Detroit Athletic Club’s Executive Manager, Charles Johnson, CCM, hired a Certified Master Chef to carve a new path forward for a storied culinary program.
The culinary landscape at the Detroit (Mich.) Athletic Club (DAC) is changing. While some aspects will remain, the DAC’s newly named Executive Chef, Shawn Loving, CMC, possesses a fresh set of skills that will usher the storied program into a new era.
For many years, the DAC’s culinary excellence was personified by the team led by Executive Manager Ted Gillary and Executive Chef Kevin Brennan. Loving was hired, upon Brennan’s retirement, in February 2021 by Charles Johnson, CCM, who was previously Assistant General Manager under Gillary and was named to succeed him after his retirement a year earlier, by a unanimous Board vote.
As Johnson describes here, because of a careful planning and selection process for both his role and Loving’s, the outlook for the DAC’s exemplary culinary program remains strong, and its new leadership is eager to get started.
C+RC: What brought you to DAC?
CJ: I came for a chance to take over for Ted. He brought me on in January 2014 during a major period of growth for the DAC. My role was initially to help with all of the things going on—expansion, renovations, our centennial—and to work alongside Ted as a potential successor.
C+RC: When you began the search for a new Executive Chef to succeed Kevin Brennan, what were you looking for?
CJ: There are many ways to look at that question.
There’s the practical, operational angle, where we do $13 million in food and beverage—which is kind of a lot—and that we’re known for our dining program. We needed someone who could successfully transition into the role without missing a beat.
We worked with a search firm and I personally reached out to a number of chefs in the area—including Shawn. To be honest, I assumed we’d hire someone from a high-end hotel or resort. But the more we talked with Shawn, the more he became the obvious choice.
CJ: He had come here a number of times as a guest chef under Kevin Brennan. He is well respected within our team and within the culinary community in Detroit and beyond. His teaching background was especially attractive, as we have a tradition of giving back to the culinary community and developing strong culinarians. And his food is outstanding.
C+RC: Did you think it was strange that he wanted to get back into operations, after running his own restaurant and business?
CJ: I did. And I asked him a bunch of times why he wanted to do this. The first few times I asked he gave me the canned, professional answer. But the last time, he gave me an emotional response, and in that moment, I knew he was the one.
C+RC: What did he say?
CJ: First he asked me why I kept asking him that question. Then he said he explained how he’s been an underdog most of his life and that even when he was working toward his CMC, he realized that he will always need to prove to himself what he’s capable of achieving. For him, coming back into the operational world is important for his growth.
I asked him if he realized he was taking a pretty big leap, working in a club with the DAC’s culinary legacy, and with a first-time GM.
He said yes—and then said he doesn’t do anything halfway. In that moment we became a team.
C+RC: How have the first few months been working together?
CJ: He hit the ground running. Because of the [pandemic] restrictions in Michigan, he really didn’t have much of a honeymoon period. The reception has been wonderful with the membership. More impressive is how he’s helped to elevate the entire team. Everyone wants to do better and be better. He’s made many important adjustments, too.
C+RC: What’s the dynamic like between the two of you?
CJ: I think we both realize that we’re the “new kids” here at DAC—staff tenures are, on average, 20-plus years. But we have a mutual respect and a desire to get started. I appreciate his perspective and I trust his ability and leadership style.
C+RC: What’s the plan for 2021 and beyond?
CJ: We’re in a bit of a rebuild-and-recover phase. We’ll fill the open positions and get to a rhythm where we’re functioning at full capacity again.
C+RC: What do you think drives F&B success at DAC?
CJ: Consistency and staying top-of-mind for members. We achieve this by doing all the small things right. We have to make all of the little moments special so that our members will want to spend their big moments with us. We do that with personalized service, high-quality cuisine and consistency.
C+RC: Last question: What’s the best dish Loving has made so far?
CJ: For our Past Presidents dinner, he prepared some of the dishes he made during his CMC exam. He explained why he chose those dishes, how he executed them during the test, and why they hold particular significance for him. Not only was the food phenomenal, but the experience of hearing a master chef relive the test is one I’ll never forget.