Cooking with Fire

By | September 5th, 2013
Crystal Springs Resort, Sussex County, N.J.

Crystal Springs Resort, Sussex County, N.J.

Bringing the kitchen outside is helping clubs elevate al fresco fare well beyond burgers and dogs.

For most clubs, al fresco dining practically comes with the territory, even if members can only eat outdoors for a few months out of the year. Patios that overlook the golf course, bedecked with tables, chairs and umbrellas, have become a common (and welcome) amenity.

Some properties are now taking the outdoor food adventure to the next level, by installing full-range kitchens that embrace the best part of outdoor cooking (grilling, smoking, open fires) while maintaining the sophistication and detail-oriented design that full-scale indoor kitchens require. The result is a hybrid cooking space that can withstand the elements while staying attractive to the watchful eyes of members and guests.


  • High-grade commercial equipment is needed for outdoor cooking, to handle drastic temperature shifts and withstand the elements.
  • When outdoor kitchens are visible to members and guests, an appropriate theme that relates to the setting can add a unique element to events.
  • Finding ways to use outdoor kitchen equipment in other dining outlets during inclement weather ensures that smoky flavors can be enjoyed year-round.

A Simpler Time
Adding an outdoor dining space in which all food is prepared requires a design that embraces and works with its surroundings. The Chef’s Garden at Grand Cascades Lodge, part of the Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County, N.J., gives guests an all-inclusive outdoor dining experience.

Andy Mulvihill, one of the owners of the resort who oversaw the building of the Grand Cascades Lodge in 2007, also designed The Chef’s Garden, which includes a 1,200-sq. ft. kitchen with a bar, as well as a dining space surrounded by a garden that produces vegetables, flowers and herbs. Through the design, Mulvihill sought to “embrace our mountain location, culinary expertise, and farming heritage.

“When building the hotel, the thought was always how to create extraordinary spaces and experiences our guests hadn’t seen before,” Mulvihill explains. “The Chef’s Garden was an obvious conclusion—particularly for someone like me, who loves to grill, smoke and bake, dine outside, and grow and then pick fresh herbs and veggies. It was really like bringing a part of my home to the resort.”

The 18th century-style, open-air (but covered) kitchen is just steps away from where members dine. All cooking is wood-powered, with an entirely wood-fired hot line and wood chips for the space’s two smokers. The kitchen also has a three-level grill, fire pit, wood fire oven, cutting-board table, steel hood, and custom pantry for pots and pans over the hot line, says Robby Younes, Vice President of Hospitality.

Crystal Springs Resort, Sussex County, N.J.

Crystal Springs Resort, Sussex County, N.J.

Though the design was created by Mulvihill, Younes says the food-and-beverage team has changed and added some of the features since The Chef’s Garden opened in 2009, to make it more usable and operator-friendly.

Compared to an indoor kitchen, the design of the line is relatively similar, save for the obvious differences in cooking fuels, with natural gas propane or electric used indoors, and natural coal and a mixture of local hardwoods used outside, says Executive Chef Timothy Fischer.

“The differences are all in the flavor that the coal and the hardwoods impart,” Fischer says. “It’s a flavor second to none, like cooking over a campfire with your family—the mystique and aura is truly a spiritual event.”

From May to October, The Chef’s Garden is open for business, but it is subject to inclement weather. Even so, the smoker is used in other dining outlets, Fischer says, with a smoked slider trio on the menu in the Crystal Tavern, smoked trotters at the resort’s Restaurant Latour, ribs and briskets for banquet outlets, pulled pork for the halfway house, and smoked seafood and sea salts for the Springs Bistro.

“There is plenty of room to prep and the use of the two barrel smokers, grills, rotisserie and wood-fire ovens is a truly unique experience,” Fischer says. “You must become one with the environment, and you truly get entranced knowing your ovens and fires will transplant you to a much simpler time. It’s extremely satisfying.”

A Great Idea, By George

Valley Forge National Historic Park, Valley Forge, Pa.

Valley Forge National Historic Park, Valley Forge, Pa.

Though certainly not as stylish as the version created by The Philadelphia Cricket Club, the field bake oven that provided the club with its inspiration was a productive piece of equipment that churned out thousands of pounds of bread consumed daily by soldiers in the encampment of the Continental Army under General George Washington at Valley Forge, Pa., during the winter of 1777-1778.

To build the structure, the heart of the oven was a set of portable iron plates that teamsters transported to the site. Workers assembled the oven and placed it into an earthen mound that not only provided insulation, but also raised the oven to a proper working height, according to the National Park Service.
The ovens also acted as central camp kitchens, with bakers setting up cooking fireplaces on the outer circle of each mound to make hearty stews for soldiers. On average, 84,000 lbs. of flour were used per day in the baking process.

Fit For a Soldier
In the midst of constructing a 5,500-sq. ft. flagstone patio for the clubhouse of the Militia Hill course at The Philadelphia Cricket Club (PCC), Director of Grounds Dan Meersman came across a special idea.

“One weekend day, I was at Valley Forge National Historic Park with my family and saw the old soldier Field Oven,” Meersman says. “I thought to myself, ‘Since we have no cooking space inside the clubhouse, would Chef [Ben Burger] be interested in something like this?’ ”

An added plus was that the Revolutionary War-era oven would have a natural historic tie-in with PCC’s Militia Hill course, which took its name from its proximity to the Militia Hill section of nearby Fort Washington State Park, where Pennsylvania militia assembled before joining General George Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge.

So Meersman proposed the idea to Burger, who quickly agreed after seeing a few photos. Within a week, Burger picked out the oven he wanted, with an interior cooking size of 1,050 sq. in., and exterior size of 46” x 40” x 31.5”. After estimating costs with General Manager/CEO Tim Muessle, the team got to work.

The soldier oven Meersman spotted had soil piled around it to provide insulation, which allows the oven to stay at a hotter temperature for longer periods of time. Though the mounding is not necessary due to modern technology, the club opted to keep with the “war era feel” of the design to “enhance aesthetic value,” Meersman says. Further, the mound provides improved visual screening of the parking lot area from the patio.

Burger worked with Golf Course Equipment Manager Craig Cassaday on the construction. Along with two technicians and two hourly employees with masonry backgrounds, Cassaday constructed the oven over a two-week period, allowing time for drying between steps.

The finished product can be used throughout the seasons, and Burger has assembled a portable outdoor kitchen to allow for flexible use of the patio, depending on the event. All food is prepped at the main clubhouse and brought to the oven, which is about five minutes away, Burger says.

The Philadelphia Cricket Club

The Philadelphia Cricket Club

Portable equipment set up outside includes a cooler, sandwich unit that the staff uses for mise en place, cutting boards, a heat lamp, fryers, flat tops, rotisseries, and a small pantry area with reach-ins to store backups. Further, the menu was built around the capabilities of the portable equipment.

Using the oven takes a bit of prep time, though. “We have to start the fire three to four hours before we want to use it,” Burger explains. “As the wood burns and turns to coals, we push it to the back of the oven and use the front as the cooking surface. We cook directly on the fire brick.”

Because of current renovations to the adjacent Wissahickon golf course, outdoor cooking has been an everyday occurrence at PCC’s Flourtown, Pa., property, where both the Wissahickon and Militia Hill courses are located. The oven is used primarily for pizza, but the staff also uses it to finish spare ribs, whole fish, roasted chicken and chicken wings—and make stone fruit cobblers for dessert.

“It’s the talk of the club,” Burger says. “Once word got around that we were building an oven, members would stop by every day to see the progress and ask when it was going to be ready. The great thing is we were able to break it in during our annual Member Guest tournament. It’s a showpiece, and we are already planning on building a bigger one at our main [Wissahickon] location when the golf course renovation is done.

Fiddler's Elbow CC, Bedminster, N.J.

Fiddler’s Elbow CC, Bedminster Township, N.J.

“It’s been a huge success,” he adds. “Member usage is up, and it’s really made us examine what we’ll do going forward on the culinary side, when we open back up after renovations.”

A Permanent Solution
In May of this year, Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster Township, N.J., completed a project that was initially a temporary setup to feed hungry golfers. What started out as just a grill under an awning has been transformed into a permanent, 850-sq. ft. structure on the patio that served 3,000 lunches in July.

The outdoor kitchen isn’t the only culinary addition the club has made since shifting from a corporate club a family and individual memberships two years ago. The switch resulted in a dramatic spike of 300 new members.

“We had to change our amenities and focus in many ways,” says General Manager Tom Hurley. Construction of the Elbow Room kitchen is in progress, and the main kitchen will be overhauled in the fall. To accommodate what new members want, a pool with a bistro-type kitchen will be built as well.

The club’s food-and-beverage staff, including Executive Chef Michael Weisshaupt, collaborated with a design firm to create the expanded, open outdoor kitchen. In addition to a wood-fired pizza oven imported from Italy, the design is mindful of the kitchen’s location. Industrial fans are located in the back and front of the line, proper ventilation was installed, and higher-grade commercial equipment was selected to withstand drastic shifts in outside temperature that can range from 35 to 100 degrees, since the kitchen is generally open year-round, Weisshaupt says.

With soups, stocks and starters coming out of the main kitchen, Weisshaupt describes the outdoor cooking space as “more of an executing kitchen.” As a result, the typically behind-the-scenes action is mostly visible to members.

“We want the members to see, but not see everything,” Hurley says. “We have fairly high countertops, so they only see chefs or cooks from the chest up. They’re still seeing the cooks going back and forth, firing pizza. It’s fun—a lot of members face the kitchen to see the action.”

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