Philadelphia Country Club (PCC) has a deep-rooted, “Main Line” tradition that dates back to 1890; the club’s logo, a proud stallion, reflects back to its inception, when polo was the traditional sport of the time for the elite.
In the 1920s, after golf began to grow as a gentleman’s sport, the club’s desire for a championship golf course came to fruition, on land purchased where its current home lies, in the suburb of Gladwyne, Pa. PCC has hosted USGA events as recently as the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the match-play portion of the 2005 U.S. Amateur, and its most well-known tournament was the 1939 U.S. Open, won by Byron Nelson.
Executive Chef Nathan Wakefield, who came to PCC in 2006, now leads a culinary team that provides cutting-edge cuisine to a very large membership in a variety of outlets—not only in the many dining rooms and bars of a sprawling, newly renovated clubhouse, but also important satellite outlets on the property, including a shooting lodge, bowling alley, tournament-caliber squash facility, and a pool that becomes extremely busy throughout the summer season.
In a still-young career, Nathan has worked at some of America’s finest resorts, including The Greenbrier and The American Club in Kohler, Wis. Immediately prior to coming to PCC, he was Executive Chef at The Minneapolis Club, an award-winning private city club. As he revealed in our conversation, Nathan draws on his already-vast experience to provide PCC with the benefits of his unique talent for combining interesting local flavors with fine-dining classics.
Q Nathan, you’ve already worked and trained at many great properties around the country. What’s the value of trying to do as much as you can professionally before trying to land the “dream job”?
A I’m a firm believer that to truly understand an area, you have to experience it first-hand. And in my career I have already been privileged enough to live among, and learn from, different people about their cultures, their regional specialties, and their indigenous foods. I think all of this has helped me immeasurably in my cooking—I can call on the experience of having been there and seen something personally, rather then just reading about that particular area.
It has to go deeper than just working in a kitchen, though. I was able to go on fishing boats in Florida, attend the Boston seafood auction, and travel to farms in the Midwest to speak to producers of some of the finest American Artesian cheeses. “Following the foods” back to their start is not only a great way to educate yourself about ingredients, it will also give you greater respect for the products you work with.
Q As someone who’s already had experience coming in to very highly respected clubs, how do you think new chefs should pace incremental change?
A As a new chef in an existing establishment, it is important to make your mark and let the membership know that you are there. But at the same time, they should see that change can happen in phases.
When I started here at PCC, within the first few weeks we added a few pieces of supplemental china, changed our bread program, and added a small amuse bouche to each table in our a la carte dining rooms. The next, and bigger, task was changing the menu in a way that would balance member favorites and club traditions with new contemporary offerings.
Dealing with those traditions is an area that can sometimes be difficult for new chefs. You may not particularly care for certain dishes or preparations, but you must be respectful of them. The last thing you want to do as a newcomer is send the message that someone’s palate or idea of good food was “wrong” until you arrived. So while we know we will always have meatloaf and pot roast on the menu, I challenge myself and my staff to make the best meatloaf and pot roast that we can, by finding new and unique ways to present them. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but we are always respectful of the dishes.
I also think it is very important to be visible during times of change. I speak directly with our membership every opportunity that I can, either by visiting tables during service, working stations, or walking them through buffet presentations. It’s important to be sure that the changes you are making are in line with the feedback you are receiving. If the membership knows their feedback is being considered, you can continue to build good, open relationships with them. We always try to make sure the balance is intact for all members —we can “wow” the ones that want to be “wowed,” and show the ones who may be hesitant about changes that we are respectful of their traditions.
Q Members recently came to a culinary demonstration and class with you and your wife Christa, an accomplished pastry chef. How did that go?
A Any day I get to work with my wife in the kitchen is a great day! We had a great time having the members in the kitchen—they get exposed to so much of what you do just by seeing and working in the physical area.
The theme of the event was “Enjoying your dinner party,” and we started off doing some quick demo recipes and teaching them some “tricks” they can do ahead of time, so they can really enjoy themselves at their next hosted event. After the demo, each table had a secret recipe they had to produce and present on a platter for the group’s enjoyment. Then we laid out all of the finished platters for a buffet-style dinner.
It was very social for the members, and they got to know a part of my family and feel more comfortable around me and my staff. I think this is a good example of increasing your approachability as the chef. In today’s business, it is essential that members feel comfortable to have an audience with you and know you are there to help enhance their experience at their club.
Q You and your Executive Sous Chef, Nick Fahringer, handle the purchasing for a $4 million F&B operation. While this requires a lot of time, what benefits do you feel it has, not only for overall product quality, but also the bottom line?
A The time commitment is substantial, but I feel there are many benefits. Nick and I combine for over 20 hours a week that is dedicated to purchasing and inventory. The easiest described benefit is that you know exactly what is coming in, and to what specifications. We meet with all of our purveyors and set specific guidelines for received products; everything from cut sizes, case sizes, received temperatures, etc. From a cost point of view, we are able to constantly monitor different markets and market values, to be sure we are negotiating the best price for the best product. This also allows us to be educated about new and unique products that are on the market and may be embraced by our membership. From an inventory standpoint, we are able to keep a running total on products in-house, and can assure that proper rotation and utilization is being practiced throughout all outlets.
Q You have a great pool house that gives you the opportunity to create a very special satellite outlet. What are some of your plans for the menu there?
A We will continue to grow a culinary presence in this area, expanding healthier and lighter options for both children and adults alike. We are trying to reduce overall starches by 60% and focus on portion control.
This is a very high-volume outlet, and timeliness is essential, so we will create dishes that can be produced quickly and have great flavors. We are focusing on creative salads and al fresco-type offerings. We will also feature daily and nightly specialty dishes, to increase family usage throughout the evening, and not just highlight the outlet as a luncheon spot.
Q Overall, PCC is well set up to pull off worthwhile kids’ programs and events. Can you talk about what you have planned for this upcoming season?
A First and foremost, as it states in our mission statement, we are a family-oriented club. We want to make sure that all of our members, even the youngest, feel comfortable and want to be here. We have numerous children’s activities throughout the year. In the summer we have a daily Kids Club, Junior Golf and Tennis, and of course the pool and swim team are very popular.
Throughout this winter, we’ve increased kids’ activities as well. Our bowling alley has been very popular with birthday parties and we have a family bowling night each Wednesday. We held our second annual “Polar Pool Party” in our newly renovated squash building, to celebrate the halfway point to the pool re-opening. Kids were dressed in Hawaiian shirts and were able to dance, eat, play “walleyball” and bowl while their parents enjoyed dinner in our a la carte dining rooms.
We have changed our menu focus for kids as well, promoting healthier fare in addition to kids’ favorites. In the dining rooms, we have our children’s menus printed on the back of mini-Etch-a-Sketches. This summer we are planning to expand our activities at the pool for the whole family to enjoy together,
Q Chef, your management team at PCC has an interesting dynamic: eager new staff members combined with tenured managers who are not reluctant to experiment with new concepts. How has all of this come together?
A It starts from the top, and we are very fortunate to have a General Manager, Janine Budzius, who encourages all managers to focus on teamwork, be it through interdepartmental communication or by each of us leading our own line employees to reach the overall goals of the club.
Information is communicated in a concise and timely manner, staff meetings are held regularly, and we talk openly about potential obstacles or general feedback in managing changes. There is a sense that you know your voice is being heard and that you have support, if needed, from all of your peers.
Every manager here is willing to assist wherever needed, and it is a great feeling to know that you have that kind of support when you are trying something new. If something doesn’t work, we fix it together and support each other—there is never a feeling of blame or that it was a bad idea. When your leader sets that kind of example, it flows throughout the team as a whole, and any reluctance tends to disappear.