Duet of Poached Maine Lobster and Seared Alaskan Salmon
Submitted by Mark Bruning, Executive Chef, San Diego CC, Chula Vista, Calif.
At age 21, Mark Bruning was the youngest GM in the Bob’s Big Boy restaurant chain. Last month, Mark—now Executive Chef at the San Diego Country Club (SDCC) in Chula Vista, Calif.—earned his Certified Executive Chef certification.
In between these career mileposts at decidedly different ends of the food spectrum, Bruning has been the owner-chef of a restaurant in Encinitas, Calif., and chief steward of a 300-foot adventure cruise trawler in Alaska. And as you’ll learn through this month’s interview, he’s picked up something at every stop along the way, to amass a wealth of valuable culinary and managerial knowledge and experience.
SDCC, where Mark has been for eight years, opened at its current location in 1921. Like the famous Riviera Country Club, SDCC’s golf course was designed by Billy Bell, as the first in San Diego County to feature grass greens at a time when sand was the standard. Golf legend Billy Casper was a caddie and junior player at the club, and today, its calendar is full of “family fun” events, keeping Mark and his crew very busy.
Chef Bruning was kind enough to share tips on a variety of subjects—including how even the busiest chefs can maintain a low resting heart rate.
Q Chef, we all know open lines of communication between front- and back-of-the-house managers are essential. How does this work at your club?
A A chef can’t see or hear through walls, so the more information we have, the better we can execute our service on both ends as a team. While we may hear things we don’t like, the bottom line is that we need to hear them, to make the proper adjustments. You don’t want to see torches coming up the hill for you. You should also remember to never, ever shoot the messenger, because he or she could be your savior.
Like many chefs, I also try to spend as much time as I can in the dining room myself, speaking directly with the members. When I get requests and suggestions, I do my best to meet them. If they are not feasible, I politely explain why not. Almost overwhelmingly, I get nods of approval for my explanations. And I always thank everyone for their comments, regardless of my opinion of their ideas.
Most of the time, the adjustments you need to make, because of what you hear or are told, are very subtle. But the members will notice that you’ve made them, and they’re the ones paying the bills.
Q Proper point-of-sale training can be the difference between a smooth and rocky day. How do you overcome speed-of-service issues from menu modifiers?
A I have always been very animated about proper modifier practices, while knowing it will never be perfect. The goal is to always execute special member requests the first time around, in a timely fashion.
In addition to stressing this in your training, you also need to keep diplomatically communicating to your staff how important it is to minimize discussions between the wait and kitchen staffs about modifiers. There is no time for what appear to be negotiations in the middle of service; it is too distracting and time-consuming.
The information should be complete on the ticket. If the point-of-sale system doesn’t have a way to modify a menu item, then we need to get it on there, or find a less distracting way to communicate it. The staff can be your best resource in finding solutions; they always come up with great ideas when I throw the ball to them.
Because we’ve worked at it, our ticket times are much quicker and more consistent than they used to be. We now do a la carte numbers we would have cringed at several years ago, Most importantly, we have many more contented members.
Q Guaranteed final counts for catering is always a sensitive subject. How have you and your team alleviated potential problems in this area?
A There’s a point where you have to stop talking about costs, and instead put the emphasis on quality. This is the best way to get people to take your point to heart. It’s like Captain Kirk and Scotty: “Captain, she [food costs] can’t take much more…she’s burning up!” And it’s more difficult to argue with the concept [of quality].
But it’s true: If you’re not getting optimal sales in relation to the food that’s being put out, it ties your hands as a chef. This is when some chefs are tempted to take shortcuts or chances that I refuse to take. Instead, I try to be diplomatic without pestering. I ask repeatedly, “What was the actual final count . . . did we get it?” The more often I ask, the better the actual count gets. In the meantime, I try to reciprocate in any way I can.
As you know, food and labor costs will suffer primarily at the end of the month. Although my numbers have never been seriously out of whack, when they are I still relay this to the catering personnel—as much from a quality standpoint as in how it affects the numbers.
For example, if we don’t get paid the guarantee for 150 people, but instead only get 138, that hurts my purchasing power for buying the best quality products. The 12 leftover entrees in the food warmer is money in the trash—not to mention the labor that produced them. And all of the above is compounded by other catering events, breakfasts, lunches and dinners that fall short throughout the month. It all adds up very, very quickly.
Q Can you tell us about some of the motivational pieces you’ve added to your cross-training?
A Cross-training helps to optimize your manpower and scheduling flexibility. It’s like having more than one ace in the hole. Special requested days off for a daughter’s birthday or family reunion are much easier to accommodate when your staff is cross-trained. When people work hard, it’s a nice tool to use to give them something back. And it has real payoffs, too—it can help make staff appreciate their positions more.
Another special benefit of cross-training in a club setting ties into how we’re always doing something different. With themes and menus changing daily, you have to hit the ground running when you come in; today’s mise en place is different than yesterday’s. There is no autopilot; today is always a new “routine.”
So whenever there’s idle time, we try to use the staff that is present to prep various items for the dinner crew or the following day. This way, we’re always staying ahead of the game. Also, most cooks, prep cooks and even dishwashers will show they want to learn something new—especially when it’s stressed that it will make them more valuable to the operation.
The bottom line for the chef: The more cross-trained your staff, the less you have to break your own back.
Q How about your own “cross training?” I know you’re quite a fitness buff. How does this help?
A I used to think just being a chef was enough to burn a lot of calories through the course of the day. But there are also “mental calories”(i.e., stress). It became clear that physical exercise was still needed, for the energy and mental clarity I need at work.
So now I make time not only for regular runs, but also kayaking with my daughter or bicycling with my wife. Getting out of the work environment and getting the heart rate up literally peels off the stress. Now, with each new workweek, my attitude is “Stress? What stress?” I embrace the new week, and look forward to ending it with another stress-busting adventure. C&RB
Q Chef, I know you have informal evaluations of your staff biannually, as well as official ones on their anniversaries. Can you talk a little about how this helps to give everyone a clearer picture of where they stand?
A Nobody likes surprises—especially when it comes to evaluations that can affect their pocket books. So I prefer to do a less formal, but still documented, pre-evaluation about four months before the actual “real deal.” This timing isn’t set in stone—it can be sooner, or later, depending on what’s best for a particular situation.
With most staff, it takes five minutes—the idea is to let them know where they stand prior to what could be a wake-up call. I make it clear that when the time comes, I want to give them the best possible evaluation. I bring up points that will direct them toward improvement in various areas, as well as where they have opportunity for growth in their specific position, and goals for developing other capabilities. And I make sure to praise their strong points.
This also provides another opportunity, semi-formally and one-on-one, to tell them you recognize their hard work. They will appreciate that you found another time to talk to them and show how you care about their success. The results are usually immediate, and sometimes astoundingly positive.