A boost from new management under Troon Privé has added to the culinary momentum driven by Executive Chef Denise Caurdy-O’Connor at Knollwood CC.
Denise Caurdy-O’Connor has been an Executive Chef in clubs since 1997. For the last nine years, she has been at Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield Mich. Throughout her career, Chef Caurdy-O’Connor has played a part in paving the way for many other women who came after her and are running club kitchens today.
Along with great food, Knollwood CC has a 90-year-old, Donald Ross-inspired golf course and a very active and involved membership. Since 2013, it has been managed as a Troon Privé property. Through the transition, Chef Caurdy-O’Connor has maintained her quest to continually raise the culinary bar at the club. We appreciate her taking time during Knollwood’s peak season to share some thoughts, based on her vast experience, on where club food programs are headed.
Denise M. Caurdy-O’ConnorCurrent Position: Executive Chef, Knollwood Country Club, West Bloomfield, Mich. (2008-Present)Previous Experience:
• Executive Chef, Travis Pointe Country Club, Ann Arbor, Mich. (1997-2008)
• Adjunct Chef Professor, Oakland (Mich.) Community College (2004-2005)
• Executive Chef, Palio and Gratzi restaurants, Ann Arbor, Mich. (1994-1997)
C&RB: Chef, Knollwood Country Club has been managed as a Troon Privé property since 2013. What are some changes that have taken place since then that have improved your overall F&B operation?
Caurdy-O’Connor: What Troon has provided has been monumental. The support has come in many facets, including culinary ideas, membership drives, and human resources support. This last area has helped us deal with the ever-changing workforce, to give us access to Troon’s vast experience and help to guide and inform us about current ways to resolve staff issues.
There’s also been support from Troon’s Vice President of Food and Beverage, Chef John Bartilomo, CEC, CCE. That relationship has been fruitful in many ways, including bi-annual site visits, menu planning, and ideas from across the world of clubs that are under the Troon umbrella. We’ve also implemented software that provides an all-encompassing tool for chef management, standardizing recipes, developing menu and cost cards, tracking inventory, and exporting pricing.
C&RB: Your food program at the club has also been enhanced by the good work of your Communications Director. What‘s being done through social media to keep members abreast of daily club activities?
Caurdy-O’Connor: Our Communications Director has enhanced our food program by implementing our monthly newsletter with pictures of past events, the food stations that were provided, and the “who’s who” of who was there. We also encourage attendance at the next “don’t miss” event, and highlight the entertainment that will be provided.
We also send out weekly e-mails with the calendar of events for each month, week, and day, and the menus for these events. And we update the membership daily with blasts from our Facebook page, which have included more photos and immediate updates on club activity, including weather alerts and safety concerns.
Next to come will be our Instagram page, filled with candid food shots, clips of live kitchen shots, and tonight’s special feature.
C&RB: Much like at my club, a large majority of your sales volume falls into a relatively small window of time. How do you get your team dialed up and motivated for the peak volume periods, without wearing them out completely?
Caurdy-O’Connor: Motivating employees has always been a challenge. We begin each year with an overview of last year’s accomplishments and challenges, looking at how we can learn from both the good and bad of all of our experiences as we move forward into another year. And I encourage all of our employees to offer their ideas for change, such as new menu ideas and how to work more efficiently. I also like to have a yearly workshop with staff that includes new dishes and food ideas followed by fun, team-building experiences.
Mostly, I work with my staff both on a team level and individually, to instill in everyone that we are a team and that as a team, we will succeed in meeting the challenges of the new year.
C&RB: You have evolved into doing a lot more display cooking for events. What type of equipment have you invested in that creates a buzz and moves people efficiently? And do these upscale cooking pieces allow you to write menus that are specifically designed to fit how they change your buffets?
Caurdy-O’Connor: Troon was instrumental in providing information and detailed specifications to help inform our Board about unique, state-of-the-art equipment that could help move our kitchen outdoors and provide culinary theater and entertainment for our membership.
We now have special new high-quality pieces that we use for a lot of our display cooking and even behind the scenes. They’ve been met with enthusiasm and have created a lot of buzz with the way they look, their efficiency, and what they can help us accomplish.
The new equipment includes:
• a propane flat top that we use outside for flat-grilling fish and chicken. You can also use it for sandwiches, eggs, Mongolian stir-frys, or other breakfast items; the ideas for how to use it are almost unlimited.
• a large, two-tank propane chargrill on wheels. This is a fabulous piece of equipment that we have taken to the pool, golf course, front door of the club, sundeck and beyond. It grills anything and everything, and is simple to use.
• a double-basket, portable deep-fat fryer. Things we have done with this unique piece include gourmet French-fry stations, doughnuts, beignets, funnel cakes, elephant ears, etc.
• two new three-horsepower blenders, which are real workhorses and have revolutionized what we can blend for both food and drink service.
• an immersion circulator, which allow us to sous vide just about everything—and we do!
Having brand-new equipment that is state-of-the-art and easy to set up leaves us with plenty of time and energy to interact with members and accomplish anything—including special orders, dietary requirements and trendy food items. And we are putting an emphasis on training staff on the correct use of all of this equipment and its cleaning and storage, which is imperative to ensure the longevity of the investment that the club has made.
C&RB: I like to ask this question to chefs who have vast experience as an Executive Chef in clubs. What are the biggest factors that have affected club cuisine’s quality in the last two decades, and what new trends do you think are on the horizon?
Caurdy-O’Connor: As you and I, as seasoned veterans in the business, have realized, we can’t do it by ourselves. It takes quality individuals who are enthusiastic, and qualified employees with a strong work ethic.
The quality of club cuisine has only gotten better over the years, due to an educated membership, competition from other clubs and freestanding restaurants, and mainstream media. With cooking shows and new food channels continuing to pop up, along with more focus on individual chefs, Instagram accounts, pictures, magazines and food blogs, the love of food is now shared almost instantaneously.
Although I do not have a crystal ball, I believe that in the same way the new craft-cocktail drive has taken over, you could use that same philosophy with food, using shrubs, fresh juice blends, simple syrups and botanical infusions to enhance some of the classics and create new flavors and a buzz.
Another trend that will always be up-and-coming will be more knowledge regarding where food is coming from, if it’s safe, who’s growing it, and if it’s sustainable. Limiting the amount of GMO food in the American food supply will continue. Let’s do our part to bring back the American farmer!
C&RB: I found an interview where you said: “You have to listen to your public and hear what they want. And when you give them what they want, they love you for it. It’s easy to make people happy when you put your ego aside.” What a great message; it’s one that club managers at every level should follow. Can you talk more about your philosophy on what transcends relationships between club members and staff?
Caurdy-O’Connor: I always say that we are in the entertainment business first and the food-and-beverage business second. Having never been a member at a club, and always an employee at one, my viewpoint is always on what I think a member thinks, whether they’re hosting a private event or being a guest at a member function.
I work very closely with each and every member who intends to have a private event with us, to customize a menu with their specifications, ideas, vision and dietary restrictions always in mind. It’s up to us to create the memories that family and friends will hold dear in their minds until the end of time. To be trusted with that task is sometimes daunting; it requires rallying the troops, planning, research, execution and really putting your heart into it.
I once had a General Manager who helped me execute a regional wine dinner where I wasn’t as steady on my feet and knowledgeable enough to have the confidence to pull it off successfully. When he said to me, “Oh, I guess you really didn’t have your heart in it,” I realized that what he thought was a lack of drive was really a lack of confidence, because I hadn’t devoted enough time to the research and development of that event.
It is something that I remember vividly to this day, to remind me of the importance of preparation and that you never get a do-over. It’s always “one and done.”