Executive Chef Michael Couzelis anchors a sturdy team that’s steadfastly pursued its mission to give members of The Arbutus Club in Vancouver “no other choice where to go” when they want to dine out.
The Arbutus Club is located on seven acres of prime real estate in one of the finest neighborhoods in the beautiful city of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Established in 1964, The Arbutus Club is a health and fitness club that now has over 1,500 member families and offers a wide range of recreational amenities, including tennis, squash, hockey and curling.
Executive Chef, The Arbutus Club, Vancouver, B.C., Canada (1997-Present)
Education and Certificates:
The club took its name from Arbutus Street, which forms one of the borders of its property, and has retained that heritage by planting and maintaining an Arbutus tree—a majestic species that is native to British Columbia’s coastal region, but not easy to keep thriving in a city environment—near its front entrance.
There are three dining venues inside The Arbutus Club, and the man in charge is Executive Chef Michael Couzelis, CCC. Michael has been at Arbutus since 1997, after 15 years at some of British Columbia’s finest hotels. I would like to thank Chef Couzelis for taking the time to share insights with us on how he and the entire team at Arbutus continue to take their club’s F&B program to new heights.
Q: Michael, at your club you have an incredibly successful nucleus of a Chief Executive Officer, Executive Sous Chef and Executive Chef who have been together for 17 years—and during that time you have tripled F&B sales. What’s the secret to having such a great run like that and keeping each other energized?
A: When you say it like that, it sounds like a long time—but it really hasn’t felt that long. I would have to say it has been a progression, but basically we all have our jobs to do and we just do them—very simple, right? I think we respect each other’s positions and the decisions that come with those jobs. With a low staff turnover at the club, we inherited, and have kept, some exceptional staff throughout the years. They are the ones who make us look good on a daily basis. As far as being energized, I guess I love what I do, and I have good people around me. Hey, I get to come to work every day to play with food!
Q: After spending half of your career in hotels, and then the other half at The Arbutus Club, you mentioned that there is no room for complacency in the private club industry. Can you speak to how you strive to reinvent yourself every day, week and year?
A: When I first arrived at The Arbutus Club, I was freshly trained out of larger hotel chains for many years, all of which were very corporate and very keen with numbers, costs, etc. But for five or six months after I started at Arbutus, our CEO, Brent Elkington, would not show me our food costs. He just said don’t worry about it right now. This was really a turning point in my career, as I was able to concentrate on the food and really start cooking and creating again to make great food.
My Chef de Cuisine, Serge L’Ecuyer, and I now still make it a point of our routine to sit down every day for lunch and talk. This is where we catch up on service from the night before, or new menu items we are thinking about. It is not an option to stay the same; in this industry, you need to change all the time. It is imperative that you keep moving, especially as your customers stay the same. I tell my staff when they start that we don’t get any new customers—we have 6,500 customers, and that’s it!
Q: Can you also share some of the ideas that came from your brainstorming sessions with your CEO when you first arrived at Arbutus, and how you maneuvered your way into being the first-choice dining option for your membership?
A: We decided that our mission statement was to “give members no other choice where to go.” And we stuck by it. That meant we wanted them to think about being in the city for every meal, and we had to be their number-one choice. I had a 40% budgeted food cost to use in the outlets, where as long as you give 40 cents on the dollar on the plate, no one else can really compete with you. We also did a lot of promotions like marking up wine $10 per bottle, instead of the normal 250% downtown. You would really be losing money by choosing not to come to our club for dinner!
Q: Arbutus is a health club, so the emphasis is obviously on menu design that suits the needs of your health-conscious membership. How do you keep yourself up with industry trends and techniques that keep things fresh in all food outlets?
A: We have made a strong effort to give healthier options at the club. Would I say we are a prototype for a “health club”? Maybe not—but healthier has to be a component of every new item or promotion we create and put on a menu. I consult trainers at the club and read some of the same books that members do, to try and better myself. We are all trying to eat better and live healthier and longer these days, so I just try to implement that in my cooking.
Q: I also think it’s cool that you have a sushi chef—tell us a little about the program, offerings and cost-effectiveness. Is there enough business to keep this chef full time?
A: For the record, he is not just a sushi chef. We did a survey for F&B, opening the door to suggestions. The one good thing from the survey was that a lot of members requested sushi for the menu. I would only have it if it was going to be good sushi, so it started with a part-time sushi cook. That then led to a full-time sushi chef, Bobby Fan, who came from a French culinary school and was sushi-trained in a very well-established seafood restaurant in Vancouver. Since then, he has trained other disciplined cooks to do the morning sushi and for his days off. He is more versatile with his culinary background and is also an asset for lunch service in the dining room. We have sushi nights on Thursday and Friday nights with very high-quality sushi, and this usually brings enough people who don’t mind a 15- to 30-minute wait. You will also see sushi on all of our social catering events.
Q: Chef, you grew up in a family business where there was a restaurant and butcher shop operated first by your grandfather, and then by your father. You have shared that you have taught your two daughters, Shannon and Jessie, and your two sons, Shaun and Henry, the fundamentals of cooking. Would you want any of them to follow in your footsteps?
A: What a great question! (And you know that when people say that, it really means that they don’t know the answer.) But it’s funny that you should ask. I think that all of my kids have dabbled a bit in F&B, but my son Shaun has decided to pursue it further and is in his third year of apprenticeship in cooking, working at a private club downtown. I was a little unsure at first, as I would have guessed he would be a computer programmer or something like that. I told him it was going to be a tough 10 years ahead, but I totally give him my full support. All my kids have a love for food and I have to take credit for some of it. Most recently, we have started a family tradition that on every birthday, we go out to a new restaurant to enjoy and explore.
Q: When you submitted recipes for this article, you also added some thoughts on your personal philosophy about recipes. Can you share those with us?
A: A recipe is just words on paper—a guideline and a starting point from which to improvise. It cannot pretend to replace the practiced hand and telling glance of a watchful cook. For my recipes, and others, you should always feel free to “stir your own ideas” into the dish. And after you’ve cooked anything once, it becomes yours, so you should strive to personalize it even more. Add more of an ingredient you like, or less of something you don’t like. Try substituting one ingredient for another. Remember: Words have no flavor—you have to add your own!
Q: Also, you have some interesting thoughts about how food has become more of an art form. How has this affected your work and how you now train your chefs?
A: The presentation of food, and the art form it has become, is amazing. The bandwagon of pretty pictures in glossy magazines and illustrated books has created an industry of its own. Food has become the “in” thing, with good chefs becoming superstars overnight. The stacking of crisps, mash, meats and leaves has brought different countries together on the plate.
All of this now means that the first impact of a dish must be a visual one, and only when the eye is satisfied will the nose and palate be accepting of what’s to offer. It is no longer sufficient just to provide good food. I personally have always worked to make food be different while looking good and tasting good. And above anything else, have fun!
One of my first books I owned was a kid’s cookbook. As corny as that sounds, I still remember some of the simple recipes in it. Ask me a current news topic, or what actor was in that movie, and I have no idea—but ask me about a dish I made 15 years ago, and bang! It’s still right there.
I was interested in doing things with my hands as a child, and as my children grow up, I see the same similarities. One thing I have always enjoyed is letting my kids help me with the cooking—whether it be slicing the mushrooms with an egg slicer, or cutting out cookies.