Despite a snowstorm that was severe enough to cancel hundreds of flights into the usually weather-proof Denver International Airport, over 200 executive chefs, general managers and other industry food-and-beverage leaders from 37 states and Canada made their way to Colorado for Club & Resort Business’ Fifth Annual Chef to Chef Conference, held March 10-12 at the Grand Hyatt Denver.
Those who came to the largest Chef to Chef Conference held to date were treated to an action-packed program that included live demonstrations for a full variety of culinary concepts, including fine dining, contemporary cuisine, regional specialties, healthier menu options for children, seafood, and desserts and pastry. In the Conference’s final session, Perry Kenney, Director of Food and Beverage for Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., provided a fitting finish by transforming a block of ice into an elaborate seahorse sculpture in just 30 minutes (see photos at right).
Perry Kenney, Director of Food and Beverage for Sawgrass CC, revved up a stirring Conference finale by transforming a block of ice into an elaborate seahorse sculpture in just 30 minutes. Kenney, formerly the club’s Executive Chef, developed his self-taught skills over several years and says he can now draw crowds of as many as 70 people to his club for special demonstration events.
Dining’s Wake-Up Call
The Conference began on Sunday night, March 10, with a reception, sit-down dinner and keynote address by Jeff McFadden, CCM, General Manager of The Union League of Philadelphia. McFadden provided attendees with details on how his club—largely on the strength of the reputation created by its fine-dining concept, as well as other food-and-beverage innovations—had recovered from the brink of collapse in the late 1990s to be named the top Platinum City Club in the U.S. in 2012. McFadden also shared details of the $14 million kitchen renovation currently in progress at the League that will include the creation of a two-story wine vault, culinary academy and training school, butcher shop, full-scale bakery and chocolate room.
From F&B receipts of $3 million and a $500,000 loss in 2000, McFadden reported, the Union League of Philadelphia’s culinary program has grown to now bring in $15 million and a $1 million surplus annually. Through the impact it’s had on membership (up from 2,100 to 3,400), dues receipts (from $3 million to $10 million per year) and other revenue streams, McFadden added, the renewed focus on F&B has played a major role in generating nearly five-fold growth in the club’s total annual receipts (from $7 million to $34 million). F&B’s direct contribution to the club’s total annual surplus ($5 million in fiscal year 2012) has also provided much of the fuel for $70 million in capital improvements to the Union League’s 150-year-old building.
The Union League’s strategy for reestablishing its F&B appeal addressed all areas needed in today’s club culinary programs, McFadden stressed. The club put the “fine” back in fine dining through its 1862 by Martin Hamann concept, which features an open finishing kitchen. At the same time, it retooled its seven-day grill, Cafe Meredith, for upscale casual presentations, and developed its Founders Room as a “buffet profit center” with lower price points, more traditional fare and a “casual, not clubby” atmosphere.
While fine dining does not contribute directly to the club’s profitability, McFadden noted, 1862 by Martin Hamann has grown steadily, at about 8% per year, for each of the last four years. Most importantly, it has played a major role in enhancing the League’s reputation and generating membership interest (it was reviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “the best restaurant you can’t eat in”).
McFadden also emphasized how food and beverage, in all forms, has emerged as a key driver for all clubs’ future growth. He cited data from the McMahon Group that showed a dramatic change from 2000 to 2012 in how dining influences a decision to join a private club (it now ranks as an equally important factor as golf among all potential members, and as the highest factor of all among women—who, McFadden stressed, are exerting much more influence in decisions about club membership).
“If you do not have an excellent food-and-beverage program that delivers outstanding dining experiences, you will not have a private club in 2020,” McFadden told Conference attendees.
Slinging the Hash
Conference sessions kicked off on Monday morning, March 11, with a demonstration of Colorado regional cuisine, including lamb fondue and Brussels sprout hash, by “Top Chef” contestant Tyler Wiard, Executive Chef of Elway’s Restaurant Group, founded by Denver Broncos legend John Elway. Wiard described the hash, which can include toasted pistachios, as a popular side dish that’s “stupidly good and simple” to prepare and has become a big seller not only with in-restaurant diners, but as a highly craved “bring one back” to-go item that’s often added to dinner checks.
Wiard’s presentation was followed by a demonstration of fine-dining delicacies, including foie gras terrine and crab and avocado roulade, by Executive Chef Martin Hamann and Chef de Cuisine Don Irwin of The Union League of Philadelphia. Following up on Jeff McFadden’s keynote address, Hamann, who came to the Union League from The Four Seasons Philadelphia, stressed how the 1862 fine-dining concept, and dishes of the type that he and Irwin demonstrated, have played important roles in the overall elevation of his club’s food-and-beverage profile.
“[The club business] is a dues-and-membership business, so fine dining is an area where you can not be as tough about food costs, and instead focus on using fine ingredients to help educate members,” said Hamann. “It will pay off by creating special member experiences and will be balanced out by making them use the club more often, and also promote it to others.”
The Conference then moved to sessions on Chefs’ Financials by Joey Abitabilo, Executive Chef of Shelter Harbor Golf Club, Charlestown, R.I., and on Staff Training and Internships by Philippe Reynaud, Culinary Director of the Ocean Reef Club, Key Largo, Fla.
Abitabilo focused his presentation on helping chefs develop a “healthy” attitude toward cost-of-goods, labor costs and other expenses, while not losing sight of the importance of building food revenues. “Revenue is the most important number,” he stressed. “Good revenue makes all other numbers look good. We should all rack our brains over how to increase customer counts, covers and check averages, because nothing is more important to the [profit-and-loss statement] than building revenue.”
For the first time, the Conference’s popular “Chef to Chef Live” session was divided into smaller breakout groups, such as the one (photo, above right) led by Merion Golf Club’s Jerry Schreck and The Olympic Club’s Michael Burns. Joey Abitabilo and Philippe Reynaud led the other breakout discussions.
Reynaud oversees a $21 million F&B operation that requires a staff of over 600, including 150 culinary professionals, to serve Ocean Reef’s 5,000 members. He provided an overview of how a carefully conceived and managed approach to recruiting and training students and interns can help to control payroll costs, while also attracting and developing a steady influx of top new talent. Ocean Reef counts 72 students from around the world on its F&B staff, and the advantages of drawing from this pool, Reynaud said, include these attributes that students offer:
• a “clean canvas,” with no bad habits;
• undivided commitment;
• a desire to succeed, can-do attitude and thirst for learning;
• “fresh legs for those long days”;
• adaptability and greater tolerance than “career cooks.”
The Chef to Chef Conference’s Program Coordinator, Jerry Schreck, Executive Chef of Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., then co-presented with Michael Burns, Executive Chef of The Olympic Club of San Francisco, on all that’s involved with preparing for special events like the U.S. Open, which was held at The Olympic Club in 2012 and will be held at Merion this June.
The Monday night reception drew crowds for the mystery-basket cookoff competition (above) and spirited rounds of “Culinary Quizzo” (left).
Burns and Schreck described how their experiences have highlighted many lessons that can be transferred to help bring new efficiencies to the larger, reoccurring events that are on every club’s yearly schedule, through better advance planning, full marshalling of vendor support, development of proper contingency plans, and an overall sharpening of an operation and its responsiveness.
Chef to Chef 2014: Watch This Space
Announcement of the location and dates for the 2014 Chef to Chef Conference, based on preferences expressed by 2013 attendees in their Conference evaluations, will be made in C&RB this summer.
“You learn that every available space is good space,” Burns said. “You learn it’s better to buy what you can’t do, to order more than you need, and to not look at what you have, but at what you need. And you learn that if Vijay Singh wants steel-cut oatmeal at 4 in the morning, you just make it for him.”
As the Conference moved to Monday afternoon, for the first time its popular “Chef to Chef Live” session moved to breakouts with smaller groups, moderated by Abitabilo, Reynaud, and Schreck and Burns. Each breakout featured open, wide-ranging discussions of club chef-related issues, including controlling food and labor costs, dealing effectively with Boards and committees, adding new twists and innovations to menus, and creating special events to revive sluggish a la carte occasions.
Conference registrants then attended a Monday-night reception that included lively “Culinary Quizzo” competitions and a “Mystery Basket” cookoff (see separate report in the Spring 2013 issue of C&RB’s Chef to Chef Supplement), before everyone headed out to sample local restaurant offerings in Denver.
Conference attendees were eager to take photos and close-up looks of finished dishes after cooking demonstrations such as the one provided by Don Irwin (left, photo at right) and Martin Hamann of The Union League of Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, March 12, the Conference program resumed with a demonstration by Matt O’Connor, Executive Chef of Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., of contemporary dishes that included his innovatively presented “Shrimp Cocktail 2013,” featuring cocktail-sauce wrapped shrimp with lemon puree, and a “playful” watermelon and mango dish presented as “steak tartare.”
“The idea is to find new twists to familiar dishes that will get members talking,” said O’Connor, who also provided attendees with samples of a homemade energy bar, sold for $3.50 at the halfway house of his previous club, that he said brought in an extra $4,000 in revenues in one golf season. “Everyone thinks it’s really healthy, and it’s probably not,” he said. “But I presented the bars wrapped in special bags with stickers at a Board lunch, they took off, and then if they weren’t at the halfway house, members came around asking for them.”
O’Connor’s demonstration was followed by a presentation of low-country comfort-food specialties, including crawfish cakes, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese and peppery jelly, sautéed chicken livers tasso, and jalapeno cheddar biscuits with lump crab gravy, by Jeff Dowdle, Executive Chef of Heritage Golf Club and its 1250 Heritage restaurant in Wake Forest, N.C. (Dowdle was ably assisted with his presentation by his 11-year-old daughter, Clayton.)
Dowdle provided tips gained from his extensive experience in Charleston, S.C., restaurants—soaking green tomatoes overnight in buttermilk, for example, helps to make them less tart, he said, and they should be cooked beyond al dente. Such authentic touches help to sell over 50 lbs. of fried green tomato appetizers at Heritage each week, he revealed.
Next was a “Don’t Forget Kids” presentation by Paul O’Toole, Executive Chef of Deerfield Golf Club in Newark, Del. O’Toole, an active figure in the campaign against childhood obesity through the “Chefs Move to School” initiative, shared a variety of menu alternatives—including sushi wraps, kabobs, alternative spaghetti sauces and meatballs, and smoothies—that can still appeal to younger diners while greatly improving the nutritional profiles of what they eat.
“Kids love things on sticks and skewers,” said O’Toole. “They like menus with bright colors, pictures and descriptions. Their palates have been exposed to much more than previous generations, so they respond surprisingly well to ‘grown up’ flavors and ingredients. They really like things, like sushi wraps, that they can create themselves and that make them look and feel older and ‘cool.’ ”
Next, Bernard Pilon, Executive Chef of Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., provided a guide to building a successful seafood program, even in non-coastal locations where fish might not be front-of-mind. Chef Pilon’s presentation included demonstrations of an innovative “edible cocktail,” Scallop Negroni, and “Fish in Chips” (fluke coated in dehydrated potato flakes).
Establishing your club as a first-choice seafood destination, Pilon said, requires becoming known for daily features that are truly special and go beyond “what’s fresh” or “the catch of the day.” “Make them fun and quirky,” he said, encouraging chefs to think of “different riffs” for fish presentations, marinades and flavorings. “Make your own limoncello and cure halibut with it,” he suggested. It’s also important, he added, to have an ongoing emphasis on education, both of members and staff, just as is done with wine programs. “Bring in ‘fish educators’ and have mini-seminars where you talk about new fish trends,” he counseled.
The Conference’s final demonstration featured Meegan Roberts, Executive Pastry Chef of the Hollywood Casino in Columbus, Ohio, who showed how to combine pastry-making techniques with savory ingredients to create innovative dishes such as “Charcuterie and Cheese.” As part of her presentation, Chef Roberts, who also was the winner of the “Mystery Basket” cookoff at the Conference’s Monday night reception, provided recipes and demonstrated preparation of distinctive offerings that included beet chips, candied pork cracklin, cheesecake flan and guanciale tuille.
“You can make savory ingredients as rustic or as refined as you want,” Roberts said. “They can be a perfect marriage, by helping to cut back on sugar and get away from overly sweet pastries.”
Roberts recently took her position at Hollywood Casino after previously being Pastry Chef at The Country Club at Muirfield Village. She made the move, she explained, to gain experience with a high-volume operation (the new casino is projected to have annual F&B volume of $28 million-$30 million) that is still primarily scratch (90%), but also makes innovative use of “convenience products.” The experience has already helped her learn how “good doughs, yeast starters and par-baked products can make you look better,” Roberts said.
Chef Kenney then closed out the Conference with his ice-carving demonstration, which began with him walking attendees through “tools of the craft” and the eight basic steps of carving (design and template, tracing, first dimension, perfecting the first dimension, blocking-in, rounding, detailing and cleaning).
Kenney began to practice ice carving on his own about 10 years ago—and in his earlier days, he admitted, he “had to put signs up” next to what he’d carved, to help identify what they were supposed to be. He assured one questioner that “you can pick it up quickly, and should be able to do well on your own within a year.”
Kenney, who does not present himself as a competition-level sculptor, said his work is designed to last four hours, and to look its best about an hour and a half after it’s been carved. At his club, he prefers to do his carving on the loading dock, which makes it easier to hose the sculpture off during the cleaning phase. But interest in his skill has become strong enough among Sawgrass members that he frequently draws crowds of up to 70 people who come out early before an event (and have some extra food and drink) to watch him do a sculpture.
Kenney now frequently makes creations that double at buffets as serving set-ups for shrimp cocktail or other seafood. His biggest carving to date has been for a 24-foot-long raw bar. The savings can be significant, Kenney said—he gets ice blocks for $65, vs. $600 that outside vendors frequently charge for finished sculptures. More examples of Chef Kenney’s work can be found at http://chefperrykenney.blogspot.com.