|A la carte revenues have increased over 30% during the last three months at Hamilton Farm Golf Club, as changes introduced by Executive Chef John Rellah since arriving last fall continue to gain favor among members who previously felt they had to go to New York City for fine dining.
As he sought to establish Hamilton Farm Golf Club (HFGC) in Gladstone, N.J., as a place known not only for great golf (see cover story, pg. 14) but also great food, HFGC’s General Manager/COO, Tim Bakels, found he had a real problem. “We had members saying, ‘If we want a great meal, we have to go to New York City,’ ” Bakels says.
Bakels had a bigger problem, too—his high-end club didn’t have a world-class Executive Chef. But by hiring John Rellah last fall, in one move Bakels found a great way to keep his members at home, by bringing one of New York’s brightest new culinary talents to them.
Rellah began his career working under Chef Gray Kunz at Lespinasse, the well-known restaurant in Manhattan’s St. Regis hotel. He then moved on to work at the Plainfield Country Club in New Jersey and a high-end resort in the British West Indies, before serving for five years as Executive Chef at Manhattan’s Union Club, the oldest private city club in the U.S.
Since moving to HFGC, Rellah has already shown he has no preconceived notions about what should and shouldn’t be done in a club setting. For one thing, while many club chefs complain about having to serve Dover sole, John found it didn’t exist at Hamilton Farm—so he added his version (see photo, pg. 39) to the menu. During our conversation for this issue’s coverage of HFGC, we asked John how that came about:
Q How could it be that you found a club where Dover sole was not on the menu?
A I don’t know, but it didn’t exist here. It has a bad reputation because it hasn’t been prepared well in a lot of places, and it’s associated with old clubs and older people. But that doesn’t have to be the case. My recipe is very simple, and the members love it—along with my risotto with white truffles, it’s one of our two biggest sellers. And our average member age is under 50.
Q What do you think are some of the other big misconceptions about club settings?
A For one thing, that you have to have just one kind of menu. We now have a menu with both a high-end section and also with club favorites and more trendy dishes. You have to do that now, so it’s easy for someone who may want something very different than their spouse or their guest to still decide they can all eat at the club. Then you also have to keep changing all segments of the menu enough to keep things interesting—at least seasonally, or maybe even twice a season.
Q How do you keep costs and operations under control when you expand the menu in that way?
A In high-end New York restaurants and club operations, you learn very quickly how to be very structured while still being creative. I’m a big believer in the “brigade” approach, and am setting things up here so we’ll have a full structure of sous chefs, junior sous chefs, chefs de parti, and so on.
Once you have that in place, you then need to be very strict, starting from the ground up, about sanitation and other standards, and train people in specific areas like sauces or cold food before they move to other areas. As they gain experience in all areas, they will then be ready to take on larger roles in the brigade.
As for food costs, that is of course definitely always a concern. But you can’t let it detract from your primary focus on quality. After working for a driven chef like Gray Kunz, I have a tremendous contact list for sourcing the best possible ingredients, and we use everything from leeks from Holland to hand-snipped herbs and meats that I get from boutique suppliers. The key is to make sure you don’t over-order and that nothing gets wasted—you can always find a way to include it in a soup stock or some other purpose.
Q So how have members responded so far to all that you’ve tried to introduce?
A We’ve seen a significant increase in volume, with a la carte sales increasing more than 30% over the past three months. Even better, membership satisfaction is through the roof. People are really responding to the special touches we’re trying to provide, like ice cream and sorbet samplers we’ll bring to their table, or new things we’ll have on the beverage carts like smoothies or bite-sized homemade stromboli or cheesecake spring rolls. People always like something different, especially when you surprise them—no matter how “high-end” the setting may be.