Current Position: Executive Chef, The Metropolitan Club of the City of Washington, D.C.
In three years, Executive Chef Vincent Horville has helped to raise the dining profile of The Metropolitan Club of The City of Washington D.C. from the inside out- and he still finds time to occasionally help out at the White House, too.
The Metropolitan Club of the City of Washington was established in 1863 in Washington, D.C., at the height of the Civil War, by six Treasury Department officials. Over 145 years later, it remains one of the oldest and most valued private institutions in our nation’s capital.
Since 2006, Vincent Horville has been the Metropolitan Club’s Executive Chef. Vincent grew up in the restaurant business and started cooking in his native France at an early age, and won his first of many culinary awards as one of France’s best apprentices in 1982. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1988, Chef Horville has worked at prestigious clubs and for business and industry accounts, won Iron Chef competitions, guest-hosted at the James Beard House, and is now an on-call chef for state dinners held at The White House and Camp David.
With the support of his Assistant General Manager/Food & Beverage, Michael Redmond, Vincent’s talents and effective management style quickly brought significant change that drew favorable response from the membership and guests of The Metropolitan Club. We thank Vincent for taking time to share the value of his extensive experience with C&RB.
Q Chef, your General Manager and Assistant GM/Food & Beverage are also accomplished chefs, and all of you were brought in to raise the level of service and quality of food at The Metropolitan Club. What were some of the key steps in your collective efforts to reach these goals?
A Early on, we identified the components we wanted to aggressively address, including staff culture, food quality and output, and staff training. More hands-on participation and training, as well as constant supervision, had immediate impact on staff output, supported by an open-door policy to encourage communication.
To improve the overall dinner experience, we improved the menu and presentation to reflect a more trendy approach that could compete with local restaurants. An overall focus was put on well-made food and fundamentally sound fabrication, as well as balanced seasoning and serving hot plates—kind of a “back to basics” approach.
On each weeknight, we implemented a prix fixe menu at $28 that included appetizers, an entrée, a glass of wine and dessert. We trained our front-of-the-house staff to prepare tableside Caesar salads one night a week, and will soon move to tableside Caesars every night. We are also upselling desserts simply by presenting them as a new step of service.
We also saw that we could take better advantage of our world-class wine list, which offers over 350 types of wine from our cellar of over 19,000 bottles. We invested in new wine preserving and dispensing systems that have allowed us to create our own “stimulus package” through a wines-by-the-glass program that can offer 12 different wines at any given time. This has been a tremendous success throughout the club. At the same time, with the help of the club’s Wine Committee, we’ve been able to market many of our low-quantity, high-quality wines from the cellar to the membership, and this has led to the sale of a significant number of bottles.
Catering production needed attention as well. Timing and delivery were affecting the wait staff’s efficiency and member perception; plates were served lukewarm at best and the food needed improvement.
Here, too, we now deliver a better product consistently. We have gained trust from very particular members and have done some impressive customized events for up to 200 people that rival those held at the best clubs in the country.
Q How did you reverse the “work culture differences” that you encountered when you arrived?
A Changing an organization’s culture takes time and patience. You need to “treat everybody the same, but respect their differences,” and employees need to understand the reasons behind change and why ultimately these changes are essential for an organization to continue to be successful.
My approach was to first gain the trust of my crew. We took the time to take a “talent inventory” and highlight each individual’s strengths while at the same time identifying their weaknesses and giving them the necessary tools to improve. I also had to be willing to share my own strengths and weaknesses. This awareness helped us find performance gaps and refocus our energy on building a strong team.
Taking the time to do this also allowed us to reposition some of the staff to areas where they would be better able to contribute to the overall success of the operation. We also introduced a weekly kitchen meeting, which served as a venue not only for updates about the business, but also to address issues, challenges and frustrations in a timely manner.
One change to boost the overall team spirit was to improve the staff cafeteria. We now serve three meals a day and ensure that all food is fresh and that there are ample choices.
As a result of all of these changes, I can say that today we have a more enjoyable work environment and a more attentive workforce, even on busy and stressful days. While some frustrations still exist, tempers do not flare as much.
Q Being a classically trained French chef with 25 years of experience, what differences do you see in the culinary grads of today, as opposed to a couple of decades ago?
A The declining work ethic and misguided perception of the industry are my biggest concerns. Most young cooks today have little or no idea how hard the culinary field can be. They want the glamour of being a chef, but do not want to “pay the dues” to get into that club. The media has done a great job of creating more interest in our field, but the culinary schools need to paint a more realistic picture to potential graduates.
It is unrealistic to expect a recent culinary grad to assume a position as a saucier/lead cook or sous chef. Being promoted in a fine-dining establishment is based on what you do, not on the diploma you have. Culinary graduates need to show commitment to a position and see it through. We often see resumes that reflect a lot of “job hopping”; this can have a negative impact on future employability and professional credibility.
Working in the culinary field also requires stamina and the ability to tolerate change and uncertainty on a daily basis. Positive reaction and adaptability are key components. The long schedules and stressful requirements of the “real world” often come as a surprise to graduates who have not had enough practical experience in the field. You must accept and understand that a day’s work, on average, will be 10 to 12 hours.
Q You recently hired a sous chef from one of Washington’s top restaurants, Michel Richard’s Citronelle. Is this another important step to where you’re taking the club?
A Yes, bringing him on board at this time will help us not only continue to advance culinary quality, but also improve overall team building. The chance to bring in this caliber of sous chef only presented itself because we had made impressive leaps in changing the culture. Had we tried to get this kind of support when I first came to the club, we may not have succeeded.
But now we can pursue our aim of a more contemporary fine-dining experience, while still respecting the club’s culinary tradition. Our members eat in some of the best restaurants in the city, and also travel and speak about the Michelin-rated restaurants they’ve visited. So that is our benchmark, and it reinforces my belief that this was the right move going forward.
Q At Merion, a la carte remains strong, even in a poor economy. Is it the same at the Metropolitan Club?
A Yes, indeed—because members are seeing a value in using the club more, since they are already paying dues. I think they realize that we offer a very competitive lunch and are increasing the value of dinner, too.
We are also fortunate in that while banquet sales have dropped slightly, it has not been as drastic as at some of the clubs in the area. We are a bit concerned about the summer months, and we will also be closing our Members Grill Room to upgrade the sprinkler system and make other improvements. When we reopen in mid-September, we will expect a big turnout, as well as better opportunities to sell that room as a catering venue in the future.
Q Finally, Chef, what is it like to be an on-call chef for state dinners at the White House and Camp David?
A I first worked at the White House in 1995. I was really not sure how I felt about it originally. The excitement of having the White House chef call you is quickly countered by your neighbors knocking on your door to know what is going on, because they have just spent 45 minutes with the FBI.
I will always remember having to walk through the security gate a few times, nervously explaining that my steel-toed shoes were causing the loud beeping. And then being escorted by a Navy officer to a simple kitchen set up with prep tables in the center and a hot line along the back wall. And finding everyone already moving frantically, as in a mad ant farm, with little space to work in despite the large production volume involved.
Over the years, I’ve had the honor and privilege of being involved in parties ranging from state dinners for 200 to special events of up to 3,000, with 47 heads of states, serving meals on irreplaceable, historic china. It was fun to meet so many stars passing through, as well as the Presidential families. It was also special just to pick up the kitchen phone and talk to the First Lady, or to cook in the Presidential apartment or have a sleepover at Camp David.
There is an uplifting magic to all of this; they are all very cool experiences you can’t replicate anywhere else. But they still leave you feeling humble, because you have the honor to work with an exceptional and talented culinary team. And I am proud, and grateful, for having had these opportunities.