Current Position: Executive Chef, Country Club of Hilton Head, Hilton Head Island, S.C. (2007-Present)
Education: Bachelor of Arts, School of Journalism, University of Oklahoma
After studying journalism in college, Mark Lietzke decided the story of his own career would be more interesting and rewarding if it were written from kitchens and dining venues. That shift eventually led to his great success as Executive Chef of South Carolina’s Country Club of Hilton Head.
The Country Club of Hilton Head (CCHH), founded in 1986, is managed by Dallas-based ClubCorp. Nestled at the back of South Carolina’s Hilton Head Plantation, CCHH, with 1,030 total members, stands majestically, with its Old English-style architecture and a Rees Jones-designed golf course (a venue for U.S. Open qualifying events) that features 14 doglegs, sweeping fairways, water on 16 holes, and pleasing views of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Besides great golf (now in the process of being made even greater, through a full greens renovation that will be completed at the end of this summer), there are six soft-surface tennis courts at CCHH, a state-of-the-art fitness and athletics facility, indoor and outdoor swimming, and fine cuisine under the direction of Mark Lietzke, who has been the club’s Executive Chef since 2007.
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a Journalism degree, Chef Lietzke decided that the story of his own career would be more interesting and rewarding if it were written in kitchens and dining venues. After working for restaurants in Colorado and Texas, he moved to the club side of the business in 1998 with what was then another ClubCorp property in the Hilton Head area, the Daufuskie Island Resort. After three years at that property, Lietzke spent six years at South Carolina’s Callawassie Island Club before coming to CCHH.
Under Lietzke’s direction, the culinary operation at CCHH has become known for excellent a la carte dining, well-attended themed events, and memorable meetings and weddings. With an abundance of great restaurant options in and around Hilton Head Island, Chef Lietzke’s ability to consistently attract CCHH members to his unique hideaway settings is quite a notable achievement, and C&RB appreciates his taking the time to provide insights into the story behind his successful operation.
Q Mark, your pre-ClubCorp professional experience goes back to small restaurants in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Austin, Texas. Possessing the vast amount of experience that you do, what culinary trends do you feel are here to stay—and what’s on the horizon?
A I once worked for a chef who used to remind me that no matter what a dish looks like, you have to have a good product, because that’s what usually starts all trends. That’s really been the only constant I’ve seen over the years, from the regional cuisines to the latest “in” product. I do think that the current trend for utilizing local products is only going to get stronger, with more chefs taking a more active role in growing or raising what they will put on their menus. Somehow, that connection just makes the food taste that much better.
Q Having worked in corporate contract management settings myself, I know how that can put an added emphasis on financial performance. Through your experience with ClubCorp properties, can you run through what sort of action plans you’ve developed over the years for when a red flag pops up because of monthly or quarterly spikes in food or labor cost percentages?
A The best way to discover any red flag, or to change the trend, is to take an active role in working with your employee partners. When you’re side by side with them, it allows you to coach and discover things like overproduction, excessive waste, or time-management issues. Especially with the cross-cultural kitchens that many of us now have, hands-on training sure beats a manual every time. With this hands-on approach, you can update your cost sheets, par levels and any of the other required corporate procedures and measurements, while still letting your employees be a part of it and giving them a sense of ownership in the financial performance of the club.
Q More and more chefs are now involved not only in the food end of club entertainment events, but also in helping to develop the concepts and overall themes. You have helped to develop a hugely successful series of “Trivia Night” events at the Country Club of Hilton Head that now consistently sell out, at 220 members per event. Can you share how this concept works from the front of the house?
A Our members have made this one of their favorite monthly club events. We started Trivia Night as a way to better utilize a night that was traditionally our slowest, while not taking away from any other night or private event. Members are responsible for forming a team of 10 and making a reservation. The captain is responsible for all communication to the team, which allows our F&B manager to concentrate on table placement, questions and service scheduling. We’ve incorporated prizes and a buffet into the cost of the event, with the prizes being anything from cash to club dollars that can be refunded when they dine with us.
We decided that a buffet was the best way to service 200-plus people, so with two buffets set, we usually serve everyone within 20 minutes. This allows the members to enjoy the rest of the night by showing off their knowledge to one another. It has become so popular that we occasionally have to add another night during the month, to handle all the enthusiasm for it.
Q Your “Low Country Boils” and “Oyster Roasts” also sound like really great events. Can you describe what it takes to turn these events out at beachside locations, without the convenience of your kitchen?
A The best things about these type of events are their simplicity. One of the local traditions in the Low Country of South Carolina is the Oyster Roast. It starts out with a hole dug in the sand, a couple of concrete blocks and a heavy piece of metal to go across the top. When the fire is hot, you throw the oysters on, cover them with a damp sack—usually the burlap that the oysters came in—and let them partially steam open. From there you shovel them onto tables that people are standing around, and let them do all the work. They have a blast finishing it themselves, by popping open their own oysters. We usually serve the Low Country Boil with it, which is a layered stew of sausage, shrimp and vegetables, all cooked in one pot.
With this event the setup is minimal and people really seem to enjoy the straightforwardness of it all. Cleanup is also minimal, with the oyster shells recycled back into local oyster beds. It’s a win-win situation all around.
Q Mark, at 20 to 30 weddings in a good year, you and the CCHH team probably have interesting concepts for how to customize the packages. Can you tell us about your role in designing a menu and also your overall interaction with the catering manager and wedding clients?
A After the clients have shown interest in having their event at CCHH, the catering manager coordinates everything with them: from location , to music, to linen, to party favors. We’ll invite the bride and groom and some of the wedding party in for dinner, not necessarily to taste what they are having at the reception, but to help them get a sense of our style of cuisine and make them feel at ease with the staff. I’ll usually make some recommendations but again, this meeting is mainly to let them feel comfortable about having CCHH do their event, and not worry if the food will be good or not.
I definitely get a better understanding of the clients with this small, casual meeting, which helps in customizing the event. From there, the catering manager and I will compare food notes and formulate a very detailed BEO, including a timeline, so that the reception will go off with out a hitch. We then distribute it so everyone, from the F&B manager to the banquet captains, will know what is going on. C&RB
Q Finally, Chef, in your “spare time,” you’ve taught some classes at the University of South Carolina. What did these involve?
A It was part of the extended learning center for the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, and my subject was “Gourmet With What You Got.” I showed how the attendees could pretty much make a restaurant-quality “gourmet” meal at home, without spending tons of money. A lot of tricks of the trade, combined with simple presentation skills, were what it was all about.