Though he’s only 31 years old, Executive Chef Tim Pervizi of Huntingdon Valley (Pa.) CC takes an old-school approach to ensuring culinary excellence at one of the Philadelphia area’s most respected private clubs.
Tim Pervizi, Executive Chef of Huntingdon Valley (Pa.) Country Club (HVCC) in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, reached out to us a few months ago to share some impassioned thoughts on the past, present and future of club cuisine. We found the 31-year-old to be right on point with his belief—which I share—that we have to strive to outdo ourselves as club chefs every day, if we’re going to keep our members coming to dine at our clubs regularly. There’s just too much competition now, and no room for complacency.
Contemporary and imaginative cuisine is what Chef Pervizi is all about—and I’m most impressed by this young chef’s opinions about the occasionally unrealistic expectations of some of his contemporaries (see the second-to-last question-and-answer exchange).
We appreciate Tim taking time, in the middle of a thousand Christmas parties at HVCC, to further explain his message and share insights into how he and his staff are working to further elevate the culinary profile, and overall reputation, of his prestigious, nearly 120-year-old club.
C&RB: Chef, like many club chefs, you have restaurant experience—but you’re now a passionate advocate of why clubs’ dining programs can, and should, match up with the finest restaurants that any city or area might have. What’s inspired you to promote how our industry is elevating its food-and-beverage profile?
Pervizi: It has to do with the changing landscape of the dining experience as it pertains to the private club business and its “restaurants.” It seems as though now, more than ever, there is a concerted effort by the governing bodies of private clubs, both on the Board level and executive management level, to create dining spaces that not only compete with, but exceed the level of, the top private restaurants in those clubs’ areas.
American culture has fully embraced the boom of the “Food Network generation,” and more and more private-club members are expecting the restaurants and dining rooms of their clubs to be as exciting and ambitious as what is being done by celebrity chefs and top-tier restaurants. As a result, country clubs have gone a long way towards squashing the stigma that they are solely “cookie-cutter” banquet halls or prime rib and mashed potato bars.
Let me clarify: There is absolutely nothing wrong with cranking out high-volume events and the occasional prime rib with béarnaise. The point is that it’s become more imperative that the club’s culinary operation not be a one-trick pony. The top toque is expected to dazzle with sincere, fundamentally sound and well-thought-out, contemporary cuisine that is extremely stylistic and well-polished in its conception and execution.
This has led an abundance of chefs with predominantly private-restaurant backgrounds, such as myself, to now pursue positions at private clubs. It has also led to more and more country clubs investing serious amounts of capital into their kitchens and food-and-beverage facilities.
Here at HVCC, we have completed the construction and gone through the first season with a state-of-the-art a la carte kitchen. It has helped to facilitate a massive improvement in the quality and consistency of our dining program.
This has also been the case at many other clubs and for many other chefs—and, quite frankly, it is something that we should all be proud and excited about. Members are viewing their clubs as more than just a place for sports and recreation, and are now putting the importance of a quality restaurant and food-and-beverage operation at the top of the list of what they want their clubs to have, along with golf and other traditional club activities.
C&RB: How has your new kitchen helped to change the perception of HVCC’s F&B operation with the members?
Pervizi: The willingness to invest a significant amount of money into the construction of our a la carte kitchen is a testament to how the membership views the dining experience. Dining at the club is a very highly regarded social activity. Having a superior culinary program is one of the top priorities to the membership here at HVCC, and investing in operational facilities speaks to the amount of care the membership has for its staff and the conditions they work in as well.
Having a state-of-the-art facility creates such a positive culture, and incredible environment, that consistently exceeding the expectations of our cuisine becomes a way for my team to show our gratitude to the membership.
C&RB: What specific types of food or service techniques are now possible in the new kitchen that weren’t feasible in the old one?
Pervizi: The fact that our a la carte kitchen and our banquet kitchen are now two separate facilities is the number-one advantage that we have. Previously, we serviced our banquets and our member dining off the same line, same equipment, and same space. The cooks who were trying to focus on putting out a wedding were sharing ovens with cooks trying to get through a busy restaurant service.
Our level of cooking and technique is, of course, now elevated because of the top-of-the-line equipment that came with the new kitchen. However, the ability for our a la carte cooks to work in a space that is solely dedicated to servicing the restaurant, without the chaos of trying to move around a major event, is what really makes a difference. The same applies to our banquet cooks, who can now focus on the details of events with their own space to work in.
The design of our “old kitchen,” which is now our banquet kitchen, was more of a hybrid design that could pass as functional for both banquets and a la carte. I designed the new kitchen to function specifically as an efficient a la carte space.
C&RB: You seem to understand that gradual change in clubs is best. What do you think are some of the common mistakes made by club chefs, and can you give us an example of how you plan your strategy at HVCC?
Pervizi: It’s important when you first start at a club that you start by working on the small things. Take the time to understand your staff and get a feel for the dining habits of the membership. Doing the small things right, and consistently, will create a level of trust between the member and chef. When the members can trust your abilities to execute the staples, they then become more open to the creative dishes that you have to offer.
A common mistake that I’ve witnessed is for a chef to come in guns blazing and start turning everything upside down, without an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The way that I plan the direction of the dining program here is to incorporate the membership’s preferences, my staff’s influences and style, and my own personal cooking style, to create a unique blend that becomes the identity of Huntingdon Valley.
Trying to fabricate your culinary identity without utilizing what your staff has to offer, and ignoring the preferences of the membership, will never lead to success. Creating a program with its own identity that can’t be replicated at another establishment is the key to being unique.
C&RB: You do some pretty intense offseason planning that includes mental preparation for the peak times. Tell us a little about what you do and try to accomplish after things “slow down.”
Pervizi: The “offseason” is a deceptive term. The work we do in the offseason is done with the same intensity of what we do in the peak season.
We start by recapping our prior year, reflecting on our successes and what contributed to them. More time is spent questioning our shortcomings. What were our struggles? What could be done to prevent or avoid them in the next season?
Menu writing is a major focus. We save and chronicle all of our menus and features that we ran throughout the year, and note the popularity of certain items. We use that as a starting point for developing the next season’s menus.
Brainstorming ways to maximize members’ usage of the dining rooms, without seeming too “gimmicky,” is another major focus. And updating banquet and wedding packages is an ongoing process.
At HVCC, the past two seasons have also been a time of facilities construction. We opened our new a la carte kitchen in the spring of 2015 and this coming season we will be opening our new pool kitchen, which is currently under construction. Coming up with a staffing model and menu development for that area will be a critical focus this winter.
As a group, my staff and I walk through every detail of what we are working to achieve as a team, as well as benchmarks for each individual. The better we prepare for the upcoming year, the better we can serve our membership. The idea is to have everyone moving in unison toward a common goal.
C&RB: How has all of your high-end public restaurant experience in New York City and out west helped you on a day-to-day basis at Huntingdon Valley CC?
Pervizi: There is a lot that my work experience has taught me, beyond just the habits of a successful cook. The most notable lessons I’ve taken away are the ability to perform at a high level, regardless of how stressful the situation might be. When you know that reviewers from The New York Times and the Michelin Guide are in your dining room, and that the reputation and livelihood of the chef you’re working under relies on your ability to perform, working under those conditions teaches you a lot about what you can do under pressure.
The other lesson I learned is the critical importance of having a strong team around you. Every one of the star-studded restaurants run by big-name chefs are successful largely because of the abilities of the team that make it run. In those restaurants, I witnessed what it takes to be a good leader, and what it means to be wholly dedicated as a cook who buys into a chef’s vision.
Here at HVCC, I’m surrounded by a talented and committed team of sous chefs, cooks, and porters. It is because of their commitment to my vision and their dedication to our operation that our culinary department has improved, and will continue to, in leaps and bounds.
C&RB: Where do you think we are headed with our struggle nationwide to find qualified line cooks and other culinary personnel?
Pervizi: I think it’s more difficult now to find deeply committed cooks coming out of some of the big-name culinary schools. Although they may seem to possess the intelligence level of someone with a solid skill set, they don’t always seem to be able to do what they say, or think they can do, when they are put in a real-world setting.
A lot of the young people going into culinary schools seem to have the wrong perception of what it is that they are embarking on. Making the decision to pursue a career in foodservice is more than just deciding what degree you want to graduate with. You’re not choosing a major, you’re choosing a lifestyle. The hardest thing for a lot of young cooks to accept is how demanding the hours are and how much of your personal life you sacrifice. They don’t understand what it really means to work weekends, nights, and holidays every year, year in and year out.
Because many culinary schools have relaxed their mandatory work experience requirements, kids aren’t realizing that this life might not be right for them until after they’ve been handed a degree and chewed up by a chef or two. By that time, they have already negatively altered the perception of whatever school they graduated from and created a sense of skepticism in the abilities of the younger generation of cooks.
I don’t think the issue is a matter of the lack of skill sets among younger cooks. I believe it’s more a lack of dedication to our trade—both on the part of the young cooks themselves as well as the chefs in our industry and the institutions that relax their standards. Some of the blame lies on the shoulders of chefs who don’t take seriously the importance of mentorship and education among their staff.
There are far too many chefs willing to cut far too many corners. Too many who are unwilling to take the time to teach and mentor, and too many that, frankly, don’t practice good techniques and habits in their own kitchens. A good chef can easily teach the physical skill set and technique that a culinary school can. What you can’t always teach, or come by very easily, is the mindset of the individuals who possess the fortitude and level of dedication necessary to achieve a certain level of success.
Degree or not, every cook and chef has to pay their dues to make a name for themselves. In fact, I’ve found significantly more success in those cooks who are not formally trained at a culinary school. I believe this is because they have real-world experience, are already dedicated to this field, and have become acclimated to the lifestyle that comes along with it.
Much like the great chefs who influenced me early on and throughout my career, the majority of my time with my staff is spent teaching and guiding. It is ultimately the responsibility of the chef in every operation to carry on the traditions and techniques of our trade through mentorship and leading by example.
C&RB: How do you think the “Food Network” has affected the expectations of people in our industry?
Pervizi: This is a question that I think a lot of chefs have some pretty strong feelings about. There are those who feel that the television programs that revolve around food and cooking are unrealistic and paint an inaccurate picture of what chefs really do. Sometimes the food on those shows can seem silly and outlandish, so I can understand the sentiment of those who feel that way.
My personal opinion is that programs on stations like the Food Network are positive for our industry. They ultimately achieve three major goals: Educating the diner; creating an interest in the consumer to expand their comfort zone and try new and unfamiliar food, and helping to create an expectation for chefs to be more visible.
More and more diners want to see and get to know the chef, and that interaction opens up a wealth of knowledge about the diner. This has been a key to a lot of my own success. I walk the dining room after most dinner services, and this allows me to get to know the nuances of the membership’s dining preferences.
I use the knowledge I gain from those relationships and interactions as a tool to create a tailored experience. Our culinary team alters the way we cook and write our menus based upon our interactions with the dining member. This level of service simply cannot be achieved unless you truly make an effort to get to know the folks you’re cooking for.
At their core, cooking and dining out are intimate experiences. I’ve learned, and teach to my team, that one of the best ways to enhance that experience is to create a one-on-one relationship with those you’re cooking for. Putting a name and a face to the food that you’re preparing inspires a level of cooking that is intangible. That can’t be taught or achieved any other way than to know the ones you cook for, because that level of personal connection is the key to a unique and memorable dining experience.
All of these factors combined create a demand for an intelligent, creative, and personable chef. Whatever creates a demand for those qualities in a chef isn’t all that bad, as far as I’m concerned.