Taking on a new role as Executive Chef at a storied club comes with challenges. There are subcultures within the team that must be navigated and overcome. There’s a membership base whose trust must be won. And there are expectations for an immediate improvement to the food and often the service, too.
Seasoned chefs who were once key members of a culinary team have to essentially start over, proving themselves and their abilities to the cooks, managers and members. It’s not easy, but it is possible with hard work, self-awareness, patience and immersion.
Rhy Waddington knows this journey well, as he is only a few months into his new role as Executive Chef of the Palmetto Bluff Club (Bluffton, S.C.). After serving as Executive Chef of Winged Foot Golf Club (Mamaroneck, N.Y.) for more than a decade, he has embraced the newness of Palmetto Bluff, and he’s eager to improve upon an already impressive culinary program.
Club + Resort Chef (C+RC): Why did you decide to leave Winged Foot? What was the transition like?
Rhy Waddington (RW): Winged Foot is such a special place, and the club played a huge role in my life and career.
I was at Winged Foot for more than 12 years, and while I loved my job, I was looking for a new challenge, an opportunity to lead multiple teams and make an impact in a different market.
As I’ve grown as a chef, I get great satisfaction in teaching and mentoring the next generation of culinarians. Knowing that my Executive Sous Chef from Winged Foot, Chrissie Bennett, was promoted to Executive Chef was one of the most gratifying moments in my career. [Bennett] is an absolute talent who has worked hard and deserves all the recognition she gets.
I hope to mentor the culinary team here at Palmetto Bluff similarly.
C+RC: Tell us about your new property.
RW: Palmetto Bluff Club is 20,000 acres nestled along the May River, and it is one of the most beautiful properties I’ve ever seen. Once you enter the gates, it’s a six-mile drive to the first village. The road is framed with large oak trees skirted in Spanish moss.
Under the Palmetto Bluff Club umbrella, we have eight kitchens, a 1950s fire truck converted into a wood-fired pizza truck, and a working farm with six acres planted for the summer. We plan on building a large commissary kitchen at the farm that will help support the current restaurants and act as a training center for our culinary team. The commissary kitchen will house our bakery and pastry department, led by our Executive Pastry Chef Jae Newby. We will also have a butcher and banquet kitchen.
We have a growing membership of approximately 1,200 members, and we do about $8.4 million in annual F&B.
C+RC: What do you think the club already does well from a culinary perspective?
RW: Palmetto Bluff has always had great southern hospitality. We bring that hospitality to the forefront of everything we do—from our member services to how we interact with our teammates.
C+RC: Where do you see the most F&B potential in the program?
RW: It all starts at the farm! It is the heart and soul of our culinary team. We meet weekly at the farm to discuss the week’s events, menu changes and available produce for the weekly menu changes.
We have so many fantastic local ingredients to feature from our property and beyond, including May River oysters, flounder, spotted trout, Cheshire Pork from North Carolina—and the list continues.
Our community is important to us, and we want to support our neighbors as much as possible.
C+RC: How do you hope to capitalize on that potential?
RW: We have built strong relationships with local farmers and purveyors. We invite them to speak at our weekly culinary meetings to add an educational aspect for our staff. For example, our local fishmonger talked about the available fish for the week and specific boats and locations where the fish has been caught. And one of our members is one of the world’s leading olive oil tasters. We held a class for our staff about olive oil with him leading it.
Above all, we want to invest in our team members so that they grow as culinarians and, in return, have a rewarding work environment.
Our team members and their growth are essential to my role. We have implemented a 4% service charge for hourly culinary staff to help attract the best of the best chefs, cooks and interns.
C+RC: What have been some of the other changes or improvements you’ve made thus far?
RW: The most significant impact we have had is menu changes and frequency of menu changes, highlighting local purveyors and adding a Chef de Cuisine for each outlet. The feedback has been fantastic, and I look forward to growing meaningful relationships with the membership.
We are creating a culture of inclusion and ownership. I’m lucky to have such an engaged team of professionals and a fantastic Executive Sous Chef named Don Yamauchi.
C+RC: You’re also about to bike across the country. Can you tell us more about that?
RW: I’m incredibly excited about this! Rhonda Vetere, a good friend from Winged Foot, asked me to join her team for Race Across America (RAAM), the longest and most challenging road race in the world. We are raising funds to support veterans and first responders’ mental health and suicide awareness. We are aiming to raise $1 million.
(Learn more at www.alignedalliance.org.)