Executive Chef Kaui Stryhn has found no shortage of ways to continue to elevate The Commonwealth Club’s culinary profile.
Like many of America’s classic private city clubs, The Commonwealth Club, in Richmond, Va., was founded in the 19th century by local leaders in business, politics, education and society. Over the last 125 years since its opening in downtown Richmond in 1890, just blocks from the Virginia state capitol building, The Commonwealth Club has become a Richmond institution known for its elegant facilities, outstanding food and impeccable service.
Kaui StryhnCurrent Position: Executive Chef, The Commonwealth Club, Richmond, Va. (2008-Present)
In 2008, Executive Chef Kaui Stryhn came to The Commonwealth Club after holding sous chef and lead chef positions at respected properties such as Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, the Baltimore (Md.) Country Club, and The Greenbrier Resort. Since his arrival in Richmond, Chef Stryhn’s ability to raise the culinary bar from an already-high level has been evidenced by increased member participation in his engaging programs and events, as well as overall F&B sales. We appreciate Chef Stryhn taking the time to share some of the interesting things that he and his team do at this prestigious club.
C&RB: Chef, your “Byrd Market Dinner” program is awesome! Small menu, creative cuisine, locally sourced foods and obvious member value are the things that stand out to me. How did you build such a successful concept from your end?
Stryhn: As at many city clubs, our summer dinner a la carte business can be slow, and it calls for a platform to keep both the members and the culinary team engaged. The Byrd Market Dinners evolved from a four-course wine dinner concept I brought from Cherokee Town and Country Club. The dinners were a huge success, but three years ago we decided to shake things up a bit.
We were already utilizing locally sourced ingredients on the wine dinners, but felt we could make our Tuesday outings to the nearby Byrd House Market a central focus.
We created a three-course, prix fixe model and waived the corkage fee for the evening. It’s not unusual now to bump into members at the market who want a sneak peek at what the next menu will be. We host the dinners every Wednesday from June through September, and at the final dinner we invite all of the farmers to attend, as a show of our appreciation.
C&RB: How are the dinners marketed, and is everything served all at once? What do you do with special dietary needs, as these are weekly events where you are serving 80? Do you close reservations after you hit that number?
Stryhn: The team visits the local market on Tuesday afternoons. The entire market is used as a “mystery basket” of sorts, to accompany the proteins we have previously selected.
We return to the club, formalize the menu and then it is e-mailed to the members. There’s a core group that makes their reservations before the menu is released, and the rest of the reservations come in as soon as the e-mail goes out. The dinners sell out more often than not.
Reservations are staggered between 6 and 9 p.m., and we evaluate party sizes when we hit 80. We try to accommodate as many members as possible, but max out at about 100. The regular a la carte menu is also available, so any dietary requirements are met that way. We are happy to make substitutions and will charge accordingly if needed.
C&RB: Your Wine Director, Peter Simpson, is heavily involved in what you do, as well as with your large volume of retail wine sales. What tips have you learned from him regarding pairings?
Stryhn: Peter is a major part of our success. He applies three principles when pairing wines with menus:
1) Be creative (this is harder to do with an older, more fragile and expensive wine), as you will be surprised how versatile many wines can be when pairing.
2) Match the intensity of the food with the intensity of the wine (for example, a bone-in ribeye, which is a heavy, flavorful meat, pairs ideally with a big, richly flavored red like Cabernet Sauvignon).
3) Opposites attract—A light, fresh, fruity and somewhat sweet Riesling, paired with certain Asian foods with heavy, highly flavored sauces (particularly Chinese foods), is a great example of opposites attracting.
Because he follows these principles so well, our members have come to trust Peter, and the wine shop has become a huge perk of membership.
C&RB: Chef, your portable cart/gueridon/mobile sushi station is a cool idea. Tell us a little about what you do with it. Is it included in the wedding package, or is it an upcharge?
Stryhn: Action stations have always been popular, and we felt it was time for a twist. We brainstormed ways to elevate the concept and decided to take the food to the guests, rather than have them visit a station.
A gueridon cart is set with the needed mise en place, and a culinary attendant roams the ballroom making food to order for weddings and other parties. The mobile stations add an element of surprise to events, and crowds often form to take part in the fun.
Charred crab sushi and s‘mores are two of the most popular selections that hosts will add to their menus. Pricing is based on the host’s choices, but it is relatively in line with the cost of other stations.
C&RB: You do a ton of banquet business. For weddings and other events, what kinds of trends have you followed or adapted to over the past few years?
Stryhn: The evolution of social media and other marketing avenues like Pinterest make customization a must. Our sales team sets the stage, and often we meet with hosts to individualize the menu. The banquet menu is simply a guide these days.
Southern themes are popular in Richmond, and we have had some fun with biscuit-and-jam stations, among others. We are constantly trying to find ways to present the food creatively, or use unexpected passing trays and display vessels. Hosts are also requesting more frequently that I greet their guests and explain the menu. And of course, consistency and high standards are key—we like to consider our niche as “classic with an edge.”
C&RB: Chef, you credit your team with a lot of your success at The Commonwealth Club. Do your members contribute to the opportunities to be creative, and push your team to do new things?
Stryhn: Yes! I feel extremely fortunate to be in a situation where members are as excited about the food as we are. We have a Food and Wine Society dinner each month, with a different set of members hosting and bringing theme ideas to the table. These dinners have provided an outlet to do things like an Argentinean BBQ, complete with a whole roasted goat over an open flame. We have gone fishing with hosts to catch the evening’s protein. We also provide off-site catering services, and have been fortunate enough to be part of intimate dinners in members’ homes. It is truly an honor to be a part of this organization.
C&RB: You have another special resource in your wife Anne, a Certified Club Manager who now serves as the Marketing Director of The Country Club of Virginia (CCV) in Richmond. How has her expertise in club management helped you in your job?
Stryhn: We have a great partnership. We met when we were both working at the Baltimore Country Club and since that time have invested in each other’s success, both personally and professionally. We also worked together at Cherokee Town and Country Club, and now that we are in Richmond, we still collaborate constantly.
The Commonwealth Club and CCV share a large number of members, so it’s fun to brainstorm or talk out the pros and cons of ideas. At the same time, in her role as Marketing Director, Anne oversees CCV’s special events department, so it’s not unusual for us to share the hosting of a wedding weekend’s activities or even compete directly for business. We are both passionate about our business, so it makes it all fun.