Isleworth Country Club, in Windermere, Fla., (southwest of Orlando) takes its name from the citrus-rich part of Central Florida that was dubbed an “isle of worth” when discovered in the late 1800s. Around one hundred years later, Arnold Palmer saw that the same land held great new value, as the site for what is now rated the number-one luxury golf community by the Robb Report.
Isleworth’s membership includes athletes and celebrities (such as Tiger Woods), as well as executives from a variety of industries. Executive Chef Russell Scott, CMC, came three years ago to direct its culinary operation, bringing credentials that made it clear he would be more than up to the task of serving such a prestigious membership and enhancing the club’s already-rich heritage and reputation.
One of only 61 Certified Master Chefs, Chef Scott has been a Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious American Bounty Restaurant in Hyde Park, N.Y., and has earned positions on the 2000 and 2004 U.S. National Culinary Olympic teams. With professional experience that includes F&B positions at The Greenbrier, Vir-ginia Country Club (Long Beach, Calif.), Los Angeles’ Century Plaza Hotel and Beverly Hills’ Hotel Nikko, Russell certainly brought unique perspectives to his current position, and we are very appreciative of the time he took from a busy schedule to provide insight into what it takes to run F&B at one of the country’s top clubs.
Q Chef, your very exclusive membership includes executives from many fields, including many from the F&B and hospitality industries. How has this influenced you since you’ve been at Isleworth?
A Expectations are quite high in most clubs, because memberships are laden with executives and entrepreneurs—successful people who know exactly what they want. Having a large number of hospitality executives as members here has raised the quality bar even higher for our food and beverage department.
Hospitality executives spend their entire careers looking deeply into the details of our craft, and are not won over so easily with traditional hospitality “circus tricks.” They ask probing questions and make insightful and quite useful observations. And, if we choose to look at it in the right light, we can benefit from this high-quality feedback.
Q Chef, the service provided to Isleworth members is recognized as top-tier not just within the club industry, but among all hospitality sectors. How have you succeeded in getting your team to embrace the change that is needed to get, and keep, service at this level?
A I believe country clubs have the opportunity to be the next leaders and innovators for the entire hospitality industry. In that direction, I am very proud of what we at Isleworth are doing in the way of guest and member service. First, we use a popular club industry computer software program that allows us to track member preferences and experiences. The program also allows us to keep a picture of each member, along with family members, for use in training new staff—and since one of our core values at Isleworth is to greet each member by name, you can see the benefit of this.
Our F&B supervisors also meet regularly to document all known member likes and dislikes. This information is then forwarded to one person who is responsible for logging it into the system. In addition, each shift’s sous chef is responsible for documenting any notable daily experiences, and also transferring that information to the F&B assistant for input.
Reservations are monitored and discussed at daily pre-shift meetings, so everyone is aware of who is dining with us and what they might expect in the way of food, beverage or service. Members who might have recently had less than superb experiences are flagged, and servers are asked to be particularly observant, to ensure a higher quality experience on their next visit.
Finally, we have pretty well-defined core values, goals and objectives, and we hold regular meetings to share information and educate from within. Communication keeps us looking organized in the eyes of our members. When members are proud of the staff, they are happy to use the club service more often—which of course is another one of our goals.
Even with all of this, mistakes still happen—so it’s equally important to respond correctly when they do. If it is a food mistake, a culinary supervisor visits the member, and likewise for the front of the house.
Q Russell, you listened to members call for more and different vegetable preparations. How did you react and review what you were already doing?
A While I have always been very proud of our cuisine, I must admit that for a long time we were quite traditional with respect to composition. Most menu items were composed of a protein, a starch, a green and a non-green vegetable, and a sauce.
We now add three or four kinds of vegetables to each dish. Not in a vegetable medley, but as separate preparations—and not just warmed up in butter, either.
One example would be a roast duck plate with braised red cabbage, sautéed baby green beans with shallots and almonds, puréed carrots and parsnips, and a multi-grain pilaf. The duck is completely boneless, and we usually remove all shells and bones from seafood.
We also utilize more contemporary sauces today, based on fruits and vegetables instead of meat stock reductions. Don’t misunderstand—we still use demi-glaze, but in a smarter way and amount, nutritionally speaking. You probably will not see demi-glaze on our grilled or broiled items, other than steaks; instead, now we most likely use a chutney, compote relish or coulis.
This whole process has made me rethink our vegetable traditions in this country. Most operations today blanch vegetables, then retherm them to order, in a pan with stock and butter. I began to remember all the great vegetable preparations I learned during my early years in the industry. I honestly don’t believe I would have reevaluated the role of vegetables on menus were I in any other section of the hospitality industry.
Q You also have an interesting way of mixing regional and contemporary American cuisine, comfort foods and international fare into your menus on a weekly basis. How have you mastered this?
A First, we have quite a diversity of backgrounds and cultures on our kitchen staff. We’ve also experimented with different food and menu formats, with varying degrees of success. One night our PM sous chef made this great creamed corn with Boursin cheese—one table loved it, but the next table couldn’t understand how we could “wreck” a traditional favorite like that. And once I put succotash on the menu after being asked to prepare it for a member—and was then chastised for having such a “rustic” preparation on an Isleworth menu. I still get a laugh with that member.
So I guess the answer is you need to experiment and get feedback. Over time, we’ve simply found a mixture that works. To achieve that, we first had to win members’ trust, and that earned us the right to be creative. Now, through that creativity, our menus change often, and different nights offer different themes—providing variety for members and cooks alike.
Q You provide your members with many heart-healthy and low-fat choices, and inform them of the nutritional facts on the menu. How have you made this program work for you?
A The members drove this process; we simply listened to their desires for healthy menu options and then purchased a nutritional recipe computer program.
Healthy cooking is somewhat misunderstood or mistreated in the kitchens of our country. We were determined to make ours great! Tasting what we thought were healthy foods, I realized we had some education to do within our staff. Many younger staff members were not only unaware of healthy cooking techniques but really don’t see it is a priority in their own lives—so how could anyone expect them to get on board and promote this new option on our menus?
We created a basic training presentation for our staff on healthy cooking as a philosophy, to talk about the basic issues of nutrition. The balance of components on the plate, for an example. We looked at a few of our most popular dishes and asked servers and cooks to estimate the approximate percentage of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, and then measured those estimates against the current USDA recommendations. We discussed the “nutritional individuality” of each member, and the differences between health issues related to heredity and those related to the lifestyle that a person maintains.
We also looked at our menu, to see how a person interested in healthy food would navigate through it to find the best nutritional choices for themselves. Starting with items that are naturally healthier than others (fish and chicken, vs. beef), then looking at the cooking methods, the generally accepted hierarchy, from best to worst, goes like this; steaming and poaching; grilling and broiling; roasting and baking; stir fry and sauté; pan- fry and deep-fry. And after that, scanning the menu for sauces and accompaniments that might carry excess calories.
Finally the staff was asked, “What is our responsibility with respect to healthy cooking and our membership?” The answer is for us to be knowledgeable and provide, great-tasting, healthy options on our menus; the rest is up to the individuals.