Executive Chef Michael Parker shares insights into the kids buffet, wine locker program, Memorial Day BBQ Cookoff competition and other F&B success stories at The Club at Carlton Woods.
The Club at Carlton Woods, located within a premier, private gated community outside Houston in The Woodlands, Texas, is the only club in the state that features courses by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio. Carlton Woods was voted “Best Private Course in Houston” by the Houston Chronicle and “Best Overall Country Club” by Avid Golfer.
Current Position: Executive Chef, The Club at Carlton Woods, The Woodlands, Texas (2003-Present)
Education: Hotel Chef Degree, Bournemouth and Poole College ’87, Dorset, England
Where there are spas, pools, and beautifully appointed clubhouses amid a busy social scene, there is great food. Since 2003, the man behind the kitchen operations at Carlton Woods’ two clubhouses has been Executive Chef Mic
hael Parker, who was kind enough to share how his widespread club, resort and hotel experiences have served him well in providing exciting new food-and-beverage programs and events for the Carlton Woods membership.
Q: Chef, your young, fast-tracking membership looks for convenience and a no-hassle dining experience. You seem to have hit all the right notes with your Friday night buffet concept. How did you come up with this idea, and how has it been received?
A: Carlton Woods began as an “empty nesters” club, but that soon changed. Average member age fell into the low 50s, but we still had older members who wanted jackets-only dining, and a formal dining room where we did very few covers.
We also had over 750 children whose dads had worn suits and ties to work all week, and just wanted to relax on Fridays. As the families started to use the club more, the kitchen would get backed up with kiddie orders, and the older members would complain about all of the noise and running around.
So we renovated The Bear’s Den bar and made it dining-friendly for adults only, with live music on Fridays. We changed the fine dining room to a kids buffet, where kids eat free when parents buy dinner. We bring in face painters, hold dog shows, or have a movie night.
We now sell out every Friday. The kids love to come and eat what they want off their own buffet, while mom and dad can eat good food off the regular dinner menu. There is no stress with the kids upsetting other members, it is easier on the kitchen, and the parents chill out and make new friends, because it is like their own home. We end up with adults at each table who want to stay at the club for two to three hours every Friday night, eating and drinking and spending money.
Q: Your wine locker program also sounds like a winner for everyone involved. Can you give us some details about how this has helped wine sales and covers?
A: We had a room with a pool table that was dead space. We renovated it and put in 36 wine lockers. Members pay an annual fee for lockers with their names on the front, and have to purchase a minimum amount of wine. We also made it a private dining room, with one eight-top. We do monthly wine socials and quarterly wine dinners, where we bring in vendors and sell a great deal of wine.
We quickly sold out of the wine lockers and had to start a waiting list; we now have 72 lockers. This program has increased wine sales by a quarter-million dollars, and cover counts are up 15%.
Q: Your expanded Fazio clubhouse offers a space for large parties that doesn’t exist at the Nicklaus clubhouse. While this creates some logistical challenges, you have crushed catering sales expectations and made that venue a wedding destination. How has your team adapted to serving large parties four miles from your production kitchen?
A: The Fazio clubhouse [see photo, pg. 42] is close to 15,000 sq. ft., compared to 52,000 sq. ft. at the Nicklaus [see photo, pg. 40]. But the Nicklaus does not have a large room for a big sit-down dinner. We have a beautiful patio at the Fazio, and last year we constructed a patio cover with removable sides. We can now sit 350 people in this space. The clubhouse opens up to the patio and looks like one room. It is very close to the kitchen. The Fazio is only open for lunch service, so it is great for weddings, graduations, etc.
Four miles apart does present its challenges. I have one sous chef, three cooks, and one dishwasher. They do most of their own prep in their kitchen. During prep and dish up, I normally send over two or three cooks from the Nicklaus kitchen to help out. This allows my cooks to make extra money and really builds a great team atmosphere. We are one team working at two different properties. We have great cross-training, which helps out when cooks are on vacation.
I also use the Fazio clubhouse as a great training ground. I allow the sous chef to order and write some menus and manage the cooks like it’s their own restaurant, with my assistance. This lets the sous chef gain a lot of experience and get ready for their next career step.
Q: Tell us about your Memorial Day Cookout and how you turned it into 24 hours of member camaraderie and competition.
A: Back in 2004, we did a Memorial Day cookout and about 40 members showed up. For me and my team, it was a wasted day. Then in 2005, I went to the Houston Livestock BBQ Cook-off: a three-day event with 100,000 people a day. I went back and met with my General Manager, Bill Langley, and told him my idea for how we could have success by doing the same sort of thing.
The first year, we had three teams of members cooking and around 180 members at the event. The members bring their own smokers and trailers, and start cooking on Sunday evening. We provide a keg of beer and a way for grown men to have fun.
We now have 450 members attending, with 12 teams of members competing. We set up a waterpark for the kids, a “BBQ alley,” and a huge tent in the parking lot. We offer brisket, lamb chops, stuffed quail, baby back ribs, chicken, sausage and other specialty foods.
We give $1,000 club credit for the best overall BBQ, $200 club credit for best categories, and $200 for the best decorated station. We also get the committees and departments involved—the Greens Committee cooks with the Superintendent, the House Committee runs a Tiki Hut with its own “cocktail of the day,” and Fitness has a Memorial Day run that starts at the BBQ Alley and also organizes all-day pool activities. Overall, it’s now by far the most popular event we do all year.
Q: Michael, your experience at Sea Island and other stops must have been invaluable in creating a game plan for your current club. How important is it to be a well-rounded chef before taking a position where expectations are very high?
A: I have been very lucky in my career. In France I always worked at high-end establishments, and this gave me a lot of confidence when I came to the U.S. in 1992; I knew I was ready. I started off as Chef de Partie at The Century Plaza Hotel and Tower, and after six weeks I was running their four-star French restaurant. I then went to Caesars Palace as Sous Chef at Palace Court, their four-star Restaurant. At 27 years old I knew I was ready for a Chef de Cuisine job and a new challenge. I opened Gallagher’s Steak House—the first one outside of New York City—at the New York New York hotel-casino. I wanted the high-volume restaurant experience.
After Vegas, I wanted to cook again. At Sea Island I was Chef de Cuisine at Colt & Alison, their fine-dining restaurant at what at the time was a brand-new lodge. I had four cooks (two came with me from Vegas), plus myself. I did all of the sauces, hot appetizers and fish. I was back on fire with the excitement again. I was also getting my first taste of being a club chef, as people started ordering off the menu, and I started to like the challenge.
At 32, I was offered the Executive Chef’s job at Carlton Woods. The General Manager was Bill Langley, also my GM at Sea Island. It was the right time and the right place: a private, high-end club with no hotel. Bill lets me run the kitchen and doesn’t micro-manage any of his managers. We’ve been together 10 years, and he is a great mentor and boss.
A: I have couple of really good memories of cooking for the British royalty. HRH the Queen Mother used to come to The Waterside Inn two times a year; they really liked the Roux Brothers restaurants. She wanted Albert and Michel Roux to cook for the end-of-the-season dinner for her jockeys and horse trainers. I went with a sous chef and the two Roux brothers to a private house in London; we were in the basement. I was 20 years old and this was when the IRA was very active in London, so they had sniffer dogs right next to you. Both of the brothers got into an argument over one dish, and I was in the middle.
Originally, the Queen would not come to The Waterside Inn, because it did not have a private dining room. So the second year I was there, Michel Roux built one right next door to the restaurant, next to his office next door. I was working Garde Manger one Saturday morning—I used to make a Pike Mousse every day, and the chef would taste it. This one Saturday he made me make it seven times; to me, every one was the same. That Saturday night we had a party of 12 people next door, and none of us knew who it was. At 11 pm, we were cleaning the floors and there was water everywhere, and The Duke of Edinburgh walks into the kitchen with Mr. Roux and talks to every one of us, asking what we did and what this piece of equipment was used for; he was really interested and did not even care about how much water was on the floor. And the Queen gave us a nice wave as she was getting into her car.
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