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Changing Tables

The club culinary scene is evolving. Fine dining and the latest trends are on the menu, and chefs are proving more than up to the challenge.

Food at private clubs has always had an image: reliable, predictable, reasonable. Clubs were a good place to get a decent burger, club sandwich or Cobb salad. Don’t expect anything fancy, just stick to the tried-and-true.

While those old reliables may still show up on club menus, just about everything else coming out of the kitchens of many top clubs has changed for the better. Much better!

Clubs are hiring well-trained, experienced chefs improving the club dining experience. And with their top-level training comes new levels variety, preparation and sophistication that are being eaten up by appreciative members and guests.

Culinary Evolution

Private club cuisine was already on the upswing when it was kicked into overdrive during the coronavirus pandemic, as members sought out safe havens for dining and recreation. At many clubs, nimble operations teams quickly added tents, outdoor and patio dining that expanded capacity and access. As demand grew—and not just in-season—chefs upped their game to match.

At Reynolds Lake Oconee, an expansive community in Greensboro, Ga., Executive Chef Zouhair Bellout and his team provided to-go offerings and twice-weekly grocery ordering and pick-up services for residents. National and regional food purveyors stepped up to source groceries for residents as well.

Executive Chef Ed Stone at Springfield, N.J.’s famed Baltusrol Golf Club says club dining provided worried members with a heightened comfort level; as a result, business steadily increased. Since members couldn’t—or wouldn’t—go to their favorite non- club restaurants, he pushed his team to raise the quality of both the food and the experience.

“There were new challenges every day, but I am fortunate to work with a great team of talented and creative chefs who worked exceptionally hard to ensure our members enjoyed an exceptional dining experience at every visit,” said Stone.

Members Make the Difference

For a chef, working in a restaurant is very different from working in a private club. A restaurant or hotel serves different people every day and the menu is what it is with little flexibility. A club

chef serves the same clientele day after day—customers who can have a big say in whether he, or she, keeps their job. So club chefs tend to be very receptive to member feedback.

“I know chefs that love it when a member complains, as they are then challenged to make them happy,” says Diana DeLucia, publisher of Golf Kitchen Magazine. “It is difficult for a restaurant chef to work in a private club as there are so many more expectations and culinary situations to execute. At a club, it’s about the member’s choices first and not so much about the chefs. These chefs need to be good communicators in the front of the house and in their domain, behind the scenes.”

They also need to be skilled in all kinds of dining—elegant, dinners, banquets, everyday club cuisine—while always remembering who’s the boss. If a member asks for bacon and eggs when the club is hosting a fancy event, it may be in the chef’s best interest to comply—and do so with a smile.

Club Culinary Environment

Chef Bertrand Bouquin, culinary director at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Arz., is a James Beard Foundation Award chef who has been honored as a Maître Cuisinier (French Master Chef ). He’s thinks private clubs are great places to work.

“Clubs are community-based, have great members who may be able to provide counsel or assist in future career opportunities, pay full benefits, and often provide housing. The relationships you build at the club will last a lifetime if you care enough to foster them.”

Bouquin is responsible for Desert Mountain’s 10 restaurants, from sophisticated Italian to gastro pub to Mexican, and insists each one stays authentic to its culinary origins. Much of his 80-cook staff comes from Europe and South Africa, creating a wonderfully rich diversity in the kitchen.

“There is a great deal of interaction and feedback from members. We are always evolving, adding new things that are fresh and different while keeping the best sellers and the traditional items our members have come to love.”

Sophisticated Tastes

At many golf and country clubs, the culinary team takes pride in offering diverse, creative menus. They have to.

“Many of my members are foodies, well educated in food and wine and have advanced palates,” says Michael Ruggerio, executive chef at Glen Arbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y.. “They genuinely support our sourcing and working with the most exceptional products. I come here every day able to express my ideas, be creative, be an artist, and as a chef, that is why we do this.”

Baltusrol’s Stone recognizes that his members are well traveled and have eaten at some of the finest restaurants in the world.

“When I arrived in 2004, I could not understand why the cuisine at the club was not held to a higher standard. During my interviews, management and the executive committee were vocal in expressing their commitment to making changes. I had one vendor tell me I was committing career suicide by coming to a private club. But I went with my gut, and it’s paid off.”

Chef Stone enjoys creating menus for the club’s popular wine dinners: Their limited size allows him to prepare more labor- intensive dishes impossible for a la carte dining. But Stone and his team also can go big, as they did when hosting the 2005 and 2016 PGA Championships, serving thousands of corporate clients, contestants, officials, and dignitaries. He’ll do it again for the 2023 KMPG Women’s PGA Championship.

At Desert Mountain, Bouquin and his team support the club’s annual member-guest extravaganza: In a period of 14 days, the club holds its women’s member-guest, men’s member-guest, and Spring Bash, which features a party for more than 1,000 and a live concert on the main practice range. It’s easily among the biggest member-guest events in the U.S., and the ordering, planning and executing is a year-round, large-scale operation.

Fresh and Healthy

Another aspect of dining today is an emphasis on health. From allergies to dietary requirements, club chefs must pay close attention to the special needs of their members, while looking for the freshest, most local ingredients.

“We embrace the health conscious,” said Ruggerio. “We have a responsibility to be aware of the food we prepare, serve, and where we source it. We need to know where it grows and its seasonality. Buying the best quality ingredients and letting them shine is the best way to utilize food.”

Reynolds’ Bellout loves to roam the markets and farm stands of northern Georgia, driving as far as Atlanta, 70 miles away, and turning his “discoveries” into exciting new menu combinations.

Medinah Country Club outside of Chicago has one of the largest on-site growing operations of any club in the country: 34 different fruits and vegetables, 17 savory herbs and garnishes, and six varieties of fragrant and edible flowers, spread among 25 beds. The vegetables and herbs are featured on the club’s Garden Menu, while some of the fruits are turned into jams, enhance seasonal dishes, and garnish cocktails.

The club also has its own bee colony, plus as many as 30 chickens who produce about 25 eggs a day.It used to be members simply wanted birdies. Now they get chickens. Private clubs and their chefs will keep taking their dining programs to new heights.

Karen Moraghan is president of Hunter Public Relations. She can be reached at [email protected].