The biggest hurdle for a new club chef, according to Matthew Hinkle, Executive Chef of Exmoor Country Club, is the time it takes to confidently run the dining operation, learning its strengths and weakness and enacting meaningful change.
During my third season at my first country club, we had finally managed to make everyone happy (almost everyone, anyway), which allowed us to start focusing on mid- and long-term planning. What I had not understood at the time was how common that third season “success” is for club chefs.
A Club + Resort Business article I read years ago featured a GM discussing how they would progress their F&B operation with a new chef in place. What coalesced this idea was his overarching theme to allow F&B operations time and specifically giving the chef a full three seasons to get everything tuned up.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to speak with many club chefs through the Chicago Club Chef’s Association and while attending the annual Chef to Chef Conference. Hands down, almost everyone has agreed with this premise. The few who have not have said it took a bit longer (i.e. into the fourth or fifth season).
Shortly after I started at my second club—Exmoor Country Club—we held a House Committee meeting. I believed it was a perfect opportunity to float this premise and at the very least establish context for my three-year plan. Needless to say, it did not unfold the way it played out in my head. They heard: “It’s going to take three seasons for the food to get good.” Obviously, that is not at all what I had intended.
So for the past few years, (I am now into my fifth season), I have had the opportunity to view things a bit more objectively when discussing the third season stride. I also recently had a discussion with our new grounds super and am relatively sure this applies to almost any seasonal operation and not solely club chefs.
Surviving the First Season
The first season is bottom line rough for every club chef. We’re pulled in multiple directions by different member factions, our boss, our coworkers, our cooks, and let’s not forget employee meal. Who do we listen to? We cannot afford to ignore any single faction so how much weight do we put behind each? Does the menu need to be updated and how much? What items are the sacred cows? What are the skill levels of your cooks and sous chefs? When we hear, “we are really busy for dinner,” what exactly does that mean and how well does everyone perform under that level of stress?
We can design an incredible plate with multiple components and flavors but if our cooks cannot execute those dishes during peak times they are going to crash and burn. To top it off, this first season will only last four to five months, so by the time we figure out what happened and why it’s all over until the following year.
And let’s not forget everyone’s favorite, “We need to give them something new!”
Warming Up to the Second Season
By the second season, we typically have a good idea of the kitchen’s strengths, problem areas, and what the membership, as a whole, is looking for from the F&B operation. Menu ideas and dishes come into better focus and you feel you may actually be able to hit the dartboard with the choices.
While confidence is higher than the first season, there’s no way to know what will “stick” and what will be removed from the menu overnight. We’ve been training our sous chefs and cooks, firing the toxic ones, and at this point hopefully, everyone is “dialed in” to your expectations and has a solid idea of flavor profiles. During this second year, we have also started to benefit from member relationships established the first year and these are worth their weight in gold when they advocate for the F&B program.
Smooth Sailing in Season Three
Into the third season, we get that last elusive 5-10% dialed in through trial by elimination, R&D, at times completely ignoring common sense and intuition, and occasionally just plain luck.
We have the confidence to say “that’s not the best option, let’s try this instead” and hopefully we’ve worked our way through the painful trial and error journey to know if something is “within the scope” of our members’ expectations.
There’s also someone that will ask, “Why didn’t you do this the first year?” I happily supply them with my analogy of Sherlock Holmes trying to unravel a rolled up combination of the games Clue, Yatzi, and Scrabble. It simply takes time.