Lake Oconee chef Zouhair Bellout serves a fresh take on kitchen culture

Chef Zouhair Bellout (right) of Reynolds Lake Oconee believes that "an atmosphere of ideas builds confidence." Courtesy of Reynolds Lake Oconee

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Chef Zouhair Bellout (right) of Reynolds Lake Oconee believes that "an atmosphere of ideas builds confidence." Courtesy of Reynolds Lake Oconee

When I first met chef Zouhair Bellout at one of the restaurants he presides over at Reynolds Lake Oconee, he asked what brings me joy, instead of the usual “What do you do?” This query is emblematic of his management style at the resort’s 11 restaurants.

For Bellout, the demanding restaurant culture in which he came up as a chef simply is not the way to go. “It’s that old school way of learning,” he said, “whatever you were told is how it goes, and you say, ‘yes chef’ and move on.”

He made a promise to himself that if he ever rose to the top at an establishment, he wouldn’t run things as a dictatorship. “My approach is, I will make you want to be in the kitchen,” he said. “I will always give my employees a voice and I will always empower them. It’s very valuable.”

Bellout, born in Fez, Morocco, was brought up with a passion for food and history. After college and culinary school, his worked in internships and externships with Disney and the Ritz Carlton, Sarasota.

Bellout Zouhair is executive chef and culinary director of the restaurants at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Courtesy of Reynolds Lake Oconee

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Expecting to learn from these chefs, his disappointment grew. “They would bring you to a critical point of whatever task you were working on, and then ask you to do something else, so basically you don’t learn anything,” Bellout said. “It was like, ‘I’m going to keep you here to do the basic things for me, but I will never teach you to be a great chef.”

Bellout came to Reynolds in 2016 as a banquet chef, then transitioned into executive chef and, eventually, the culinary director role he is in today. When Bellout took over, chef Brenton Nelson returned to the organization. “I left because I did not like the style of leadership before,” Nelson said. He had worked in Sarasota with Bellout.

“Chef Z is more motivating and rewarding,” Nelson said. “He’s pushing you like, ‘You can do it; great job’ and cheering you on for personal growth.”

Bellout doesn’t view his staff as disposable. “I see their individual strengths,” he said. Since they will be doing the cooking, he wants them to have the freedom to express themselves. “Sure, I give them directions and my input, but I don’t dictate 100% what they are going to be cooking, and that’s how you build a team that is excited about working with you, versus just executing what I say.”

Bellout extends the same sort of compassion and hospitality to his staff that they are expected to give to guests. At dinners, he brings staff out of the kitchen to introduce a dish. “He celebrates you with the guests,” Nelson said. “I never had that opportunity with other leadership. It gives you drive and motivation.”

Bellout Zouhair (center) meets with members of his crew at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Courtesy of Reynolds Lake Oconee

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Banquet sous chef Shawna Peterson created dessert for a dinner I attended with friends at the Creek Club, one of the restaurants at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Bellout brought her out from the kitchen to recognize the perfect pairing with a dessert wine and her technique perfecting a honeycomb tuile.

“If he can make your job a little better and a little bit happier, he does, and I feel like it lifts him up as a leader and a manager, as well,” Peterson said. “He knows you spend most of your time there, more time than you spend with friends and family.”

“I remember as a kid, when I started cooking, if I came up with an idea that was listened to, I would go home like it was a big achievement,” Bellout said. “I like to give that feeling to my crew.”

He challenges himself, as a chef, never to stop learning. “So, I don’t stop teaching,” he said.

Kitchens are a pressure cooker of demanding situations, but Bellout prides himself on teachable moments.

“He doesn’t just say ‘do this,’” Peterson said, “he explains why you are doing it. He understands we make mistakes and that we learn from them, and we grow.”

Steve Pinheiro, director of platinum dining services at Reynolds, mentioned the resort’s 10 standards. The No. 1 standard is to promote a positive work environment, and No. 3, he said, is “to protect and maintain company property and assets. … The assets are our people, and Chef Z sees that.”

Bellout said his goal is, “I want to be known as the person who developed other chefs.”

“We had a gentleman hired as a dishwasher,” he said. “I watched him for weeks, being on time, very quiet, very particular about his tasks, doing exactly what is asked of him.”

Bellout thought he might be good at sushi making, and the employee was willing to learn.

“Three months in, and he is the one rolling sushi at the counter, and I find myself smiling,” Bellout said.

“My job is not just about cooking,” he added. “My joy has switched from making a dish to shaping the career of somebody.”

Reynolds Lake Oconee. 1341 Linger Longer Road, Greensboro. 855-286-9147,

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