Interactive food stations are as much about the food as the chef’s showmanship.
Build-your-own bloodys. Design-your-own street corn. Chef-flambéed donuts that christen custom sundaes.
Action stations—those interactive food and beverage stations where the chef (or, back in the day, members) can personalize each item—have re-emerged as COVID restrictions begin to lift, with fresh ideas and a focus on personal engagement.
Whether they involve cooking, mixing, topping or plating, activity-driven experiences bring pizzazz to banquet and member events. The good news is, despite tweaks that are needed to address today’s “new normal,” it appears that action stations are back and here to stay.
“We’ve had to make changes for COVID, because members can no longer serve themselves and they’re a bit more hesitant about standing at buffets,” says Ted Ghiglieri, Executive Chef of Lakewood Yacht Club in Seabrook, Texas. “And because we’ve had to use more staff to oversee the buffets, there are fewer people available for actual action stations.”
So the new challenge is to strike the right balance between staffing, safety and ensuring that members remain engaged.
Engagement is what’s really at the root of a successful experience where the “wow” factor— dinner and a “show”—involves more than the food itself. While there has to be less that guests can do by themselves these days, action stations can still offer a great opportunity to highlight chefs’ showmanship and social skills.
“The personality of the team member working the station is so important,” says Executive Sous Chef Mike Trabel of Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind. “If you put someone behind the station with no personality, you run the risk of the action station coming off flat and boring.
“A buffet line with chafers doesn’t tell a story, but a properly executed action station with a charismatic chef sure does,” Trabel adds. “When guests attend our action stations, we want them to go back to their family and friends and say, ‘Let me tell you about the culinary experience I just had.’”
Creativity is Paramount
Club settings can offer special challenges to keep things fresh, new and unexpected, so guests don’t see the “same ol’, same ol’” when they book events or attend a buffet, notes Eddie Marusarz, Executive Chef of East Ridge Country Club in Bossier City, La.
“Most of our members know each other and attend one another’s events, so they don’t want the same thing they had [before],” says Marusarz.
To make sure things are different, the East Ridge team has adopted an “Escoffier meets Barnum & Bailey mentality” when designing their action stations. Starting with the finished product, they work it back to formulate a plan, taking into account safety and efficiency.
That translates to a grill station equipped with a chimenea, fitted with an electric grill inside for effect. Long skewers are stuck into custom cutting boards to provide the “wow” factor, and side sauces and salads finish the look.
At Sycamore Hills GC, Trabel and his team recently created house-made pretzels that were positioned alongside an impressive dessert action station.
“We placed pretzels on a board that was suspended from the ceiling on pegs—think Plinko from ‘The Price is Right,’” Trabel says. “When someone came to the table, we pulled a pretzel and sent it through our conveyor toaster ovens before their eyes. When it popped out nice and toasty, the member could choose between different types of spreads, which we’d slather on their warm pretzels.”
At the next station, a Sycamore Hills chef created a house-bourbon ice cream using liquid nitrogen. “The billowing clouds of gas cascading down the side of a mixing bowl always draws a curious crowd—they’re dying to know what you’re up to,” Trabel notes. “Once the guests realize what they are seeing, it always [generates] smiles from ear to ear, and many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ follow.”
In other words, the bigger the jaw drop, the better, it seems.
“I did thick-cut bacon on a stick and spun green-apple cotton candy around it,” says Ben Simpkins, WCMC, CEC, CCA, AAC, Executive Chef of The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“It was a total show-stopper.”
He also created a themed, Old Bay bottle-festooned Mother’s Day crab cake station, with hush puppies, soft-shell crabs and crab cakes displayed on cast-iron.
(Simpkins also recently did a webinar on action stations for Club + Resort Chef’s “Chef to Chef Live!” that can be viewed at clubandresortchef.com/webinar.)
Minding the Bottom Line
In an era where margins are tighter than ever, budgets cannot be ignored, even for the most imaginative and elaborate action-station ideas.
“The underlying bonus for us has been the cost-saving result of cooking primarily as needed,” says Marusarz.
East Ridge always has two attendants on hand to explain the concept while serving; most often they’re temps who can be trained in a relatively short time. That frees up the rest of Marusarz’s crew to set up, oversee, restock and break down.
Then there’s the matter of member comfort. Action stations can also help with that.
“The manned stations have proved to be advantageous, as the guests see one person handling the food and serving, as opposed to everyone in attendance,” Marusarz says.
The good news is that with a few timely adaptations, the sky is the limit in how action stations can still help clubs’ culinary teams surprise and delight—and it’s an even higher ceiling now, as members are especially happy to be able to get out and experience new and exciting things outside of their own four walls.