Executive Chef James Steffen of Crow Vally Golf Club has developed a reputation for specials that his General Manager calls “innovative and ephemeral” and that many members are so confident in, they don’t even bother to look at the club’s dining room menus anymore.
Crow Valley Golf Club, in Davenport, Iowa, opened in 1970. Its championship course was the first home to the Quad City Open, now known as the John Deere Classic. Crow Valley has no tee times and an acclaimed junior program.
Current Position: Executive Chef (14 years), Crow Valley Golf Club, Davenport, Iowa
Crow Valley is a family club, and its entertainment calendar is full of great events throughout the year. Executive Chef James Steffen has been in charge of the kitchen for the past 14 years. When you speak with James and see his food, you realize he is part of the unique breed of club chef who never settles for the status quo and constantly tries to educate himself to bring better offerings to Crow Valley’s members. And according to Crow Valley’s General Manager, Marc Struelens, all of these extra efforts have brought a real distinction to the club.
“Chef James is a true artist in the sense that his specials are innovative and ephemeral,” Struelens says. “His plate presentation is always stunning. And the level of confidence that our members have developed in his specials is amazing—some do not even bother looking at the menu anymore.
“I have been fortunate to work in some great clubs, as well as several resorts overseas and with Ritz-Carlton,” Struelens adds. “I have never seen a chef like James. He is a pleasure to work with. When you hear members and guests saying over and over that this is the best restaurant in the Quad Cities, you can’t help but think you truly have a talented chef.”
Q James, you and your sous chef have a great continuing education program in the off-season. How do you get your foot in the doors of the places you want to observe and learn from, and what have you brought back from them to Crow Valley?
A We go to Chicago-area restaurants where the eclectic menus are in sync with my style. It’s rarely an issue to obtain peers’ professional courtesy, and we of course invite them to visit us and even play a round of golf if they wish. Besides bringing back copies of the menus, the staff takes numerous photos of the food, which we download onto a kitchen computer for future reference.
Q You and your staff, as well as your members, are very conscious about low-fat and heart-healthy foods and ingredients. What methods do you use, without resorting to icons on the menu and other turnoffs, to convey these messages to diners?
A It’s safe to say that nowadays, pretty much everyone is trying to eat healthy. Over the years, our members have come to know my style of creating dishes with interesting and intense flavors, without using tons of butter or heavy creams. I enjoy extracting flavors from fruits and vegetables using a juicer, which I incorporate into healthful sauces.
During pre-meal lineups, I review the specials with the service staff and we make a point of having all of their questions answered. Tastings of specials also take place from time to time. It is never an issue for members to order the specials, because they know from experience that it will be an enjoyable meal.
Q Can you talk a little about your “Crow to Go” program—how it was conceived, and what type of sales it generates?
A Members were asking on a regular basis to take our dressings and sauces home, so we decided to start packaging and promoting them by the restaurant entrance. We offer a house dressing, barbecue sauce and our own Italian dressing, which are all popular. An 8-ounce jar costs $4.95 and we sell on average a dozen a month, with an increase in sales over the holiday season. It is not really a revenue opportunity but rather a service to our members, who will often add a jar to their dinner-to-go orders.
Q Your background is French-Asian cuisine; how do you integrate these items into your menus and still keep a large portion of your membership that may not care for them happy?
A As long as liver and onions remains available on the menu, my job is safe! On a more serious note, our menu offers a wide range of classics and eclectic items, and that seems to please everyone. We also offer a wide range of cost levels, for the more price-conscious members. We want to remain affordable, so we can stay competitive with the local restaurants.
Q Your chef’s table program is very aggressive, with three or four dinners being held in a given month. Are they always easy to sell, and do you get diverse parts of the membership to participate?
A There is an increase in chef’s table dinners during the offseason, and this service promotes itself from word to mouth. Members are required to book their table directly with me, to ensure that the kitchen atmosphere will be conducive to a great evening.
The seven-course menu is based on seasonal ingredients. Members are not made aware of the menu, which the kitchen staff and I create together, until it is placed in front of them. Each course is paired with wines but the price remains at $75 per person, which creates a sense of value.
Q Chef, for those of us looking to shave a couple of percentage points off food costs in this economy, can you tell us what programs and practices have been successful for Crow Valley?
A The addition of a small-plates section to our menu has had the same benefits as our mini-desserts; members order more because the price is lower and they perceive these items as ‘great buys.’ The food cost is quite a bit lower, too, because many small plates use odds and ends that would be considered lost for a regular-sized entree. These small plates also offer additional, low-priced menu choices besides salads or burgers, to help dispel the myth that eating at the club is expensive, and this has led to an increase in traffic.
We’ve also had success with items like flatbread pizza; while this change hasn’t affected food costs per se, the presentation has increased volume and as you know, the cost of making a pizza is rather low.