Whistling Straits Golf Course opened in Wisconsin in 1998 and wasted little time establishing itself as one of the country’s leading upscale daily-fee golf destinations. The Straits Course now ranks 23rd on Golf Digest's list of 100 Greatest Golf Courses and third on its list of Best Golf Resorts, behind only Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes.
The pro tour quickly took notice, too: Whistling Straits was home to the 2004 PGA Championship and is set to host the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships, and the 2020 Ryder Cup.
Situated along two miles of uninterrupted Lake Michigan shoreline,Whistling Straits is located just north of the village of Kohler—a name familiar to many as a leading brand in kitchen and bath products and fixtures. And indeed, the Kohler Co., established in 1873 and headquartered locally, owns Whistling Straits as well as the neighboring American Club luxury hotel and conference center, the only AAA Five-Diamond Resort Hotel in the Midwest.Other Kohler properties include the Dukes Course in Fife, Scotland (featured in C&RB’s December 2005 issue). The company’s real estate division recently purchased the Old Course Hotel along the 17th hole of the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland.
Stateside, a bit of the British Isles can be experienced while golfing at Whistling Straits, with over 40 blackface sheep roaming the course. The club’s 13,000-sq. ft., Irish countryside-style farmhouse (see photo) houses its food and beverage operation—and as you might expect, where there is championship-caliber golf, there is also awesome food.
Gary Wigand, a 1995 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's culinary program, has been head chef since Whistling Straits opened. It’s always interesting to get insights from those who work at venues like Whistling Straits on how they strive to serve the general public in an upscale environment, and Gary was kind enough to spend some time with Club & Resort Business to give us the benefit of his experience and expertise. Q Gary, the whole personality of Whistling Straits appears as if it was plucked from the Irish countryside. How do you develop menu items to tie in with this feeling, and what are some of your signature items? A You are correct about the feeling we are trying to convey: From the moment you drive in, you feel as if you are no longer in Wisconsin. The clubhouse is like nothing you have ever seen, at least as far as the Midwest is concerned. That does produce some challenges when developing a menu to complement such a unique surrounding.
Some people think that food traditional to Ireland is somewhat bland and lacks flavor or style. With that in mind, I try to take items that are staples in Irish menus and put a regional twist to them.
For example, our signature lunch sandwich is corned beef. We get whole briskets in and brine them ourselves and instead of making a classic Reuben, we add in apple wood-smoked bacon mayonnaise and a Riesling sauerkraut.
On our dinner menu, we take lardons of pancetta and add crimini mushrooms with a strevecchio cream, baked in a Tuscan bread bowl. And for those guests who are looking to experience a true Irish getaway, we have an Irish banquet menu, complete with Welsh leg of lamb and potato champ.
Q Chef, you have a very active golf season from May through September. Can you share some of your secrets for getting golfers to their tee times and still trying to give them the ultimate dining experience?
A The best answer I can give in this regard is to make sure you offer plenty of options, because “ultimate dining experience” can mean different things to different people.
With that in mind, in the morning we offer a quick buffet breakfast, or a grab-and-go continental. At lunch, you are welcome to enjoy our full menu in the dining room or on our outdoor terrace. If you are in a bit more of a hurry, we offer our terrace grill, with quick made-to-order sandwiches and a full bar. You can also preorder box lunches to take with you or pick up at the turn. We also have two stationary food and beverage stands that offer hot and cold sandwiches, as well as up to five roaming beverage carts.
When you finish your round and are ready to eat at the end of the day, we have still more options for you. You can dine in the main restaurant and enjoy an upscale meal with a glass of wine off our list, which has received Wine Spectator magazine’s award of excellence in each of the last five years. You can also dine upstairs in the Pub, where you can enjoy a Guinness and some appetizers and sandwiches off our Pub menu. And if the weather is nice, our terrace grill is still open on the patio overlooking number 18 on the Straits course.
Q I know that you have a well-established internship program. Where do you look for interns, and what do you look for as you assemble your team going into a season?
A For me, when it comes to hiring staff—and more specifically, interns or “externs”—it’s all about having a good attitude and desire to learn. I would much rather have an intern with little or no experience who wants to learn, versus someone with experience but a poor attitude.
Because Whistling Straits is part of Destination Kohler and has resources available from The American Club and Blackwolf Run (an adjacent Kohler golf course), we can attract interns from across the country, as well as locally through the American Culinary Federation. We frequently sponsor three-year internships for students from local technical colleges, during which they rotate through Kohler restaurants.
Q Like most club chefs, more of my self-development comes from the lower scores on comment cards, rather than the higher ones. How do you evaluate your team’s performance, and can you share some of the challenges that you have faced while at Whistling Straits?
A You are correct about the value of comment cards. We send them out to all of our group bookings at Whistling Straits, and with the feedback we receive, we identify possible areas of improvement and implement change that helps us provide better service to all of our guests.
The biggest challenge I have faced while at Whistling Straits has been tied to the evolution of the property. When I started here, we had only one course and one restaurant, so I started with a full staff of about 20, and one and a half kitchens.
In less than 10 years, we have already added a second course, a banquet facility, a champions’ locker room with food and beverage service, a terrace grill, and our outside food and beverage service has expanded. I now work with three kitchens and a staff of over 40. Being able to adapt to guests’ changing needs and offer them the best amenities possible to provide the proper complements to their golf rounds is one of the toughest, and greatest, parts of my job. It makes each day different and unique in its own way.
Sautéed Escargot Seared Rack of Lamb with Roasted Garlic and Fontina Cheese
Jerry Schreck is a member of the Club & Resort Business Editorial Advisory Board and writes frequently for C&RB on club-specific culinary topics. Have a topic you&rsq
uo;d like to see Jerry address in a future issue? A question about a specific F&B challenge you’re facing at your club? Or would you just like to invite Jerry to visit your club sometime to exchange ideas? Write to him at [email protected]