An experience Crosson helped translate to The Lodge’s fine dining encounter at A.R. Valentien.
In elementary school, she thought about being a chef like kids think about being an astronaut. But this wasn’t Crosson’s focus when she left her hometown of Exeter and ventured south to attend Long Beach State. After college and moving to San Diego to be near her sister, her first position was as a receptionist for a start-up auto finance business. “In jobs, I have the tendency to climb,” says Crosson who quickly became a marketing assistant, and then SEM marketing manager. When the company was acquired by Capital One, she declined a move to Dallas, took the generous severance package, and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York where she immersed herself in the craft of cooking. “Everything just fell into place,” says Crosson of her second career beginning at age 27.
Upon graduation from the Institute, she worked in catering for the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., a stint in which she encourages all young chefs to become well versed. She attributes this position to her efficiency, organizational skills, and ability to manage mass amounts of prep. “Where most chefs prepare for maybe 400 servings, I was prepping for 3,000,” she shares.
Long tenures are the norm for those in The Lodge at Torrey Pines’ kitchens because bottom line: it’s a great place to work. It’s technique-driven and known for a culture that supports growth. Since its opening two decades ago in 2002, chef Jeff Jackson has been at the helm. A leader in San Diego’s cuisine scene, Jackson was significant in introducing the region to the farm-to-table movement. So, when beginning Crosson’s career as a line cook for The Lodge in 2009, long-timers Tim “TK” Kolanko (now executive chef at Urban Kitchen Group) and Kara Snyder seemed forever ensconced as chef de cuisine and sous chef respectively. But when they decided to move on, she viewed it as an opportunity to move up. “I went to Jeff and said, ‘I want to be sous chef. What do I need to do the get the position?’” She fulfilled his expectations, moved into the role, and from there, as in the past, she climbed and eventually became the chef de cuisine for A.R. Valentien.
Crosson admits that six years ago she didn’t want Jeff’s job but she began to enjoy the business and management aspects. She was a natural. “I’m excellent at delegating. I can say, ‘I know you’re good at this, go do it.’ I always tell my staff ‘See the bigger picture.’ And when I interview potential employees, I tell them I’m here to get them where they want to go.”
Her philosophy is that cooking should be about simplicity and technique and not overdoing it. If you reach those goals, you’re not going to go wrong. For aspiring chefs, her advice is to get experience in everything. And Crosson followed her own advice—advice that prepared her to fill Jackson’s shoes when he stepped into the new role of corporate culinary advisor.
“Since being named executive chef, a lot has been made of attaining this spot as a female. But I’ve never dealt with ‘nos’ because I’m a woman,” says Crosson. She earned it the good old-fashioned way—by being the best person for the job because she was the best at the job.
She has goals and wants to make changes—one being to completely revamp the kitchen—but she’s a realist and in her down-to-earth way and talks in basics. “This is one month in. All I want to do is a really good job—across the board, not just in the kitchen. I would be interested in talking to myself in another year or two and seeing where I’m at.
“I believe and tell my staff everything always works out,” says Crosson. And, indeed, there’s no better testament to Crosson’s unofficial motto than her own story of getting into the game later than many but rising from the ranks to become executive chef of one of the nation’s top resorts in its 20th anniversary year.
The Lodge at Torrey Pines
11480 NORTH TORREY PINES ROAD
LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA 92037
RESERVATIONS (858) 453-4420