Colby Newman, Executive Chef of Amarillo (Texas) Country Club, has found that being a club chef is more challenging and rewarding than being a restaurant chef.
Most culinary students dream of working in a Michelin Star or James Beard award-winning restaurant once they graduate. I certainly did. Never did I think or even consider becoming an Executive Club Chef. But here I am, the Executive Chef of Amarillo (Texas) Country Club. And I love it.
When I was a student, I was given the impression that club chefs are sell-outs. They’ve given up and have taken the “easy way” out for a “cushy” and less stressful life. But over the past two and a half years, I’ve learned how far that is from the truth. I’ve also learned that being a club chef is the best path for me. And I’ve decided that for as long as I am a chef, I will continue to only work for clubs.
As a club chef, I love having numerous outlets to run and menus to write. I don’t just have our a la carte menu that gets changed several times a year. I also have banquet menus, a pool grill, a sports bar, beer and wine dinners, chef’s dinners, and special events. It can be stressful having to constantly come up with different menus and dishes, but the variety allows me to always be creative. I constantly have new ideas running through my head and with this many outlets, I’m able to put these ideas into action all the time.
I also don’t have to stick to just one style of cuisine. I’d typically describe my style of food as New-American, but I’m not confined to that. There are days where we’ll be cooking for four or five different events all with a unique style of food. No matter the menu, we make sure the dishes are cohesive and creativity is always part of our process.
Not long after graduating from culinary school, I worked for one of Lidia Bastianich’s restaurants in Kansas City. It was nothing but Italian food every single day for up to 400 covers a night. When you are working with the same cuisine all the time, it can be easy to get burnt out. This is another reason I love being a club chef. I’m able to offer my cooks the opportunity to learn and try all different styles of food. Especially for the less experienced cooks that I get to train, clubs present an opportunity to discover their strengths and weaknesses. They’re able to see what style they lean more toward as well as experience new flavors they might not have ever had the chance to try.
Based on my experience, being a club chef also makes it easier to access continuing education and development. There is more time (although not much), more support, and more opportunities to continue my development as a chef, such as the annual Chef to Chef Conference. With a large staff, it’s a little easier to get away for things that will be beneficial to our club.
One of the challenges with being a club chef for me at first was only being able to cook for a small portion of Amarillo. There was a certain transition period where I learned how to serve the same people every week after getting accustomed to cooking for anyone who walked through the door. With a restaurant, you have regulars, but you could also have people who only eat once or twice and never come back again. You’ll never know their preferences or their likes and dislikes. At the club, I know who I am be cooking for. No, I won’t be able to please everyone all the time, but I can make adjustments to make sure the majority of our members are satisfied. And I can engage with our members to learn even more about what they like and don’t like to further the value of their membership.
I’ve also been able to develop many connections and relationships as a result of being with the club. I used to worry that I might miss out on recognition or reaching a bigger audience but our members have a lot of respect for the professionals at the club and how hard we work to make everything perfect for them. They appreciate the sacrifices my staff and I have made to always be available to them. With this respect and gratitude, comes certain bragging rights. They’re not shy about calling me the chef of their club. Quite the opposite—they’re proud. And since I get to interact with members often and learn a lot about them, it makes it easier to meet or exceed their expectations. This dynamic also allows my members to trust me when it comes to new ideas or when I think menus should take a different direction. Most are now willing to try whatever I have to offer because they trust that I will always put out a good dish. It took some time to earn this trust, but it makes my job easier and more fun.
We’ve also found that because of the improved food and beverage offering at the club, and because of our members spreading the word about what we have to offer, we’ve been able to gain new members as a result.
As I become older, more mature, and as my wife and I prepare to welcome our first child, I know that the restaurant lifestyle is not the best environment for me. I still work long hours and late nights, but I’m not getting home from work past midnight like I used to. I’m able to provide for my family and be there for important moments. The stress is far from less, but I’ve learned to deal with it in a positive way.
Becoming a club chef has helped me grow tremendously as a cook and a person. It has helped me improve how I manage a staff, my communication skills, my time management, my organizational skills, and my creativity. I’m grateful that my career unexpectedly went in this direction. And I feel far from someone who has sold out. In fact, I feel like I’m at the top of my game.