|Henry Piotrowski, Jr., Executive Chef, Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club|
Like all of us who are fortunate to be chefs at America’s top courses, Executive Chef Henry Piotrowski, Jr., CEC, AAC, has full appreciation for the popularity, mystique and most importantly, the rich traditions that go hand in hand with a great course like Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club.
Built in 1913, Pine Valley was the vision of George Crump, an accomplished golfer and businessman who viewed the site from a train while on his way from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. Where others saw only sandy soil and tall pines, Crump saw good drainage and a scenic topography of ridges and rolls that would be the perfect place for his vision of a tranquil yet challenging golf venue.
Pine Valley is now consistently ranked as the top golf club in the U.S., not only because of its signature layout, but also for its efforts to preserve the game of amateur golf in America. To further enhance the unique golfing experience for members and guests who now fly in from around the world to play the course, Chef Piotrowski came to the club 13 years ago with an impressive résumé, which included a stint as a Culinary Olympian in 1992.
At Pine Valley, he has significantly increased F&B revenues and dining room traffic while raising the quality and variety of the club’s cuisine. This has been accomplished in large part by introducing diners to exciting signature touches, such as the use of cherry wood and cedar from the club grounds to smoke food and plank salmon. Henry has also placed a renewed emphasis on freshness for everything prepared at the club, making farm stops every day on his way to work to bring in the best Jersey produce—tomatoes, sweet corn, peaches, apples, etc.—for members and guests to appreciate.
Henry sees his role as being part of a circle that can complete the entire Pine Valley experience. He was kind enough to share insights into how he provides service and food to match Pine Valley’s legendary reputation.
Q Henry, everyone knows about the great reputation of your golf course. But what are some of the other things at your property that also create a special experience?
A To enhance the golfing experience for members and guests, Pine Valley offers: shuttle service to and from the airport; five custom cottages, sleeping four each; a traditional, “old-school” dormitory that sleeps 16; eight traditional sleeping rooms within the clubhouse; a brand-new luxury dorm, with 24 individual rooms; a main dining room, a private boardroom, and a patio room, all offering breakfast, lunch and dinner; and an extensive bar and wine cellar that holds over 7,500 bottles of wine.
Q Chef, you describe your team as part of the circle that forms the entire experience at Pine Valley. Where do you like to see yourself in the golfers’ eyes when they leave?
A My team strives to attain the best culinary experience possible for each member and guest. If that means going to the local farm for fruits and corn and other vegetables, that’s what we’ll do. Our department’s motto is “never say no.” If it’s in the house, we’ll prepare it.
Q All chefs at top-rated courses must deal with speed of service. I’m sure it’s even more critical at Pine Valley, which may be the most memorable tee time many people in your dining room will ever have. What steps do you take to get meals to members and guests quickly, without cutting corners and still providing personalized service?
A You’re right, speed—of not only service, but also meal preparation—is critical to an overall positive experience at Pine Valley. Our lunch menu keeps that in mind, with daily specials that have minimal cooking times. Also, our system for mise en place (“things in place”) is equally critical. If all our stations are prepped properly, not only will our service be quick and exact, we will have more time to pay attention to detail and maintain our high standards.
Q Henry, I can relate when you speak of members not even opening menus at lunch. How can you communicate what’s special about your offerings in this situation?
A It makes it more important than ever for the wait staff to be knowledgeable about all menu items, and especially the specials of the day. Not having high turnover is also critical, so your staff really gets to know the membership, and everyone will have a better sense of what the “regular” orders will be. This even comes into play in the kitchen—just by seeing members’ names on a reservation list, for example, we’ll know to have steamed rice or home fries or wasabi made ahead of time.
Q Can you tell us about the sense of urgency that you try to instill in your staff, and how you keep it going at the tail end of a grueling golf season?
A The attention that we give to each individual, and our high standards of quality, create a natural sense of urgency. I try to have my staff maintain this sense through the entire golf season, because we must attain consistency at all times.
This includes always being exact about recipes, and following them properly and precisely. The food needs to be a constant, whether members are here for most of the season or just once. And as the season winds down, all of this actually becomes even more critical, because the last experience for every player is what will stay with them throughout the long winter.
Q You have a goal to make a certain amount of table visits after service on a nightly basis. What would you say to the chefs who aren’t as confident as you are about doing this—or who are just trying desperately to get out the door at the end of another long day?
A Meeting with members and guests after service may only take 10 to 15 minutes a night. For me, it helps to create a better understanding of the people who come to Pine Valley, and to complete the circle.
The better you understand your members and guests, the easier it is to meet their personal tastes. Even though you can’t personalize each dish, this interaction can help you sharpen your focus on each member’s likes and dislikes, and make the difference in adding the little touches that will separate you from other places they can go.
I strongly advise all chefs to get involved in understanding who they are cooking for. Whether you see cooking as an art, a philosophy or part of an environment, you’re not pursuing it to the fullest if you don’t take the time to get to know your guests and share with them what you’re doing.
|Henry Piotrowski has participated in educational programs for young culinarians throughout his career; here he is flanked by his two current sous-chefs at Pi