Think ‘Outside the Box’ with Continuing Education

By | March 14th, 2018

For Glenmoor CC’s Executive Chef Penelope Wong continuing education opportunities over the past year have pushed her into unfamiliar territory while inspiring her to grow and improve her culinary team and her F&B operation.

One of the greatest perks of being a private club chef is the benefit of continuing education granted as a typical compensation perk. When many of us think of continuing education we think of attending seminars or classes where we listen to experts talk about what’s worked for them and what’s trending. But continuing education can be so much more than that.

Regardless of how much I enjoy what I do as Executive Chef of Glenmoor Country Club, the monotony of the daily grind has worn me down over the past year. And even though I have outlets for creativity, one can only come up with so many ways to plate a scallop dish. As a result, I sought more humbling, unorthodox avenues to continue my education. This led me to unfamiliar territory both accidentally and intentionally.

One example was when I stumbled across a random post from one of the most influential female chefs of our time—Chef Dominique Crenn, who has been a powerful role model for me. She was named female chef of the year in 2016 and she was the first female chef to receive two Michelin Stars. I answered her calling for volunteer chefs to join her in raising funds to help victims of the California wildfires. I submitted my application and contact information along with a brief introduction to state my qualifications.

At the time, I realized the chances of being selected were slim given the size of this chef’s following. But weeks later I received word that I had been chosen. I rearranged my schedule and booked my flight. When I finally arrived in San Francisco, I found myself on the doorsteps of Petit Crenn. I felt a pang of fear knot up in my belly and I hesitated to walk in. But I swallowed the lump in my throat and said to myself, “Here goes nothing.” I  introduced myself to the already busy staff, quickly threw on an apron and began working my station. While prepping, I took it all in—the dynamic of the kitchen, who was working where, who was responsible for what, how many times “Oui, Chef” was doled out as directives were called.

The biggest take away was the level of professionalism, standards and overall respect of the entire team. It wasn’t all about the stature of Chef Crenn. It was all-encompassing, from the processes and the product all the way to the finished plate. I saw a true sense of pride from every member of that team. And my renewed dedication to my own team’s growth became much greater as a result of that experience.

To further challenge myself and expand my role at the club, I threw my name in the hat for the General Manager position here at Glenmoor CC. I’ve known for years that my GM was planning his retirement. In fact, he hoped to groom me to take it if I was interested. During his last few months with us, our Board of Directors developed a search committee and hired a firm to help recruit a new GM.

I did not come to the decision to apply easily. I absolutely adore being a chef. I love leading and growing a culinary team. I love the chaos and the control of my kitchen and I thrive on the ability to create from nothing. Several factors influenced my decision. I have a talented team in place. My two sous chefs have been with me for ten years, my demi chef has been with me for four years, and my banquet chef has been with me for seven years. They are each very capable of much more and I remind them of that frequently. They know they always have my full support in growing their own careers. So my decision to move on from my role could very well lead to a new opportunity for each one of them.

I also was ready to accept the challenge of providing continuity for our long tenured staff. Aside from the longevity of my own management team, there is equally as long—if not longer—tenure among most of our senior department heads. Our golf pro has been with the club for twenty-one years. Our grounds superintendent has been with the club for nearly thirty. Our clubhouse manager has been with the club for twelve years. And our controller has been with the club for ten years. The prospect of leading a team that has been responsible for the successes we’ve been fortunate to create was exciting.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I knew it was a long shot. It’s rare for a chef to make the jump into a general manager role without at least a quantifiable stint as clubhouse manager. No matter what happened, I knew I’d at least gain an incredible amount of interview experience through the process.

I have never experienced such a rigorous interview process. There were numerous interviews with the search firm as well as the entire search committee. There were character and ethics tests, essays, and math and problem-solving computational quizzes, too. It was intense and fascinating. (Ultimately, the search committee narrowed it down to two external applicants.)

After that, I moved on to my next big challenge: locking in my second annual CMC guest chef dinner. I essentially went into stalker mode and guilt-tripped Jason Hall, CMC, formerly Executive Chef of Myers Park Country Club (Charlotte, N.C.), to commit to coming out to my club again for what would be our second collaborative dinner. Weeks and months went by and every scheduling conflict possible arose. Nonetheless, I locked him into a date and began marketing it to my membership. As the date grew closer, we began developing a menu with wine pairings.

We shared a similar goal in that we each wanted the other to benefit from this as much as possible. So when Hall arrived at Glenmoor CC, he brought with him two of his chefs while I included three of mine as well as an apprentice. Not only were new lessons learned regarding technique, composition, and menu development, but the collaboration and networking made available to both of our teams will be unending.

Just two days after Hall and his team left our club, I flew out to Myers Park CC to assist with a dinner he was hosting for the American Academy of Chefs. During my time at Myers Park, I essentially became a part of a new team which was both nerve-wracking and exciting. Hall and I have very different cooking styles and methods for leading our teams so the experience was humbling and insightful. I felt as though I was a rookie in a new kitchen. We spent two days preparing a six-course menu of classical cuisine and I walked away with many new methods and processes that I have already begun to incorporate into future menus.

To further my involvement and education, I finally conceded and agreed to join the ACFEF as a member on the National Apprenticeship Committee. After I wrote my blog about apprenticeship programs, the ACF national office reached out to me in hopes of getting me to sit in on their committee. They hope to vastly improve their apprenticeship program and make it more user-friendly and beneficial to both the sponsor house and the apprentice.  As vocal as I have been regarding my disdain towards the ACF as an organization, I thought that this would be a terrific opportunity to better familiarize myself with the organization and to be a part of a solution.

In addition to the ACF, I was invited to present to CMAA local chapters in Denver as well as Minnesota. During these events, we talked about club operations from both a membership perspective as well as a culinary perspective. This really pushed me out my comfort zone. I agreed (twice!) to talk to groups of club managers rather than club chefs. But by participating in these events, I hope that I am helping to bridge the gap between club manager and club chef.

2017 was a year of progress and learning for me. And to kick off 2018, I’ve just returned from the 2018 Chef to Chef Conference in Seattle where I had the honor of leading a panel of talented chefs who discussed various topics that affect both our clubs as well as careers. The education sessions and networking opportunities at Chef to Chef this year and in years past have been incredibly valuable.

So as you make your continuing education plans for the balance of 2018 and into 2019, remember that there is a myriad of outlets to tap into. Think outside of the box and chase your craft.

(P.S. If anyone is interested in collaborating on a guest chef and/or pop-up dinner with me, feel free to reach out!)

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