Anthony Capua, Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills GC, challenges club chefs to reexamine their operations and find ways to increase the culinary team’s interaction with members.
I had two goals when I took my first Executive Chef position with Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The first was to take what was always hailed as a “from-scatch” culinary program and turn it into a true “from-scratch” culinary program.
The second goal was to develop a relationship between our back-of-the-house culinary team and our membership.
The days of chefs hiding behind the kitchen walls are over—and for a good reason. We live in an era where chefs have become personal heroes for some and rock stars for others. Our club members desire a relationship and face time with their chef, just as they desire that same relationship with their golf professional.
Food and culinary experiences are experience-based. Part of that experience is interacting with and getting to know the person planning and executing the meal.
We have many ways we try to accomplish this here at Sycamore Hills. The first, and in my opinion, the most critical, are table touches. I remember in the interview process explaining to the General Manager my philosophy of getting out into the dining rooms after service and touching each table. Later, he admitted that he didn’t 100% believe that I actually “liked” going into the dining rooms. I very quickly proved him wrong.
The only way to gauge how our culinary program is doing is to be front and center with our membership. This provides us both positive and negative feedback about the culinary experience. 95% of the time it’s positive feedback—and I know that we all love to receive those types of comments. I really want to hear about the negative feedback, too, when heading into the dining rooms even if it’s not as much fun and gratifying to receive.
If I hid in the kitchen, that the negative, or “opportunity feedback” as I like to call it, would never make its way back behind those walls. Knowing and understanding opportunity feedback allows me to improve and personalize the culinary experience for as many members as possible. It also gives them confidence that if they did have a negative experience, the Executive Chef recognizes the issue and will do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Touching tables also gives me a window into future a la carte menu ideas. Because I moved to a new part of the country in 2020, I need to identify the culinary desires of our membership. Table touches and hearing what our membership loves and doesn’t love helps me design menus to enhance the culinary experience at Sycamore Hills.
Our next culinary/membership relationship-building focus has been on our banquet operations. As a leadership team, we brainstorm how we can get more facetime between our culinarians and membership when it came to non a la carte functions. Like many of you, we wanted to get away from throwing a few chafers on a skirted table with the standard vegetable, potato, and protein. Our goal is to create live experiences with culinarians behind those tables, where the members can see what they are doing and interact with them in real time.
I remember our first big action station for our National Pro-Scratch tournament. My Executive Sous Chef, Mike Trabel, did a fantastic job leading the charge with this event when he designed a liquid nitrogen ice-cream station utilizing both nitrogen and an anti-griddle. There was a crowd at the dessert station all night long watching Mike make ice cream right in front of them. That really got us thinking about how we could further expand upon interactive food stations instead of the traditional chafer line.
Ideas don’t need to be as elaborate as that nitrogen ice cream station. For golf events, such as our annual invitational, we like to take something as simple as a deli tray and reimagine the experience. Instead of putting out a tray of meats, cheeses, slices of bread, and LTO’s, we roll out the slicer from the kitchen and slice fresh Boars Head deli meat right in front of the golfer. We then have club culinarians on the lunch line custom building each sandwich to the participants’ specifications. I learned a long time ago, a sandwich made by someone else ALWAYS tastes better than a sandwich you make for yourself. We just applied that philosophy to help elevate our golf event lunch experience.
One more example of how we get out in front of our membership during events is the standard cold seafood display we all put out from time to time. A great addition at Sycamore Hills is having a culinarian shucking fresh oysters in conjunction with the seafood display. Would it be just as easy to shuck them in the kitchen and have a runner place them on the ice? Absolutely. However, not only does it show your membership that you are offering the freshest oysters available, but it also gives them an opportunity to talk to the culinarian about shucking oysters and the oysters themselves.
I challenge everyone reading this blog to try and examine what you currently do, even the simple things like deli meat, and take the extra added step by reimagining it to put on a show for your Members.
One of my favorite ways our culinarians interact with our membership happens at our club scoreboard right outside our golf shop. I know what you are thinking, “Why are there chefs hanging around the club scoreboard?”
It’s due to an incredible collaboration with our grounds department. Each spring, we install and plant herbs in beautiful planters all around our scoreboard. Tasteful small signs state which herbs are in each planter. At least once a day, our culinarians are at the scoreboard cutting herbs to be used in that night’s dinner service. Our members love seeing us do this and always make a beeline to speak with whoever is out cutting the herbs. Not only does this open up great dialogue about their culinary experiences, but it also allows our culinarians to talk up the herbs and which dishes utilize what herbs from the garden. I had one member call me repeatedly to tell me how awesome she thought it was that we grew our lavender to infuse in honey for one of our menu items. These touches help personalize the member experience.
When I look at the past 14 months, I couldn’t be more proud of the relationship we have developed between our kitchen and membership. This was and is a crucial step in building a sustained, elevated culinary experience here at Sycamore Hills. Our membership is utilizing their club culinary program to the extent that we just decided to go to a waiting list for social membership. This is the first time that has happened in the 32 year history of the club.
I encourage all of you to figure out ways you can break through your kitchen walls and get out into the dining rooms with your culinarians. I am confident if you do that, you will experience the level of engagement we have achieved here at Sycamore Hills.