Ryan Daniels, Executive Chef of Fiddlesticks CC, believes that each dining room must have its own unique identity to be successful.
In the Winter of 2003, I successfully completed four years in the United States Air Force with dreams and aspirations to become the next famous chef. As most of you remember, these were our industry’s “rock star” years. If you were an executive chef, you had superstardom and the world looked at you in awe.
With little experience and high ambition, I applied to dozens of high-end restaurants after I left the service to try to get my foot in the door and eventually make my dream come true. Living in New Jersey at the time, with close proximity to both New York and Philadelphia, I figured this would be easy, right? Well, I learned the hard way, it was not.
After talking to a close family friend, she suggested I apply to a country club in Princeton, N.J. that was very exclusive. She said they were creating some cutting-edge food and that I would learn a lot. I applied and spoke first with the Food & Beverage Director. It was a great interview but the club was looking for someone with more experience. A few days later the executive chef, Ryan Dionne, called back and asked if I was still interested in an opportunity. I responded with, “Yes, sir. When can I start?”
This is how my country club career started. I quickly moved up the ranks in the kitchen. I wanted to learn as much as I could from Chef Dionne, who I still call a mentor to this day. He took a liking to me and would push me beyond my limits to show me fundamentals and techniques one could only learn from an extremely talented chef. I assumed I would eventually move into restaurants, but I was learning so much in this club that it was hard to quantify the value of leaving this segment of the industry.
After a few years under Dionne, I was promoted to Executive Chef. I learned quickly that the chef’s role is not only about cooking anymore. It’s about managing a group of personalities while also understanding and writing budgets. Executive chefs must create systems and processes to keep food and labor costs in line. We also have to be forward-thinking with our menus and our specials.
After serving in this role for a few years, I left club to run a handful of four- and five-diamond resort properties. I learned quickly that I prefer being a country club chef. Clubs present a unique and amazing opportunity that restaurants and resorts, no matter how many stars or diamonds they have, can ever match. We get to have a better quality of life, while still pushing the culinary envelope. We get to build relationships with our customers (i.e. members) and find new and unique ways to surprise and delight them. We get to deliver a superior experience in both casual and upscale atmospheres. We get to do banquets and weddings and wine dinners.
Here at Fiddlesticks CC, after three seasons as Executive Chef, we are finally hitting our stride and beginning to understand the balance our members are looking for. We now write menus that are creative yet familiar and we balance our specials to please each member’s palate. A big part of our success has been in clearly defining our three different dining spaces.
We have a formal dining room where our menu changes 7-8 times in season and weekly out of season. The formal dining room boasts an array of local fishes, produce and well-prepared dishes that are not to over the top. An example might be a hoisin glazed salmon served with edamame pesto, purple rice, and sesame mushrooms.
Our pub is a more casual dining outlet. It has seating inside and out with an array of upscale pub food and the ability to create almost any childhood favorite a member can think of. My favorite example is a house made chipotle meatloaf sandwich, with provolone cheese, lettuce, and tomato on white toast.
Finally, our cabana is a small kitchen that provides poolside favorites and pizzas made to order in under four minutes.
Defining the identity of each space, after having learned that I prefer this segment over any other, was has been transformative. Since the very beginning, Blayne Gilbert, Assistant General Manager, and I wanted to enhance the dining experience by clearly defining each outlet. We explored new plateware and created unique experiences along the way. Each step, we received mostly great feedback. Occasionally there was some pushback when a favorite was taken off the menu, but with steadfast thinking and determination, we have succeeded. We have built a culinary team that is up to the tasks, day-in and day-out. They are willing to push the limits, no matter how challenging. We now make all of our bread in-house and all sauces, soups and stocks are made from scratch, not base. We also switched to source fresh, mostly local fish to ensure the highest quality but also to train the staff in fish butchery.
This all sounds easy in concept, but to be consistent is a challenge and one that we meet head-on each day. And each time we succeed, we further who we are and why we do what we do.