Good cooking is about passion, organization and skill. It’s both an art and a science. To some, it may look temperamental or frenzied, but to Lance Cook, Executive Chef of Hammock Dunes Club (HDC) in Palm Coast, Fla., it’s symphonic.
Cook stepped in as the maestro of HDC’s kitchen in April of 2017. He was previously the Executive Chef of Eau Gallie Yacht Club in Melbourne, Fla.—and while he was content there, when the opportunity arose to come to HDC, he couldn’t resist throwing his hat in the ring.
Years ago, HDC’s food-and-beverage operation was run by Jason Hall, who earned his Certified Master Chef designation with the support of the club. This made the position even more attractive to Cook. When Hall (now at Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte, N.C.) moved on, Issa Moosa took over, but then left shortly afterwards for personal reasons. Moussa was followed by Stephen Schoembs, who passed away in January.
“Hall, Moussa and Schoembs were all very talented individuals, and they all had a positive impact on the operation,” says Jesse Thorpe, HDC’s General Manager/COO. “But we needed a strong leader who was capable of taking the operation in a new direction.”
At the suggestion of the club’s CFO, who had previously worked with Cook, Thorpe reached out to ask if he might be interested in the position. Days later, Cook was at HDC for an audition.
“The first thing I noticed about [Cook] was how unusually calm he was,” says Hans Grover, HDC’s Assistant General Manager/Operations. “He was about to audition in front of the Board and F&B committee, and he wasn’t even a little nervous.”
Hammock Dunes Club
Location: Palm Coast, Fla.
No. of Kitchens: 2 (plus a quick-service kitchen)
Banquet Capacity: 300
That coolness served Cook well. He wowed the group and was offered the position shortly after. “HDC is much different than my previous club, but the opportunities here are vast,” he says.
HDC has two clubhouses: an elegant Oceanfront clubhouse and a more informal, “Low Country”-style clubhouse at the Creek Course. Between the two clubhouses, three a la carte dining options are offered for the club’s 645 members. HDC averages around $1.75 million in annual F&B, but Cook has been driving volume and activity since he started in April. In fact, he’s already increased volume by 10%.
“We want HDC to be known for its quality,” says Cook. “This means the quality of its golf courses, its dining experiences, its croquet tournaments, and so on. Every department strives to be the best at what they do.”
This philosophy has not only steered Cook’s approach to his menu writing, it also inspired HDC to embark on a $7.5 million clubhouse renovation project that will rebuild the pool area, add a 6,000-sq. ft. fitness center and golf cart staging area, and expand the capacity of its 19th Hole Restaurant from 55 seats to 152 seats. The club will then transform the old bar area into a new full-service kitchen.
“Our Seaside Dining Room, which seats about 60, and the 19th Hole fill up very quickly [see photos, pg. 23],” says Cook, who is also designing the new kitchen. “Members have had to either wait for a table or be turned away.”
That will no longer be the case once the newly expanded restaurant opens in October 2018. The new 19th Hole will offer a fast-casual vibe. It will be open for lunch and dinner and deliver higher cover counts, with quicker ticket times, in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Conversely, the Seaside Dining Room will have a totally separate, more formal identity, with prix fixe menus on Friday and Saturday evenings.
“Members want outdoor dining, so as part of the renovation, we’re adding a covered patio to the 19th Hole,” says Grover, who designed the bar and service areas.
“We’re already preparing for the 19th Hole to be jammed,” says Thorpe, adding that the club will expand service there from five to six nights per week.
The menu, according to Cook, will feature locally caught fish and farm-to-table ingredients. Shared plates will be a focus, too. And with a kitchen designed for speed and efficiency, Thorpe is confident the renovations will increase F&B volume and activity by at least 20%.
“I believe we’ll see consistent and steady growth in F&B,” he says. “And I believe membership will grow, too, by at least 8%.”
The Power of “We”
One of the biggest draws for Cook when he was considering the position with HDC was the team in place. He respected Thorpe, a past President (in 2005) of the Club Managers Association of America (CMAA), and knew he could learn from him and Grover, who together have cultivated a team widely known for its level of professionalism.
“I knew I had something special to bring to the table, but that I would also grow and learn from the people already here,” says Cook, who was asked early on to pay special attention to the relationship between the front and back of the house.
“[Thorpe] and I spent our first year here establishing standards, systems and training programs,” says Grover. “With so much turnover in the back of the house, we’ve had to go above and beyond to maintain consistency in the front of the house and keep the lines of communication wide open. It all comes down to respect, and an understanding that it takes both sides of the house to be successful.”
In response, Cook has gone above and beyond to safeguard that relationship. His cooks treat all team members with respect and professionalism.
“Cook is the real deal,” says Thorpe. “He is definitely a creative guy. But he is one of the best kitchen managers I’ve ever seen. He is a strong leader and he keeps detailed records. He was able to establish processes and procedures that have streamlined our operation [see sidebar, pg. 23]. And he’s developing his staff to set bigger goals.”
Cook looks to hire individuals based on skills, knowledge and attitude. “They need to have an eagerness to learn and be better than the culinarian they were yesterday,” he says.
“Cook is not a one-trick pony,” says Thorpe. “He’s highly adaptive. When we evaluate our operation, we talk through what we would change and how we could make things easier, faster or better. He always comes to the table with ideas on how to improve both himself and his department. I find that very refreshing.”
Becoming a Master
If nominative determinism is correct (the theory that a person’s name has some influence over what they do with their life), Cook is well on his way to fulfilling his destiny.
Over the course of his twenty-one-year career, he has amassed a number of professional certifications. He is a Certified Executive Chef through the American Culinary Federation (ACF); a Certified Food and Beverage Executive through the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute; a Food Safety Manager through the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals; a Certified Mixologist through the School of Bartending, and a Chef Rotisseur through Chaine des Rotisseurs. In December, he passed his Certified Culinary Administrator exam through the ACF.
“Certification forces me to stay fresh,” he says. “I am continually learning and honing my skills.”
Much like Hall, Cook hopes one day to become a Certified Master Chef (CMC). And he hopes to do so with the support of HDC.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” says Thorpe, who has encouraged Grover and his Director of Golf to become Certified Club Managers through the CMAA. “The more a person understands about their job, the better they can be.”
“From a personal standpoint, [becoming a CMC] will demonstrate that I have achieved the top rank and honor for my craft,” says Cook. “It also becomes a branding opportunity for the club. It will help us attract culinary talent and new members, too.”
Rules to live by
Having worked in four clubs over twenty years, Lance Cook, Executive Chef of Hammock Dunes Club, has developed a series of best practices he brings with him to each new position. “As I learn more, the list grows,” he says. “These practices have helped me to establish smooth, consistent operations.”
Cook explains some of his best practices below:
Purchase Tracking. “I track every single invoice that comes into the club that has a food item on it. At Eau Gallie Yacht Club, I purchased $1.5M of food and non-food items. This spreadsheet would tell me theoretical food cost on any given day, total purchases for the month on any account I purchased for, as well as current revenue.”
Inventory Control. “We have a utilization shelf where we put leftovers. This shelf has helped us to reduce spoilage. If it’s on the shelf, it must be used within seven days.”
Shelf Label Tabs. “Everything has an assigned ‘correct’ spot in all of the storage areas.”
Meat Fabrication Table in Cooler. “We are better able to maintain a product’s temperature while breaking it down if the table is physically inside the cooler.”
Communication Grease Board. “Every kitchen needs one of these to communicate repairs, daily tasks, and cleaning.”
Allergy / Dietary Restrictions Sheet. “We keep all of our members’ dietary restrictions on one sheet that we distribute to the FOH staff. We also keep it on the podium with the reservations, with the managers, and on the hot and cold lines.The master list is kept on my office door and staff is able to hand-write additional restrictions as needed. I then update and redistribute.”
Temperature Log. “We do AM and PM readings. By going around the kitchen and monitoring cooler temps, this helps us avoid loss of product, ensure proper product temperatures, inspect cleanliness of gaskets and more.”
End of Shift Report. “Even if it’s just a quick e-mail at the end of the night that goes out to all of the F&B managers, the report should detail cover counts, room set-ups for the following day, and any other dining activity that occurred and should be noted. It helps to keep everyone on the same page.”
Rewriting the Wine List
Grover, a Level One Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, has had a huge impact on the wine culture of HDC during his tenure with the club. Over the past five years, he’s increased wine sales by nearly 25%.
“Before I came on board, the club hadn’t changed its wine list in years,” says Grover. “I made it a priority to introduce more variety and better quality.”
HDC went from having a 60-bottle wine list, with the most expensive bottle ringing out at $100, to a 130-bottle list with a full by-the-glass program and wines ranging from $20 all the way up to $860 a bottle.
“We have wines from all around the world at all different price points,” says Grover. “The wine list is broken out into categories, too, to make it simpler for the member to navigate.”
Servers have weekly wine education sessions and in a monthly food-and-beverage newsletter, Grover runs writeups of new wines he’s adding to the list.
Making of a Menu
Once HDC completes its renovation, the F&B team will begin developing a pool menu. After that, the team plans to focus and refine the whole operation.
“Every dish starts with great quality products,” says Cook. “Our strategy is to keep our food simple, yet interesting.”
HDC runs numerous features throughout the week to offer appealing variety to the membership. At lunch, the club offers a salad feature alongside a sandwich feature, as well as a wild-caught “catch of the day” with a starch and vegetable that changes daily.
To capture more covers without clogging up the dining room, Cook recently enhanced an “early bird” promotion that runs between 5 and 6 p.m.
“We offer five different specials for dine-in, takeout or delivery,” says Cook. “The price points are attractive. The dishes are built for quick service. And if [they are] taken out or delivered, we free up much needed seating in the dining room.”
HDC does anywhere from 5 to 30 of the delivery features per day and between 80 to 180 covers per night.
“The success of a club is rooted in the strength of the team,” says Thorpe. “From Chef Cook’s menus, to Grover’s wine list, to the training programs and the operational side of things, our success will be in how well we work together to improve our club, and ourselves.”