The culinary team at Palm Beach Yacht Club is stacked with creative strategists who find meaning and purpose in challenges.
Visionary club leaders are driven and inspired by what an operation can become. They are big-picture people whose intent is to usher in new eras of service and culture.
At the Palm Beach Yacht Club (PBYC) in West Palm Beach, Fla., that leader is General Manager Harris J. Levitt, who came to the club in 2016 after spending most of his career with Boca West Country Club (Boca Raton, Fla.). Before Boca West, he was with the Hard Rock Cafe.
Levitt came to PBYC expecting a similarly fast-paced environment. He was surprised that its operation was comparatively smaller—but also by how busy it was. The more he uncovered, the mightier the potential of the club became. That’s when his vision began to take shape.
First, the Food
PBYC is a privately owned yacht club with less than 700 members and 44 slips. The clubhouse (pictured) sits 250 yards out into the water and its marina is known as the area’s best.
Levitt doesn’t answer to a Board or series of committees. He has been tasked by ownership with steering the proverbial ship, come hell or high water.
Just before Levitt came on board at PBYC, Robert Lalli had accepted the Executive Chef position at the club, after spending more than two years at Turtle Creek Club in Tequesta, Fla.
“It was clear from the start that chef was highly talented,” says Levitt. “He had room for growth, and he was eager to get started.”
PBYC is known as the place where Thomas Keller got his start in the 1970s—but that’s hardly its only claim to fame. Still, while it was a busy dining operation—doing more than $3 million annually pre-COVID—the kitchen left a lot to be desired.
“It was shocking to see how much volume this place was able to do, given the limitations of the physical space,” says Lalli. “We don’t have a banquet or service kitchen. We didn’t even have a true POS system. Servers would turn in handwritten tickets.”
Together, Levitt and Lalli set in motion a plan to update the kitchen, the menus, the service, and the quality of the operation.
They started with the lowest-hanging fruit: the menu. It hadn’t been changed in years, with the exception of a few nightly specials.
“I didn’t want to change it all at once,” says Lalli. “I’d lose the trust of the membership if I took away the favorites right from the start. So we started slowly, replacing poorly performing dishes with ones we thought the membership would like.”
The needle began to move. Membership was pleased. Lalli had a firm grasp on the back of the house, while Levitt was out front keeping the members plugged into the changes and aware of his vision.
“I made sure the members knew that they could always get their favorites and that we aren’t in the business of saying ‘no’ to their requests,” he says. “But also that the old menu was stagnant and that it wasn’t smart for us to keep it.
“Now we change the core menu seasonally, which better reflects our members’ preferences and dining habits, as well as the philosophy of the kitchen and Chef [Lalli],” he adds. (View PBYC’s brunch menu here, lunch menu here, dinner menu here and dessert menu here.)
All About the Benedicts
Today, Levitt is deeply proud of the club’s menus. In fact, he asks Lalli to prepare new dishes for him before they’re added to the menu, so he can sing the praises of each dish to the membership. He is particularly proud of the benedict menu.
“I don’t hold back with Chef,” Levitt says in explaining how that menu evolved. “I’ll walk right into the kitchen and say, ‘Chef! I have an idea.’ I do this pretty often, and I know that if he hesitates, it’s not a ‘no.’
“I went to him with my ‘big idea’ and told him that I wanted a brunch menu with seven different types of benedicts that could be mixed and matched,” he adds. “Chef hesitated—and now we have a benedict menu that can be mixed and matched.”
PBYC’s brunch menu features all of the classics, and so much more. There are in fact seven different benedicts—classic, crab cake, Maine lobster, smoked salmon, Florentine, tenderloin and corned beef—as well as oysters, vichyssoise, quiche of the day, acai bowls, omelets, and steak and eggs.
As the menu developed, Levitt apologized to the line cooks for what he knew would be more work during an already-busy brunch service—but the long-term impact has been positive.
“We are very critical of the quality of the ingredients we were bringing into our kitchens,” says Lalli. “I have made it a priority to build new relationships with purveyors and suppliers and focus on improving every single plate we put up. That starts with ingredients and strong supplier partnerships.”
If You Build It…
Even under the best of circumstances, good products can’t become great dishes if the tools inside the kitchen aren’t up to snuff.
“We don’t have a ton of production space,” says Lalli. “Our kitchens are small, so we have to make every inch count.”
Upstairs, PBYC’s main kitchen measures around 1,000 sq. ft. Downstairs, there’s a small galley kitchen—often referred to as the “closet kitchen,” it’s that small—that’s primarily used for banquets and private dinners. Inside it, there’s a walk-in, a three-door reach-in, a small pantry, two ovens and two burners.
“We have to be creative and efficient with this space, using induction burners and immersion circulators whenever possible,” says Lalli.
Upstairs, the main kitchen recently underwent a small facelift. “We joke that the main kitchen hadn’t been touched since the club was built in 1911,” says Lalli. “The equipment was dated and dying.”
In 2020, just before Thanksgiving and despite the challenges of COVID, the club upgraded all of the main kitchen’s firepower, adding new steamers, broilers, salamanders, a range, a fryolator and more.
Now, with better tools in place and higher-quality products coming in daily, Lalli and Levitt are laser-focused on making sure the final product is truly the best it can be.
All Hands on Deck
A few years after Levitt and Lalli teamed up, the club brought Angel Rosario on board as Operations Manager. Rosario had worked with Levitt at Boca West and was used to his commanding nature.
“[Levitt’s] entire demeanor is much different here than it was at our last club,” Rosario says. “He doesn’t micromanage. He allows us to do our jobs, but he always questions if what we’re doing is the best we could be doing. He is the vision of this place, and he refuses to let the club veer off course”
Today, the team at PBYC is deeply rooted in camaraderie and keeping each other in check.
“When I first met Chef [Lalli], I didn’t know much about him,” says Rosario. “I came from an operational mindset where the chefs were kings and could do no wrong. But Chef is like a sponge. He seeks feedback and input. He wants to collaborate. He cares about his team and his cooks, and he’s incredibly smart in how he interprets information.”
Over the past three years, Lalli and Rosario have become good friends. The dynamic has not only been personally enriching, it’s also added a deeper sense of personality to the club’s culinary operation—especially during wine dinners where they get to collaborate closely.
“Together, we’ve brought a ‘wow’ to the club that it didn’t have before,” says Rosario. “Even through the challenges of COVID, we’re able to interpret them as opportunities to better serve our members and deliver the same kind of experience outside the clubhouse that they’d get inside it.”
Whether this is through the expansion of dock-side dining, better to-go programs, expanded concierge services or something they haven’t thought of yet, together the PBYC team will continue to push the envelope and evolve the program, keeping members engaged and satisfied.