Innovative presentations in an inviting environment provided a one-of-a-kind experience at C&RB’s Ninth Annual Chef to Chef Conference.
The city of Atlanta, Ga., was created in 1836 as a railroad crossroads, and despite some rather destructive treatment by “visitors” from General Sherman’s Union Army during the Civil War, it grew to become known as the place where everything, and everyone, comes together in the South (as the old joke goes, in fact, whether you’re going to heaven or hell after dying, you still have to transfer in Atlanta).
This year from March 5th through 7th, Atlanta served as the place that brought together top culinary and club-management talent from throughout the U.S., as over 300 attendees and sponsors gathered to set another attendance record with Club and Resort Business’ Ninth Annual Chef to Chef Conference.
The Conference was held at the Loews Atlanta Hotel in the city’s Midtown area, which is fast replacing Buckhead as Atlanta’s liveliest district for business and cultural activity. The Loews culinary staff was excited to host the Conference and became active participants from the start, leading tours of the hotel’s kitchen facilities for several groups of early-arriving attendees that included a look at the impressive curing facility for the charcuterie station of its signature Saltwood restaurant.
This year’s Conference also marked the return, after a one-year absence, of a plated sit-down opening-night dinner, and the Loews staff, led by French Master Chef Olivier Gaupin, more than rose to the occasion to provide spectacular food for the event. A special treat was provided in the form of live-stream video, projected on two large screens during the dinner, that showed the back-of-the-house plate-up procedure for the meal’s main course.
The return of the opening-night dinner also meant the revival of a keynote address for the Conference, which was delivered in Atlanta by Michael Leemhuis, CCM, CCE, PGA, President of the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla.
Speaking on the topic of “Shaping Your Personal Future: Characteristics and Traits of Successful Hospitality Leaders,” Leemhuis drew on his personal and professional experiences—including his initial difficulty getting work for several years after immigrating to the U.S. from South Africa—to engage the audience in thought-provoking reflection on just how “success” should first be defined, and then on how it can be achieved.
There is no “straight-line” path to success, Leemhuis emphasized, and everyone should be prepared to follow a convoluted course that may often move sideways, or even backwards, on the way to achieving it. But success will not be achieved, he added, if an individual isn’t diligent about taking the steps to ensure that he or she is proactive in moving towards it, rather than expecting it to come to them.
Leemhuis then counseled the audience on how to determine which arrows should be in each person’s own customized “quiver” of tools for achieving success, and described the characteristics and attributes of successful leaders—who, he stressed, are “defined even more by their character than by their competence.”
After the opening dinner ended and many of the Conference attendees then wrapped up the evening in the popular “Chef to Chef Lounge,” the Conference reconvened on Monday morning to start the first of two full days of educational sessions.
In Monday’s first presentation, Edward Leonard, CMC, Director of Culinary Operations, The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.), picked up the inspirational theme established by Leemhuis the night before and sharpened it for the culinary discipline, as he addressed the topic, “Club Food Matters: Building a Culture of Culinary Excellence.”
Leonard provided his fellow club chefs with a blueprint for “making a difference through our food” that called for never settling for mediocrity and always striving to make club cuisine new, fresh and innovative, through dishes that are always well-thought-out and well-executed.
“Honestly, it’s not easy,” Leonard said about achieving and maintaining the staff-wide discipline that’s required to sustain a level of consistent excellence. “It requires a mindset and philosophy that everyone must buy into, and that you must constantly monitor.
“A culture of culinary excellence is not a set of rules to follow,” he added. “It is a desire to be the best you can be—an everyday passion and habit that all team members embrace and practice. It’s a discipline that becomes a commitment, to go beyond the ordinary and over-deliver to the member.
“Fundamentally,” Leonard said, “a culture of culinary excellence will be based on a kitchen-wide sense of striving, rather than settling, and of enjoying the journey of providing the member experience with great food.”
After the Conference, Leonard reported that he received a number of responses from attendees that indicated just how effectively his message had resonated. “I just wanted to let you know how much your presentation inspired me to insist on and promote a more professional kitchen,” one attendee wrote. “Many of your words rang true—especially the professionally challenging ones about not letting standards slip here and there and conveniently go unnoticed, just to get by with what you have.”
Andrea Griffith, Executive Chef, Pursell Farms, Sylacauga, Ala., followed Leonard with a presentation on “Creating Everyday Condiments, Sauces and Beverages from Your Harvest.” As she demonstrated dishes such as a Farm House Salad made entirely with ingredients grown on site, including components such as tomato confit, pickled okra and a cider dressing, Griffith impressed Conference attendees with how completely the commitment to “farm to fork” has been extended at Pursell Farms.
In addition to enhancing the member/guest food experience, Griffith said, the benefits of making such a full commitment include allowing greater menu flexibility, instilling a spirit of creativity in the culinary staff, building relationships with the local community, and reducing carbon footprints in a way that brings things “full circle.”
Simon Lewis, Executive Chef, The Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, Calif., then drew on his experience working for renowned chefs such as Joel Robuchon and Rick Tramonto for a presentation on “Applying Restaurant Philosophies to Create Exciting New Concepts in Banquet Planning, Preparation and Presentation.”
With banquet clients becoming more knowledgeable about food-and-beverage possibilities, Lewis noted, chefs have the opportunity to be more creative and make statements with their menus and presentations. This can be demonstrated through providing healthier options, employing a wider scope of techniques and components with ingredients and textures, and creating tapas-style tasting menus that depart from standard three-course, chafing-dish formats (and offer extra revenue potential in the process).
Lewis’s presentation also included a variety of practical tips for how to match available banquet personnel to their capabilities, enhance service execution, and improve speed and quality control through back-of-the-house kitchen- and menu-organization adjustments. “Keep banquet menus written towards budgeted staffing levels,” he advised. “Keep an even flow of step-by-step plating procedures throughout your menus, and write seasonal menus that use ingredients at their peak; selling seasonal menus can also help with consistency in the kitchen.”
Lewis then demonstrated restaurant-style plating and presentation techniques, including the inventive use of foil cups for pre-portioning that can help to facilitate an effective conveyor-belt plating system. “Presentation is also in the design of the plate, so picking the right plates for your dishes is important,” he stressed. “Companies are now making a wider range of designs for durable, restaurant-quality plates for banquet concepts.”
More practical kitchen-operation tips were offered in the next presentation, “Doing More With Less: Running Multiple Concepts Off One Line” by JohnMichael Lynch, Executive Chef of Interlachen Country Club, Edina, Minn.
Lynch described a variety of practices that he has used to help blend menus and plan concepts that can help overcome space constraints. He walked attendees through the process of first doing a SWOT analysis to assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of their current kitchen space, and then devising a plan to best use available strengths while also being strategic in avoiding weaknesses.
Such an analysis, Lynch said, can be valuable in helping to identify, and make a case for, capital investment priorities, while also spotlighting and protecting against the risks posed by existing limitations. “Many clubs face the challenge of serving diverse menu options off one line,” Lynch noted. “This makes menu engineering critical, to distribute menu items evenly between stations, keep cooking times reasonable, limit the amount of pans and equipment needed to execute a dish, and streamline production with other departments such as banquets and pool kitchens.
“Have pride in a simplistic approach,” Lynch advised, “and focus on quality, not quantity.”
Philippe Reynaud, Senior Director of Culinary Operations, Ocean Reef Club, then delivered Monday’s last full-session presentation, “Keeping F&B On a Roll: Food Trucks, Pop-Ups and Other Successful Surprises.” Reynaud described his club’s ongoing efforts to invent new foodservice concepts that keep the large and captive audience in the 5,000-member Ocean Reef community intrigued, engaged and always wanting—and coming back for—more.
As part of detailing how his club has launched a variety of successful concepts—including a food truck, cooking schools, “vine to table” and scotch dinners, a beer trailer and a year-round schedule of special holiday and seasonal celebrations—Reynaud outlined these key steps for developing any new club culinary concept:
•know your members and be visible for them, to hear their feedback and suggestions;
•research your ideas thoroughly, and prepare P&L/ROI projections for them;
•work with other departments to get needed support;
•find a way to test and sample a new concept before going to full launch; and
•market actively, once full rollout begins.
The rest of the afternoon for the Conference’s first day was devoted to the always-popular “Chef to Chef Live” breakout sessions, which were moderated this year by Jerry Schreck, Executive Chef, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa., and National Conference Coordinator for the Chef to Chef Conference; Greg Volle, Executive Chef of the Country Club of Roswell (Ga.), who also served as the Atlanta conference’s Local Coordinator; and Edward Leonard of The Polo Club of Boca Raton. Among the many topics that were covered, the staffing, recruitment and motivation of employees, and what the future holds as a world of millennials enters the industry, commanded much of the discussions.
All attendees then gathered for Monday night’s reception on the Loews Atlanta’s 14th-floor terrace, during which another always highly anticipated annual Conference feature, the Mystery Basket competition, took place. Participants in this year’s Mystery Basket cook-offs included Brian Coseo, Executive Chef of Sea Pines Country Club, Hilton Head, S.C.; Todd Walline, CEC, CCA, Executive Chef/Director of Food & Beverage of Blue Hills Country Club, Kansas City, Mo.; Russell Rosenberg, Executive Chef of the Union League Club of New York (N.Y.); and Micheal Armes, Executive Chef of Hound Ears Club, Boone, N.C.
After three lively rounds, Walline emerged as the winner, earning a Vitamix blender in the process. Rosenberg, who took second place, won a $250 gift certificate from Triar Seafood. Details on the competition, including a description and photo of Walline’s winning dish, can be found in the April issue of C&RB’s Chef to Chef magazine.
After the Mystery Basket competition and Monday-night reception concluded, attendees had the evening free to explore the local culinary scene, with many following the special restaurant recommendations from “Chef Greg Volle’s Insider’s Guide to Atlanta Dining” that was included in their Conference binders.
To begin the Conference’s final full day of presentations, Brian Beland, CMC, Executive Chef and Food & Beverage Manager, The Country Club of Detroit, Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., presented on “Managing and Training to a Standard That Transmits to Other Departments.” Beland took the audience through his detailed process for raising and maintaining service levels and delivering top-quality product through a well-designed list of procedures that must be constantly monitored and strictly adhered to. He outlined a prescription for creating measurable service guarantees, establishing checks and balances across departments, and devising corrective-action plans to ensure unwavering delivery of the promise to exceed members’ and guests’ expectations through excellent food and hospitality.
Andrea Van Willigan, Executive Chef, Bel-Air Country Club, Los Angeles, followed to provide further insights on “Leading and Motivating a Culinary Brigade” that were drawn largely from her experiences working in high-intensity public restaurants for the Gordon Ramsay and Michael Mina organizations. “Motivation only works if you, as the leader, are motivated,” she reminded the audience. “If you aren’t, you can’t share your vision effectively and have others follow willingly.”
Jonn Ken Nishiyama, Garde Manger Chef, Cherokee Town & Country Club, Atlanta, then dazzled the Conference with his presentation on “Garde Manger Designs for All Seasons,” demonstrating an array of creative, out-of-the-box displays, stands and table designs for themed buffets and special events. “Chef Nish” showed how a variety of common items that can be easily and inexpensively obtained at do-it-yourself and home-furnishing stores, or with the help of the club’s maintenance and engineering departments, can be used to create and build special lighting, running-water features, floral displays and other techniques that can inject unique new “wow” factors into even the most traditional or routine events.
Nelson Millan, Executive Chef of San Antonio (Texas) Country Club, then captured all of the audience’s senses with his energetic presentation, “World of Flavors: Bringing the Latin American ‘Revolution’ to American Kitchens.” After providing an overview of food staples and derivative food products and items that can be used to add practical dishes and ideas to any menu and give it distinctive Latin authenticity, Millan then completed several cooking demonstrations that held the crowd’s attention, both by sight and by smell, even as the session ran well over into lunchtime.
Following lunch, which featured a special menu and service by the Loews Atlanta culinary team, a panel on the subject of “Maximizing Success and Satisfaction in Your Club Careers” was convened, featuring general managers who all have culinary backgrounds: Kevin Carroll, CCM, General Manager and COO, Atlanta Athletic Club, Johns Creek, Ga.; Joe Krenn, CCM, Chief Operating Officer & General Manager, Farmington Country Club, Charlottesville, Va.; and Brett Morris, General Manager/COO, The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.).
Each panelist provided insights into the important steps they had taken to help further their own careers, and described the keys to maintaining strong and mutually satisfying relationships with membership and others on their management teams, before then fielding questions on a variety of topics from the audience.
Takeaway messages from the GMs that were emphasized as critical to career success, either within the chef profession or beyond it, included: “Get out of your comfort zone, and mingle more with members”; “Be more inclusive with others on the management team”; and “Understand that many members’ main reason for going to the club has now evolved to be as much because of food and beverage as because of golf or other activities.”
The panel was followed by a presentation on “Pastry for All Purposes” from Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club’s Executive Chef, John Cornely, and its Pastry Chef, James Satterwhite. Their demonstration on the production of both sweet and savory doughs included “reverse puff pastry,” an advanced technique that rolls the dough inside butter to make it more tender and flakier. Just in time for the afternoon snack break, Cornely and Satterwhite concluded their demonstration by finishing and plating a bevy of treats, including bacon cheddar rolls, coconut chocolate turnovers and apple galette, for the audience to sample.
For the Conference’s final presentation, “Keeping the Passion in Wine Programs,” Terry Boston, Executive Chef of Des Moines Golf & Country Club, West Des Moines, Iowa, provided a detailed look at what foods should, and should not, be paired with certain types of wines. Boston provided handouts of “base” and “bridge” ingredients for various wines and also encouraged attendees to take advantage of dessert and alternative wines. He also provided tips on marketing and promoting wine events at a club, and described his club’s success with its bottle wine program.
Perhaps most impressively, in a gesture that captured the collegial spirit that pervades the Chef to Chef Conference, Boston concluded by generously offering to help any Conference attendee with his or her own development of wine-pairing menus and concepts.