Peter Mark CHEF PROFILE
Executive Chef Peter Mark and the Avalon (N.J.) Yacht Club have had a wonderful relationship for 20 years-and he still gets to go fishing whenever he wants to.
The Avalon Yacht Club (AYC), located on the New Jersey shore south of Atlantic City, was formed in 1942 by a group that talked the borough of Avalon into selling a bayside location that had been used as a community dump site. With the country at war, the original membership had to find low-cost and discrete ways to get to and from their new social and dancing club (gas rationing was in place, and lights had to be kept dim at night all along the Eastern seaboard). A hay wagon was used to pick up and drop off members at designated spots, and a long, narrow path strung with faint lights marked the way to the clubhouse.
The camaraderie created by this unique original character of the club, combined with its prime location for both boating and social occasions (the site has won recognition for having “the best sunset at the Shore”), led to quick and strong growth of its reputation and membership. Today, AYC has 525 families among its membership, and its 9,000-sq. ft. clubhouse, which can accommodate 250 for a banquet, is known as a prime site for an intimate and special wedding—many brides from the Philadelphia area, in fact, happily prefer to schedule their big days at the club, even though it is over 60 miles from that city.
With busy spring and fall wedding seasons combining with boating-related activity that is concentrated between Memorial Day and Labor Day, AYC has long had a need for strong and steady direction of its food and beverage operation. Fortunately it found a perfect fit over 20 years ago in Executive Chef Peter Mark—for whom the club has provided great opportunities not only from the culinary side, but also to indulge his lifelong passion for sport fishing.
After completing another successful season at AYC, Peter was kind enough to take time to share some insights into the accomplishments and challenges that have been involved with managing this South Jersey landmark club through significant periods of growth and change since his arrival in the late 1980s.
Q Chef, what are some of the key components that have made you so successful at AYC for so many years?
A Twenty years is a long time to be in one position. But I still find each season to bring an exciting new challenge, and I love what I do each and every day! Being available to the members is important to me. Getting to know their personal needs, and listening to and acting upon their suggestions, are key components to my success here.
In addition, my success in part is due to my good working relationship with our club’s General Manager, Terry Thompson; together, our goal is to always do whatever we can to make AYC rock!
Q Your sous chef has also been a large part of your success at AYC. What have you done to help nurture that relationship?
A Jim Kelly has been with me now through three-plus seasons. He grew up in the business, and has run successful kitchens of his own. I involve Jim in all aspects of the yacht club business, because I value his opinion and welcome his expertise. Every day in the kitchen is a learning experience, and I believe we can always continue to learn from each other daily.
|The original members of AYC had to sneak onto the property, but now its clubhouse is a prominent sight both day and night.|
Q Overall, you give everyone on your culinary team free reign to create daily menu items. How does this help the environment in the kitchen during the busy summer season, and how do you monitor what everyone does in the menu-planning process?
A As I like to say, “A good staff contributes to the success of a chef!” The chefs that work the line during service are the backbone of the kitchen. I get my team involved because it makes sense to utilize their talents. As well, their job then becomes more enjoyable, and it is a win-win situation for all.
Letting them create their own featured menu items also makes them more accountable for their work. Therefore, a lot more “love” goes into every dish.
My staff and I meet every Sunday afternoon to discuss their menu plans for the upcoming week. We then work out the logistics and presentation of everything that we will present to the members.
Q As you’ve grown, what adjustments have you made in how you manage your kitchen, and where you physically position yourself at service?
A The recent needs of our members have surpassed the capability of the kitchen and its staff. So in the off-season last year, we reconfigured our front line to better utilize existing cooking equipment, and also added new, more efficient refrigerated workstations.
Because of these changes, we can now can keep more food prepared and available for service. Most importantly, the front-line chefs’ responsibilities have been restructured to allow service to flow more smoothly.
As well, this past season I stepped away from just being on the cooking line, so I could also provide “hands-on help” to each member of my staff. As you know, every station takes a huge hit during demanding service periods. By repositioning myself, I was better able to help anyone who needed assistance. This eased a lot of tension, knowing that I was there to lend a hand in making sure that every plate that left the kitchen was perfect.
Q Chef, your wedding business is phenomenal. Does it interfere with any member activity?
A The wedding business does not interfere with the member activity, but sometimes it is a juggling act. On weekends we do about 250 covers a night, and most weddings are about 175 guests—so in a 9,000-sq. ft. clubhouse, it can certainly be a challenge when all of this goes on at once. The key is keeping the two separate and always striving to make members happy while at the same time presenting a memorable wedding package.
Q How do you foresee the current state of our economy affecting you next season at AYC?
A We are already taking a hard look at all aspects of revenue and expense. Being a “family-oriented” club that revolves around a busy social calendar, my staff and I have much to ponder over the next several months. As we plan menus and strategies for the many events to come, our focus will be on ways to increase member participation. In other words, we will strive to create a unique dining and social experience so that our members will look forward to enjoying their club more often, and increase our year-end profits at the same time.