Donald Emery is extremely proud at all times of The Riviera CC’s culinary operation, led by Executive Chef Simon Lewis—and especially during high-profile events such as the Women’s All-American Tennis Championship, Genesis Open, US Amateur Championship and upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics.
Donald Emery, General Manager of The Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., is not shy about expressing how proud he is of the club’s culinary team, led by Executive Chef Simon Lewis (“Hollywood Moments,” C&RB, December 2015). Posts on Emery’s social-media pages frequently praise the staff’s superior work ethic and recognize how it successfully meets the challenges posed by a full schedule of special events, ranging from guest-chef dinners to high-profile tournaments.
But the club’s F&B operation wasn’t always so impressive. The goal was to elevate the caliber of food and beverage at Riviera equal to its famous golf course. The club has done so with strategic hires, strong leadership and copious amounts of support.
C2C: What was F&B like when you first came on board?
DE: There were inconsistencies in service and food. The menu was dominated by classic club cuisine and there wasn’t much diversity in the offerings.
C2C: Where did you begin?
DE: We wanted the menu to better reflect the multigenerational and multinational makeup of our membership. We also wanted to make sure the team could flawlessly execute the menu and quality of service every day. We started with the existing staff. We gave them the opportunity to accept the changes we planned to make, and we explained their roles if they chose to stay with us. Some were on board and others—including the chef—decided to move on.
C2C: The club needed a new Executive Chef. What qualities were you looking for in that person?
DE: Our club deserves someone with passion for the craft, strong leadership skills, and the ability to develop and inspire a team. We wanted someone with strong business acumen, who would go above and beyond to create very special member experiences. We found that with Chef Simon Lewis.
C2C: Did the club’s ownership want the same things?
DE: Absolutely. They wanted someone with an impressive culinary pedigree, who could lead the back of the house with passion. They also wanted someone with range, who could cook at many levels for many different tastes.
C2C: What made Chef Lewis stand out as the one?
DE: It took us six months to find [Lewis]. But he was worth the wait. I’ve learned that it isn’t always about the resume. The right person has to fit the culture of the club.
[Lewis] had been working in a very exclusive restaurant—Joel Robuchon at the Mansion—in Las Vegas. He was working long hours and doing the same thing day in and day out. He had a young family and wanted a better work/life balance. He wasn’t willing to sacrifice his craft, though. We were able to attract him by offering him all the things he wanted not only in the kitchen, but outside it as well.
C2C: Does the club approach all new hires in this way?
DE: We do. Bringing on the right person is more important than hiring to fill a position. We must showcase the unique opportunities we can offer and ensure that we meet the needs of the candidate, and vice versa.
C2C: Once Chef Lewis was on board, how did he get his arms around the operation?
DE: It helped that he brought three sous chefs with him. Together, they had an immediate impact. The food was better and more consistent, and so was the service. And the kitchen was more organized and well-run. All those things hold true four years later.
C2C: Has having a chef like Lewis had an impact on the caliber of staff you’re now able to attract?
DE: Absolutely. Almost immediately our culinary team was able to swing the staffing pendulum in the opposite direction. We’re now able to attract the best in the business, because they want to learn from, and work beside, our chef.
C2C: How does the F&B team grow and improve?
DE: Our team is continually learning new skills. They take group trips to farms and local markets and they dine at restaurants in and around Los Angeles. We also invite guest chefs to spend time with our staff, teaching them new techniques and approaches. This allows our team to expand its knowledge base and bring a new level of cuisine and service to our members.
In addition, our staff documents recipes, prep lists and plating to create more consistency throughout the entire process.
C2C: Can you give us a snapshot of how your operation runs with such a unique membership base?
DE: We create memorable moments with our members, no matter how often they are here with us.
For our guest-chef dinners, for example, we’ve brought in “Chopped” champions, fellow club chefs, and even one of the top Japanese vegan chefs. This is all because of Chef Lewis. He is able to attract interesting people and give the members something they can’t get anywhere else.
C2C: What do you appreciate most about Chef Lewis?
DE: His passion for quality and excellence doesn’t wane, whether it’s in the dish pit or during a gourmet meal. His standards are consistent and well-defined. He sets clear expectations, and his staff lives up to them. He holds them accountable.
C2C: What kinds of people thrive on your club’s F&B team?
DE: To be able to thrive here, you have to be passionate about what you do, whether that means cleaning a bathroom, cooking a meal or setting a table. You have to understand the uniqueness of our club and its membership. Riviera’s motto is, “Only the best is good enough.” This philosophy is imprinted on all of us, and it forces us to evolve and constantly improve.
C2C: Riviera has been busy this past year with tournaments and events. Plus, you’ll be part of Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics in ten years. How do you handle big events?
DE: Creatively. We are consistent and steady. We understand the uniqueness of our situation and realize that Riviera is an extremely special place. The pride we feel has an impact on how well we do our jobs and how we have handled, and will continue to handle, big events.
C2C: If you could tell chefs one thing about club management, what would it be?
DE: We are in a very unique part of the hospitality industry. Our guests may come back year after year, or day after day. We’re in some of the most wonderful surroundings in the world. Let that reflect in everything you do. Show passion and appreciation for your club, the people you serve and the people you serve with. That’s the recipe for success.