The Master Chefs of Cleveland’s Union Club

By | July 25th, 2018

With two Certified Master Chefs, the 146-year-old Cleveland club is elevating its dining program and the level of professionalism within its staff.

Union Club

When Arnaud Berthelier, Executive Chef of the Union Club of Cleveland, successfully passed the American Culinary Federation’s Certified Master Chef (CMC) examination this past February, he propelled the 146-year-old city club into the spotlight.

“We are the only private club with two Certified Master Chefs on staff,” says Lawrence McFadden, CMC, General Manager and COO, who passed the same examination in 2001 and came to the club in 2015.

Berthelier runs the culinary operation. McFadden runs the club. Together, they are elevating not only the caliber of the Union Club’s food-and-beverage program, but also the level of professionalism within its staff.

CMC as GM

Arnaud Berthelier, CMC, (left) and Lawrence McFadden, CMC, are elevating the Union Club’s dining program as well as the level of professionalism within its staff.

McFadden’s background is vast and varied. He has worked in a variety of food-and-beverage roles in hotels, casinos, clubs and resorts around the world, including The Greenbrier (White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.), the Waldorf Astoria New York, and Ritz-Carlton properties in Amelia Island, Fla., Naples, Fla., and Washington, D.C.

“When the club hired me—a CMC—as GM/COO, many of the members assumed I’d immediately start changing the food or hire a new chef, but that wasn’t where my attention was needed most,” says McFadden. “This is an old-line club with a lot of tradition. Change doesn’t happen quickly. Plus, the food and the chef were dependable.”

In addition to other management priorities, McFadden began collecting data about member preferences and behaviors, to gain more insight into the dining operation.

“The membership had their hands pretty deeply in F&B,” says McFadden. “But so much of dining is preference. I had to show the Board that an opinion doesn’t necessarily equal a problem.”

McFadden also wanted to show opportunities for growth, so he surveyed the membership to find commonalities. He monitored sales and evaluated trends. He interpreted the data he collected, and articulated to the Board and various committees where the club was profitable, where it was losing money, what events were popular, and how the dining program could be improved.

“The data was irrefutable,” says McFadden. “It allowed us to move in a more strategic direction with the full trust and confidence of the membership.”

Some of the changes—like bringing back fresh flowers, pressing the linens, polishing the silver and improving the cleanliness of the club—were instant. Others took some doing.

Bringing In Berthelier

McFadden began by stressing the importance of service and hospitality with staff.

The Union Club

AT A GLANCE
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Members: 1,600
Annual F&B Revenue: $2.5M
A la carte/Banquet Mix: 30/70
Food Cost: 36%
Beverage Cost: 32%
F&B Minimum: None
A la carte Foodservice Spaces
(and capacities):

  • Main Dining Room (75 seats)
  • Grill Room (70 seats)
  • Bar (15 at the bar + 40 seats)
  • Al Fresco patio (50)
  • Wedgewood Room (75)
  • Main Ballroom (300)

No. of Kitchens: 1
No. of BOH Employees:
20
No. of FOH employees: 15
Kitchen Sizes: 3,000 Sq. Ft.
Clubhouse Size: 95,000 Sq. Ft.
Banquet Capacity: 300 seated

“The basics had gotten lost along the way,” he says. “We began employee training programs. We offered better scheduling and leadership classes for managers about how to improve themselves and the member experience.”

McFadden encouraged members to speak up if there was an issue, and he and his management team consistently found ways to address anything that came up.

“During the first year, I wanted the chef to understand my management style,” says McFadden. “Members weren’t knocking on my door to complain about the food. It was fine, but they also weren’t pulling out their phone to take a picture of a particularly beautiful dish. They weren’t raving to others about how amazing the food was. They weren’t coming here because it was a dining destination. We were clearly missing out on an opportunity.”

So, McFadden set new goals for the chef around what he wanted to deliver going forward.

At that time, the chef who had been with the club for nearly 20 years decided to move on. McFadden then began looking for a new chef, which led him to Berthelier.

“I wanted someone for whom cooking was not just a job—but a passion,” he says.

Berthelier had been working at The Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Fla. as the Executive Sous Chef. He was in the process of preparing for his CMC certification.

“Chef and I worked together years ago at the Ritz,” says McFadden. “He’s an incredibly talented culinarian with a lot of integrity. I knew he would be able to transform our culinary program.”

Berthelier accepted the position, sight unseen.

“I trust [McFadden],” says Berthelier. “He will invest in me if I invest in the club.”

Berthelier arrived in October 2017 and spent the first few months getting his arms around the operation, while simultaneously studying and preparing for the exam.

“[McFadden] stressed the importance of the test,” says Berthelier. “He said that it needed to be my priority. So I introduced weekly specials and used them as a way to practice.”

All his hard work paid off. Berthelier passed in February and, armed with three new letters behind his name, began focusing on improving the operation.

Changing Everything

Berthelier’s task was straightforward but monumental. He was asked to revamp the entire culinary operation at the Union Club, to infuse it with more professionalism and elegance, and to offer better quality and more consistency.

He began in the kitchen, cleaning and reorganizing equipment. He then evaluated the team, hiring new cooks, training tenured cooks and establishing internship programs with local culinary schools. He formed relationships with local vendors and began shopping at the nearby farmers’ market.

He then started introducing new dishes that would exceed members’ expectations. And while the pressure was on, this newly minted CMC barely broke a sweat.

“Being a CMC isn’t just about taking a test,” says McFadden. “It’s a lifestyle. It means you’re healthy, driven, intelligent and a lifetime learner. It means you’re interested in growing your intelligence and your craft.”

For both McFadden and Berthelier, the CMC test was part of their journey—it was not the destination. It has simply been a tool to help each of them achieve greater success in their careers, and their lives.

“Getting the staff to see me as a peer is important,” says Berthelier, who works on the line alongside his cooks. “I am a working chef. I am there to correct, guide and coach my cooks. We start with classic techniques and we tweak and elevate in important ways to transform the final dish.”

Throughout, the support Berthelier has received from McFadden has been unwavering and a critical part of the club’s success.   

“Being a ‘master’ allows us to sit at the table with our members—many of whom are at the top of their professions—and show that we, too are experts in our craft,” says McFadden. “It brings great clout and prestige to the club. It also creates a culture of learning.”

Berthelier’s Sous Chef and his Chef de Cuisine have both achieved Certified Executive Chef credentials, with hopes of earning more certifications in the future. Meanwhile, the club’s Beverage Manager, Linda Wenninger, is working toward becoming a sommelier. And Scott Spencer, Assistant General Manager, is in line to become a GM within the next few years.

“[Spencer] is an extremely gifted learner,” says McFadden. “He will no doubt be a disciple of the Union Club in the coming years when he steps up to run his own operation.”

What Has Worked

These four initiatives have had the greatest impact at the Union Club over the past year:

Chef’s Community Table. “The members don’t know what’s on the menu until they get here,” says Arnaud Berthelier, CMC, Executive Chef. “They come along for an exciting culinary ride.”

Creating Culinary Events. “We have a vinyasa-and-vines program, as well as a cuvée club that allows members with similar interests to interact within the bounds of F&B,” says Melissa Lias, Director of Marketing. “For these events, chef does a tasting menu to highlight whatever the topic or theme may be.”

Weekly Seasonal Specials: “We never really had specials before,” says Scott Spencer, Assistant General Manager, who has been with the club for nearly 20 years. “Now we have seasonal menus and constantly changing specials. There is always something new for members to try, which keeps them more engaged than ever before.”

The Lightbox. “I knew we were in the big leagues when Chef asked for a lightbox to photograph his food,” says Spencer. “Now in our communications, we can show our members just how beautiful his dishes truly are.”

On the Plate

McFadden is the first to admit that he hired a chef he believes is better than himself.

“Members are constantly stopping me to rave about the food,” he says. “[Berthelier] is a very humble chef, but he’s never satisfied. He believes each dish he creates can always be better. That attitude is now permeating all parts of our operation.”

Berthelier changes the club’s menu seasonally and offers new specials weekly. With each new rollout, the entire Union Club staff—even engineering, valet and front desk—attends the tasting.

“We do this so that when Mr. Smith drops his car at the valet, for example, and asks Breen Coughlin, our Lead Valet, what he should have for lunch, Breen can tell him with authority about this amazing dish he tasted,” says Spencer. “These tastings put us all on the same page and give us all talking points to share with members.”

Another initiative that has taken hold is Berthelier’s weekly Chef’s Community Table (see “How Our Chef’s Table Satisfies the Majority,” C2C Blog, May 2018), which replaced the club’s quarterly tasting dinners.

During the Friday night dining event, twelve members sit at a dedicated table in the middle of the Grill Room, surrounded by other members. Berthelier prepares five courses featuring the best of what’s available in the market, while Wenninger offers a host of pairings.

The experience is by reservation only and is sold out weeks in advance.

“It has given our membership an opportunity to indulge in our chef’s creativity, while allowing them to share in a unique culinary experience with other members they may otherwise never directly interact with,” says McFadden.

“The table allows me to experiment with new dishes and techniques, to see how the membership responds,” says Berthelier. “I am inspired by the ingredients available each season and this table allows me to showcase them—while creating an exclusive one-of-a-kind dining experience for our members.”

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