|Guests at “Dinners with Chef Wade” have no idea what’s coming, but still keep coming back each month for more.
Wade Simpson, Executive Chef at Paradise Valley Country Club (PVCC) in Scottsdale, Ariz., was hired four years ago to be part of the management team that would oversee a $30 million renovation. While this might make some feel a little pressure to perform, Wade obviously did not. He was familiar with PVCC from his experiences at The Wrigley Mansion Club in Phoenix, and knew right away what needed to be done: Serve great food first, and then use his outgoing personality as a tool to let the membership do the marketing.
Sure enough, Wade’s ability to implement programs and concepts with apparent ease, while surrounding himself with the right people, has made Paradise Valley a dining destination once again. This is no small accomplishment, considering that PVCC’s membership is one of the most affluent in the country, with many nearby homes selling for up to $6 million. The club prides itself on being the most exclusive club in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, but not the most expensive. PVCC has 1,100 members and does annual F&B sales of $3.5 million—pretty good numbers for an operation that doesn’t forget how to do even the little things right.
But even with all of this going on, Wade was kind enough to offer his insights on people skills and successful kitchen management, in this conversation with C&RB:
Q Wade, can you share how your interactive, “Benihana-style” chef’s table format was developed, and how it’s been received?
A The idea came from one of our members—the Chairman of the Social Events committee—during the grand opening of our newly remodeled building. He wanted to have a chef’s table inside the kitchen, to showcase it after the remodel was completed.
I thought it was a great idea, and decided to take it a little further. We call it “Dinner with Chef Wade” and not only have members and guests eat where I’m cooking, but allow them to literally be part of the action.
The concept has become a monthly event. The dinner menu is a complete surprise to the members; I ask ahead if anyone has any allergies, so I don’t surprise them with an ambulance. The night consists of a six- to seven-course meal, paired with wines; I work closely with our beverage manager for the right pairings.
I actually love doing the dinner. In the past I’d been on a local TV station quite often, and I love the PR of being a chef. So it truly works well to promote what we want to give our membership, not only in food quality, but preparation as well. Members may now also book a private “Dinner with Chef Wade” as business allows.
Q Many chefs underestimate the importance of interacting with the membership and how they are perceived by members. What tips would you give to a chef who needs to get stronger in this area?
A I feel it is imperative for today’s chefs to be “one” with their clientele. But it’s true; in the club environment, many chefs are afraid of the “what if” factor with membership. It can be a little scary at first, but after you become comfortable with approaching members and getting their feedback, our work actually becomes easier.
Nothing is tougher then facing Mrs. Jones, knowing she’s only going to complain again. But I greet her with a smile and assure her we’re always trying to achieve the best for her and the rest of our members. You have to be willing to take the good with the bad and put yourself out in front of the membership, regardless of what they might say. The exposure and the communication are very important. The members need to know the chef cares about the products served at their clubs.
Q I know the emphasis on interaction extends to others on your staff, such as [Sous-Chef] Greg Westcott, who’s also had a tremendous impact on member satisfaction. How do you get members to know Greg and the others better personally, too?
A I like to give credit to my staff when credit is due. Greg is a great chef; I always try to promote his specials and attributes with the staff and membership. I recently promoted Greg to Sous-Chef, so the members will come to know him even better in the future. I also communicate all of our new menu ideas and kitchen management philosophies in our bi-monthly newsletter.
|Paradise Valley Country Club
Q The payoffs are evident in regular dining sales, which have skyrocketed since your arrival. How have you made a very affluent membership choose you over other trendy restaurants in the area?
A Well, the first thing was to change the quality of the products we were using at the club. We now do our best to use local farms for our produce in the dining room, and we also change the menu every five to six weeks. This not only gives the members a change in their dining experience, but keeps the staff from getting bored with the same items to prepare. Greg and I are always looking to offer the members what they want while combining it with what we want to serve. Greg is a very creative chef, so it is important to give him opportunities to expand and explore; changing the menu frequently gives him some of that freedom.
Q What is the ideal role you like to play in the menu engineering of catering events?
A Our club is very busy with catering, much like any small boutique hotel. With most of the membership, what is easily recognized is what sells the best. I try to have some trendy items along with the classic versions. Many times I will personally meet with members for wedding consultations, tastings and other events. Especially in Arizona, when the seasons change and availability for product changes, it becomes more important to meet with them, so I can steer them in a menu direction that will benefit everyone.
Q You have a large staff of interns, “externs” and local culinary school graduates. What do you look for while they’re there?
A We do have a large staff of year-round employees, but it’s still a relatively small number of students, compared to some country clubs. We strive to find candidates with a passion for cooking—someone who is interested in growing as a culinarian and has the basic knowledge of mother sauces and cutting skills. But mostly, we look for a desire to learn and an open mind. It amazes me how many cooks today have no idea of our classic culinary history and how it compares to what they see in today’s cooking and presentations.