As the Manager of the Cooking School at Ocean Reef Club, Carole Kotkin has unique perspectives on how to engage today’s private club customers and deliver the culinary excitement they seek.
|Guest chefs brought in by Carole Kotkin for presentations at the CookingSchool at Ocean Reef Club have included Hubert des Marais (upper left), Giuliano Hazan (left, yellow shirt), PBS personality Sara Moulton (top right, center) and Michael Bloise (lower right).|
Carole Kotkin is the Manager of the Cooking School at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla. Carole’s varied food career and knowledge of the food community enables her to bring the most well-known chefs and cookbook authors in the culinary world to Ocean Reef Club, to make presentations to groups comprised of club member-homeowners, and guests staying at the property’s Inn, in an exclusive, in-kitchen setting.
And as a well-known author, newspaper columnist, food and wine talk-show host and go-to authority herself—especially on tropical cuisine and the influences of Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian, Columbian and Dominican Republic fare—Carole is well-equipped to make captivating presentations of her own to the members and guests at Ocean Reef Club.
We appreciate Carole taking time to share her thoughts on how to serve simple, local, fresh and seasonal fare at one of America’s most exclusive and beautiful club communities—and to provide her unique perspectives, through her hands-on interaction with Ocean Reef Club members and the club’s culinary staff, on how to deliver what today’s private club customers are looking for.
Q Carole, many clubs struggle with attendance and participation in the culinary education programs that they offer to members. From your experience, what would you say are the best topics and approaches for a successful series of food demos, cooking classes, lectures, etc.?
A The introduction to our brochure for the 2010 season really tells much of the story behind our program’s success. We hold our programs during the season, to be assured of good attendance. The popularity of the Food Network and celebrity chefs has fueled the passion for learning new ways to prepare and enjoy the foods we eat. During these classes, the home cook is typically interested in being entertained, as well as gaining practical skills to use.
In a club setting, the classes bring an aspect of camaraderie between the attendees, whether it’s sharing recipes or discovering a mutual interest. Our members are interested in learning ways to cook and entertain at home, with inspired but easy-to-do recipes. They are interested in a variety of global flavors that are both delicious and healthful. Italian, Mediterranean and French cuisines continue to be a popular trend.
Here is how the appeal and benefits of the Cooking School at Ocean Reef Club are described in a brochure for club members:“We invite you to discover big flavors and big personalities, as we host another impressive roster of today’s most exciting chefs in a delicious array of cooking classes. This year’s curriculum and guest chef instructors reflect your recent requests and feedback. Specifically, we have enlisted more regional chefs, added men’s classes, dinner classes and interactive classes, and significantly lowered prices. Also, with national attention on local, organic and sustainable foods, we have recruited guest chefs particularly noted for supporting these healthy food practices.
“Whether you prefer an interactive experience or to sit back and let us do the work, we have the class that’s right for you—from pizzas to pasta, ethnic cuisines to game, seafood grilling and more. Our new dinner classes provide an opportunity to enjoy a dinner out, then recreate that dinner in your own home.
“When you participate in a Cooking School event, you will observe as talented chefs prepare signature dishes and reveal the secrets that come from years of experience. You’ll learn about the ingredients, cooking equipment, cooking tips, new cookbooks and shortcuts to make cooking quick, easy and pleasurable.
“Our demonstration kitchen is equipped with an overhead mirror, so guests in every seat can easily view the cooking process. The setting is informal, and questions are encouraged. Most classes last three hours and consist of a brief lecture, cooking and eating. You’ll sample the featured chef’s mouth-watering dishes, sip specially selected and varied wines, and receive printed recipes so you can duplicate the meal at home.
“We promise you a program that’s both educational and enjoyable—one of insight, great food, and fun.”
Our new dinner classes provide an opportunity for singles and couples alike to enjoy a dinner out and then re-create that special dinner in their own homes.
With national attention on local, organic and sustainable foods, our Food and Beverage department has been focusing on these “green” issues, and our guest chefs this year are particularly notable for supporting these responsible food practices.
Q What do you hear from the Ocean Reef Club membership as far as what they would like to see in your property’s dining rooms and restaurants going forward?
A Variety in menu choices is extremely important to our members. The quality of the food at Ocean Reef Club is so good, most members eat most of their restaurant meals at the club. We listen to our members, and in response this year we are presenting Florida’s regional ingredients, grown nearby, that fit the current desire to eat locally and sustainably grown products.
Q In your role as Manager of the Cooking School, you work closely with Chef Philippe Reynaud, Senior Director of Culinary Operations, and his team, as well as the entire food and beverage department. Did anything surprise you about the private club scene after you arrived at Ocean Reef Club?
A I had always thought of clubs as a place where Continental cuisine was served—although I didn’t know which continent! I expected bland clichés that one often found at wedding banquets. Instead, I found master chefs in charge who turn out high-quality food based on good ingredients and strong cooking skills.
Chef Reynaud’s French background has been enhanced by working in California, so his direction of the culinary team is replete with the California mantra of eating with the seasons and using the best possible local ingredients. Our members are sophisticated and well-traveled, and dine in the finest restaurants in the world. So, Ocean Reef Club must provide a competitive level of food and service.
Q Can you give us a few can’t-miss items that would be cornerstones for a menu you would engineer for an outdoor season?
A We are situated in a unique location in Key Largo where we can showcase our local products. South Florida has significant Cuban, Caribbean and South American influences. We have access to seafood, both from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; benefiting from a long growing season, Florida also produces a true wealth of fruits and vegetables from nearby Homestead (the farming belt of South Florida).
In keeping with our desire to support local producers and share our regional cuisine, Chef Reynaud has the following menu items for al fresco dining:
– Vertical Rotisserie Picanha Top Sirloin, with Chorizo and Chimichuri
– Gaucho-style (BBQ) Grilled Sour Orange Mojo Marinated Butterflied Natural Chicken
– Whole Suckling Pig baked in a Cuban wood box, with Mango Bango Sauce
– Bamboo BBQ Key West Pink Shrimp, with Thai Curry Pesto
– Grilled Lemon Chicken Bánh-Mì sandwich
– Medianoche Cuban Panini of Mojo Braised Pork
– Original Key Lime Pie
Q Finally, Carole, many clubs and resorts are now spending a lot of time trying to put together more creative kids’ menus. What are some of your thoughts of how to go beyond the chicken finger and crudité standbys?
A The new generation of children’s menus at the club include standard kids’ fare—except the chicken fingers are freshly cooked and hormone-free, and the pastas are whole-grain. We offer fruit salad with low-fat yogurt, and seasonal steamed vegetables topped with low fat cottage cheese. And, because kids like to have fun, the salad may be topped with goldfish crackers, or gummy worms will garnish a “dirt” pudding.
At the Cooking School, our goal in the Kids’ Classes is to educate children on healthy food choices, and to teach table manners. We want to develop a child’s palate for a lifetime of healthy eating. They have even learned to eat and enjoy fish. We feature fresh tropical fruit from local farms, and have taken children on field trips to farms and on eco-system tours.