Q&A Nelly Buleje

Nelly Buleje of Grand Geneva

Nelly Buleje brings worldly experiences back home to Lake Geneva as Grand Geneva Resort & Spa’s executive chef. After starting his culinary career cooking room service orders and slicing the weekend prime rib buffet at Grand Geneva 17 years ago, Chef Nelly has fast-tracked to executive chef after traveling the world in search of learning about regional foods. Not afraid to experience new things, Nelly Buleje has traveled from the Philippines to Peru and throughout Central America. He’s returned home with a refined palate, ready to inspire diners with a memorable experience and friendly demeanor they’ll never forget.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO RETURN TO YOUR HOMETOWN AND BE NAMED THE EXECUTIVE CHEF AT ONE OF THE MIDWEST’S PREMIER RESORTS?

I came home with great pride and excitement to bring new energy back to Lake Geneva. We’re going to cultivate the culinary scene, drawing people to Lake Geneva because it’s the best food scene between Chicago and Milwaukee, not just a summer getaway. I look forward to collaborating with local chefs to bring out the best we all have to offer.

WERE THERE EARLY INFLUENCES AND MENTORS WHO SHAPED WHO YOU ARE AS A CHEF?

Grand Geneva Executive Chef Robert Fedorko gave me my first job as a cook at Grand Geneva. He has truly helped shape my entire career, advising me, challenging me and inviting me to collaborate on projects. My natural attraction to adventure took me around the world and I learned so much from culinary experts in their field, watching the purveyors grow and harvest their bounty and how those seasonal ingredients build a cultural identity. I take all that back and channel it into my kitchen.

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY ALL GREAT CHEFS POSSESS?

All chefs must be passionate about creating experiences for their guests. Without passion, food falls flat. Keeping yourself inspired and excited about the craft you do every day drives energy into your meals. That will always translate to the person enjoying your meal. Passion has the ability to transform a regular experience into a memorable one.

HOW WILL YOU INSPIRE YOUR TEAM?

I create a culinary vision and give them ownership to carry out the purpose of what we’re doing here. Each chef on my team puts a spin on their dishes, keeping them vested in work they’re passionate about. I also encourage them to continue their education, whether it’s becoming a certified pickling expert or traveling to Italy to better understand why pasta is a course and not an entrée. Learning firsthand is really important and I want our team to feel as confident as I do in the process of creating a memorable experience for our guests.

ARE YOU INTRODUCING NEW MENU ITEMS?

We’re working on a 70% menu overhaul in all restaurants. Come visit this summer to try our new dishes! Everything from plating food to working with purveyors to make sure the food they’re giving us is as fresh as possible has been revamped. The new menus reflect the tastes and flavors of our team.

HOW DO YOU DIFFERENTIATE YOUR MENU?

Finding balance is the most important thing I look for. The art of cooking is varying textures with balanced flavors. Every dish I create has a focal point. For example, when I was building the new branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) dish on Ristorante Brissago’s menu, I thought about the natural flavor components and texture of the branzino. What was going to enhance and highlight the fish itself? With a fish that’s sweet and mild in flavor, I add fried artichokes for texture with a tang and creamy marbled potatoes tossed with a fresh lemon thyme vinaigrette and pecorino Romano cheese. To put the dish over the top with freshness, I add castelvetrano olives to bring in tender, crispy and almost fruit-like flavor.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT COOKING?

Everything about cooking is an experience. It’s so hands on. Cooking takes all of your senses to do. The world disappears when I cook. It’s the only time I’m quiet because I’m zoned in. I’m listening, smelling, watching, feeling. My senses bring me back memories to where I discovered the flavors I’m working with. It’s the best thing in the world.

FOR THE NOVICE, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE FOR PREPARING A GREAT MEAL?

Attempt to cook in-season. Using fresh ingredients always renders the best results. It’s as simple as finding a recipe and using it as a guide. Enjoy the experience of cooking and always remember there’s carryout if it doesn’t work.

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