Before I ever spoke with Chef Donald Smith of St. Charles Country Club (in Chicago’s far Western suburbs), I imagined that he was a skilled leader. My hunch was right. Not only is he the Executive Chef at a very busy club, he is also President of the 112-member Club Chefs Association of America (CCAA).
This very active association does more than just meet each month for cocktails. Already this year, CCAA has sponsored a “Culinary Adventure to France” in January (arranged through a Chicago-area company, The World of MBI, that specializes in planning culinary-themed trips), and a “Duck Hunt Cooking Competition.” It also held a hotly contested “Culinary Exchange Cookoff” in April that produced a video Chef Don is now attempting to get aired on PBS. The food I saw on the video was impressive and something many club chefs could relate to, with five categories of small-plate presentations, similar to what Chef Peter Timmins of The Greenbrier prepared at the “Club Chefs Institute” last year (C&RB, April 2005, p. 32). The Chicagoland group gave a pretty impressive rendition of its own.
With all that he does, it’s clear Chef Don Smith is the kind of professional who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and tackle the controversial issues that affect all club chefs. For club chefs to move forward, he realizes, we must be able to rationalize and constantly communicate to our house committees and Board members how we can better serve our members, and their guests, in more efficient ways.
Don was good enough to spend time with Club & Resort Business recently to discuss some of the challenges that we all face as club chefs.
Q Chef, what is the Club Chefs Association of America, and how did it get started? What can a local chapter of your group offer that the American Chefs Federation (ACF) can’t?
A The CCAA is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the benefit of the club chef trade through the exchange of information and ideas on developments—good or bad—in the club environment. We were incorporated in 1989 by a few insightful chefs who felt a gap existed in some of what the ACF offered at the time. There was no organization dedicated to the wants and needs of club chefs, and I think we offer a direct hit on issues and interests of club life. While chapters organized under CCAA have fizzled out in other areas, the Chicago-area chapter has thrived. I would love to see a day where there is a national CCAA, similar to the Club Managers Association of America, through which a club chef could receive a “CCAA” Certification. You can find out more about our group at www.clubchefs.org
Q The image of the club chef has improved dramatically over the last decade. The migration of culinary talent to clubs from center city dining establishments and business and industry operations is obvious. What do you attribute this to?
A I have to answer this one from personal experience. I started in foodservice 23 years ago, working in restaurants and hotels. I was offered a job at a country club in 1989 and for most of the time since then, I’ve worked in private clubs. It’s a great environment for a chef to work in, for a lot of reasons. While the hours are still long, you can go home at 8:00 or 9:00 PM—an hour when a lot of restaurant chefs are just getting rolling. Your freedom to spread your wings in terms of culinary variety is virtually endless in a club setting, and the off season hours are great for catching your breath and preventing burnout. Some very talented chefs started taking notice of all of this about 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, club members, along with most Americans, were becoming more educated on food and dining. So clubs began to seek out, and were willing to pay for, a top-notch chef. For all of these reasons, it’s really changed the paradigm of the industry where club chefs are concerned.
Q One issue that’s a hot button with me is what I call “Ready, Set, Cook.” That’s when all of the membership mingles during cocktails, and invariably they all want to eat during the same five-minute period. We have well-prepared food, well-planned menus, and capable and eager staff, but sometimes the tools are taken out of our hands because we’re doing too many things too fast. Has your group addressed this?
A Every club has had to deal with this in one way or the other. While it’s true that a member pays good money to be able to eat whenever he or she wants, it’s also true that the golf pro would never let 120 members tee off from the first hole at the same time. Getting a better handle on this starts with support from the club’s Board, and a good clubhouse manager. Reservations and seating times have to be emphasized and encouraged, and it has to be shown that having some order in this fashion makes a better dining experience for everyone. Probably the best argument is to point out that this is one of the reasons why club labor costs are so high, because you have to overstaff for a one-hour period. We have also seen clubs try some incentives such as 20% off if your order is in before 6:30 PM, or offering a “kitchen table” where people can come and watch the excitement and then say, ”I had no idea what goes on back here.”
Q The direction that a club takes is largely set by volunteers on house committees and Boards. They come from all walks of life and represent the full range of experiences—or lack of them—with clubs and with dining. In your opinion, Don, how can we 80-to-100-hour-a-week chefs find the time to more effectively communicate with all of the various people that we have to serve?
A The biggest mistake a chef or manager can make is to fall into an “us-and-them” mentality; this can be a breeding ground for communication breakdowns. At the same time, the biggest mistake a Board member can make is to try to impose personal preferences for what is best for the club, without consulting the professionals who are running the club 80 to 100 hours a week. This lack of understanding between both sides is the biggest problem I’ve witnessed in my dealings with many Boards over the years. The only way to prevent it is through steady communication, by whatever means works for you best—newsletter columns, circulating in the dining room, being at committee meetings, etc.
Q Have you seen other chefs get fed up with the low-carb fad and be happy to see it go? It has taken us all too long to rid ourselves of Atkins-related requests, where they still want scotch, wine and everything else on the menu, but believe that not ordering potatoes will save the day. Care to vent?
A I have the utmost respect for anyone who tries to improve their health with an organized diet. But it’s true, for some people the Atkins diet became a case of making up the rules as you went along. For example, we’ve all had the gentleman who has three scotches in the lounge and then orders buffalo short ribs with blackberry bbq glaze and truffled potato cakes—with no potato. The bbq sauce alone has more carbs than the potato, much less the three drinks. So what do you end up serving but a pile of pulled meat on a plate? It can all be very frustrating for a chef. I am also anxious to see what the long-term health issues are for this diet. In my opinion, any diet is a fad, it only lasts so long and then you go back to your old bad habits. The healthiest thing is a lifestyle change that benefits you in the long run; either that, or the rule of everything in moderation.
Q Finally, we all know that when we chefs get together, all we do is tell stories, right? You head a pretty large organization of chefs—what’s the wackiest thing you’ve ever seen or heard about in all your years working in clubs?
A There are plenty of wacky moments that happen behind the
scenes in this business—from a table of 200 china settings collapsing on the Easter buffet, to literally pulling the fish order off the truck 15 minutes before the party is to be served, because the truck was held up in traffic from a roadblock because the President was in town. Or pulling everything from our walk-in coolers the day before the member-guest invitational due to a summer thunderstorm and power outage, and getting it all into a borrowed refrigerated meat truck that had to run all night. You probably have plenty to match. You know as well as I do that every day brings a new surprise in this business, and if you lose your sense of humor, you risk losing your mind.
Jerry Schreck is a member of the Club & Resort Business Editorial Advisory Board and writes frequently for C&RB on club-specific culinary topics. Have a topic you’d like to see Jerry address in a future issue? A question about a specific F&B challenge you’re facing at your club? Or would you just like to invite Jerry to visit your club sometime to exchange ideas?
Write to him at [email protected]