The pandemic has made club members crave comfort foods more than ever, and chefs are responding by providing feel-good favorites for indoor, outdoor and takeout dining.
After three months of waiting for the reopening of on-site dining at Essex County Country Club in West Orange, N.J., members are returning en masse (though socially distanced, of course), eagerly anticipating not a five-course fancy dinner, but a hearty helping of some good old-fashioned meatloaf.
“We were supposed to open our dining room at the beginning of July, but a spike in virus cases rescinded that,” says Mark Sokolofsky, the club’s Executive Chef. “But we have reopened our upper- and lower-covered patio seating, and we’ve been filling those tables up a week in advance.”
Although Sokolofsky offers a varied menu of innovative, seasonal and upscale fare, many members opt for “down-to-earth, simple food,” he says.
“If I try to take meatloaf off the menu, members will ask me where it is,” he notes.
For this popular dish, Sokolofsky uses the trims from the filet mignon, chain and certified Angus beef steaks that are cut in the club’s kitchen. To make the meatloaf succulently moist (as well as his meatballs—see recipes for both on pg. 35), he uses a panade (fresh breadcrumbs soaked in milk). Another way he preserves the interior moisture is to cook the loaf, covered in aluminum foil, in a water bath.
The club’s signature burger, its best-selling casual item, went through a serious vetting process, including the meat blend and the accoutrements, by the chef and club-member House committee. Their input is reflected in the burger made from certified Angus beef topped with apple-smoked bacon, Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese, beefsteak tomato and leaf lettuce.
Pre-pandemic, members were used to building their own burgers from a condiment bar at the grill between the 9th and 10th holes of Essex County’s golf course. But now, Sokolofsky notes, cooks must assemble and wrap them in foil before they are put out for the players. “The members enjoyed topping their own burgers, and they do miss that,” he notes.
Italian comfort foods also appeal to Essex County CC’s members. Two favorites are the Bolognese lasagna, the second top-selling dinner item after the meatloaf, and cavatelli from a small family producer, served with sausage, broccoli rabe, roasted garlic and red pepper flakes. “We sell at least 20 of the cavatelli per day,” Sokolofsky says.
To make service more efficient during a period when kitchen staff has been reduced, Sokolofsky did some streamlining of his menu. Usually, he would pair each of his entrée dishes with different starches and vegetables, with as many as eight different starches and 10 different vegetables on one menu.
Now, though, he offers the entrées already paired with sides. For example, all meat entrées come with mashed potatoes, and fish dishes with jasmine rice. And all dishes are served with the same vegetable blend.
To make sure members did not have to miss their favorite foods, Sokolofsky made takeout available during the club’s closure, and Essex County’s kitchen turned out over 100 meals, mostly dinners, per day.
“Fortunately, business never went down for us,” the chef explains. “But now that our outdoor dining is open, our members prefer the full club experience.”
Comfort That’s Close to Home
The members of the Country Club of Paducah (Ky.) like it when Executive Chef Michael Harlow gets creative with Southern comfort classics. Examples include adding bacon to a pimento cheese sandwich, and salmon and fried green tomatoes for a riff on a classic BLT.
But some iconic regional specialties are served straight up with their traditional sides, such as the cornmeal-dusted fried catfish with hush puppies, and white beans and ham with braised turnip greens.
And steak is not just reserved for celebratory dinners at the CC of Paducah. It shows up in numerous incarnations on the casual menu, both in the clubhouse dining room and the sports bar downstairs.
The familiar Caprese salad, with tomato, fresh buffalo mozzarella and basil, becomes heartier fare when it is crowned with slices of an 8-oz. steak and a balsamic vinaigrette. A New York strip sandwich and steak quesadilla are also featured on the menus at both dining spots.
Both outdoor and indoor restaurant service at the club resumed on May 22 at 25%. Casual fare is available in the main dining room, downstairs sports bar and outside deck. On June 29, the pool grill opened, serving chicken breast, burgers, brats, hot dogs and baby back ribs.
For sanitation purposes, Harlow has switched to single-use paper menus in the indoor and deck dining areas. An insert, revised every two weeks, features comfort-food family dinner, appetizer and dessert specials.
“Tuesdays are particularly busy for us, because that’s when the new inserts come out,” he says.
Keeping the Light and Casual
Richard Kunsch, Executive Chef of The Haven Country Club in Boylston, Mass., also switched to disposable paper menus when his outdoor dining area reopened in mid-June and his main dining room resumed service two weeks later. To accommodate the pent-up demand for dining out while still following social distancing and other health guidelines, Kunsch has been able to stretch his dining space into the club’s banquet room and bar, which has high-top deuce tables.
“When we opened, we did as many covers as we did during the same period the year before,” Kunsch notes.
With a reduced kitchen staff, Kunsch cut his menu—50% of which is casual fare—in half. “Sixty to 70% of our members prefer lighter, more casual meals, especially those who dine here two or three times a week,” he says.
Large salads are popular and are anything but an afterthought on The Haven’s menu. A Mediterranean salad, for example, is abundant with mixed greens, quinoa, cous cous, chickpeas, roasted tomatoes, olives and feta, and served with a lemon shallot vinaigrette.
A maple-roasted salmon salad (see recipe with the online version of this article at www.clubandresortbusiness.com) also “got great reviews,” according to Kunsch. He also turns casual salads into upscale entrees by topping them with grilled salmon, shrimp, seared scallops or lobster.
Hugs on the Side
To give members a taste of their home away from home during the dining room shutdown, Michael Harlow, Executive Chef of the Country Club of Paducah (Ky.), developed family dinner packages for curbside pickup.
Among the family-style offerings have been meat and four-cheese lasagna with Italian salad, garlic green beans and garlic bread sticks; buttermilk fried chicken with mashed potatoes, country green beans and warm apple cobbler; and Yankee-style pot roast with roasted potatoes and root vegetables, savory biscuit and carrot cake for dessert.
Members liked the service so much that the club is continuing to offer it, even though both indoor and outdoor dining resumed at 25% capacity on May 22.
With their takeout orders, Harlow gives members a sweet surprise, such as a slice of apple pie or fresh warm cookies.
“There’s so much tension in the world today, it’s our way of showing that we care about our members,” he explains. “It’s kind of like giving them a hug.”
Members can order via text, e-mail or telephone calls. Harlow encourages members to order earlier in the day—between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.—by offering those who do a 10% discount on their meal.
Spotlight on Sanitation
Cleanliness is always a high priority, but with the heightened attention to deep and continuous sanitation and reductions in staff, some chefs are taking extra measures when it comes to keeping their kitchens and dining rooms clean and safe.
Mark Sokolofsky, Executive Chef at Essex County Country Club in West Orange, N.J., believes that the circumstances have resulted in a more efficient cleaning system for his club.
“Members are always coming back and asking for a tour of the kitchen, so we have to keep things spotless,” Sokolofsky said. “You could eat off the floor of our walk-in.”
To make sure that continues, Essex County hired a full-time porter to work from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., six days a week. The porter’s sole job is to clean, and he comes in before the staff arrives, to make sure the night staff has left everything up to the club’s standard of cleanliness. In addition to the clubhouse kitchen and dining room, the porter is responsible for checking out the storage and delivery areas and the pool area, including the disposal area behind it.
Summing It Up
> Even as clubs need to reduce menus because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, comfort-food favorites such as meatloaf, burgers and salads with proteins can satisfy a large portion of existing demand.
> Pairing entrees with sides ahead of time and serving the same vegetable blend with all dishes can help to relieve strain when short-staffed.
> Look for ways to stretch dining space into unused areas such as banquet rooms and bars to accommodate demand as members return, while still following social distancing and other health guidelines.
- Pawley Island Lump Crab Cakes by Michael Harlow, Executive Chef. Country Club of Paducah (Ky.)
- Meatballs and Meatloaf by Mark Sokolofsky, Executive Chef, Essex County Country Club, West Orange, N.J.
- Maple-Roasted Salmon Salad by Richard Kunsch, Executive Chef, The Haven Country Club, Boylston, Mass.