The steady stream of culinary luminaries he works with for the club’s Celebrity Chef Series is just one way Executive Chef Nick Gatti helps to keep the excitement level high at Alpine CC.
In 1928, A.W. Tillinghast, famed designer of courses at Bethpage State Park, Winged Foot Golf Club, Baltusrol Golf Club and many other top U.S. clubs, took on his most challenging project. Alpine Country Club, in Demarest, N.J., is built on the rock formations of the Jersey Palisades, across the Hudson River from New York City. Much blasting was needed to get the course to Tillinghast’s perfection.
Current Position: Executive Chef, Alpine Country Club, Demarest, N.J. (1994-Present)
Alpine CC, which has earned “Platinum Club of America” status, has since become known for its pursuit of perfection in many other aspects of club life. Its members now enjoy a rebuilt (2007) clubhouse with many amenities, including first-rate dining for all occasions.
The head man in Alpine’s kitchen for the past 17 years has been Executive Chef Nick Gatti, an extremely popular figure around the club. And as he tells us in this interview, Chef Nick has worked with many popular celebrity chefs at his club for events that have provided exciting new member experiences.
Q: Nick, I had to ask you about your “Celebrity Chef Series” twice, because I didn’t believe what I had heard the first time. How has Alpine CC brought so many world-renowned chefs and culinary talent to your property, and what it’s been like to work with them in your own kitchen?
A: One of our members, Herb Karlitz, is the producer of the New York City Wine & Food Festival, among others. He knows, and is friendly with, many chefs including Morimoto, David Burke, Thomas Keller and Marcus Samuelsson, all of whom have appeared in our kitchen during Alpine’s Celebrity Chef Series.
We’ve incorporated something from each chef after they’ve been here. David Burke gave us a “Bronx Veal Chop” (a bone-in chop using filet mignon from the hip). Marcus Samuelsson left a North African spice mix, which we now emulate in several dishes. And the Morimoto evening was a truly symbiotic affair. We got to see some incredible East/West food, particularly the sushi, as well as one of the best Torchon de Foie Gras that I ever ate. From their side, the Morimoto team was able to use our banquet-style expertise to execute their tasting restaurant dishes for over 100 people per course.
Thomas Keller and the Per Se group were, of course, truly special. I nicknamed them the “Navy Seal Team 6” of the culinary world. They came in self-contained and thorough and were friendly, easy to work with, and very giving professionally. The Keller team is in the business of finesse and perfection, but they are also very calm. From them, we learned our kitchen’s new favorite expression: “Put eyes on that.” Be it the dessert station, carving board or banquet expediting process, it’s all about watching every process, to make it as perfect as we can.
Q: Chef, Alpine is a very family-oriented club, and you and your team do a great job with catering to the kids. What are some of the most successful concepts and specific dishes you have developed?
A: Our General Manager, Joseph (Jay) Donnelly, CCM, our Clubhouse Manager, Chad Chadwell, and our front and back teams provide many of our ideas, as do our members. After all, we were all kids once (some of us still are), and many among us have little ones.
A recent success has been our Thursday Family Nights. This is a great way to keep the club full and operating on off-season Thursday nights. Every week has a different entertainment element; a magic show, ventriloquist, kids’ dance party, etc. Another big success recently was Chanukah “Holibaloo” crafts night (cupcake Menorah building, dreidel cookie decorating, etc.).
For these events, we usually have three manned action stations: build your own pizza, build your own hamburger slider, and a station where you can make your own taco or quesadilla, along with mac-n-cheese, a kids’ pasta bar, and a grilled cheese sandwich station. We rotate these things week to week. The children get a charge out of instructing the cooks how to construct their meals.
Q: Nick, you write four menus a week at Alpine. What are the keys to offering variety while still giving members their favorite signature dishes?
A: Always remember that you are cooking for the membership, and not fulfilling some culinary quest for yourself. Keep it simple and recognizable, with clean presentations. Our clubhouse manager tracks “stars” and “dogs” through our POS software. Do this long enough, and you can build a pretty long list of rotation items, without it seeming so repetitive.
I spend about one full day a week on menu planning. I try to incorporate upcoming buffet items into the a la carte mix, and also blend upcoming banquet items into the weekly mix. If I have to practice an item for an important banquet, I will “try it out” on the membership.
Q: After 17 years at the same club, what are you most proud of that you can share with fellow club chefs for developing their own long-range plans?
A: We seem to have achieved a singular reputation as ”THE” place to have a wedding or Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I have also heard many members reference Alpine Counry Club as “the best restaurant in town.” That sort of thing just wants to make you puff out your chest.
Advice? There are a few things I try to follow: Honor the past. It’s theatre, not war. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nothing succeeds like success. And love your membership, which is your raison d’etre.
Q: What are the specifics of your menu-writing schedule, and your main sources of inspiration?
A: I write two a la carte menus per week, Wednesday and Friday. They contain about ten apps and ten mains. Of those, about six apps and six mains change completely every week. The Wednesday menu is tweaked so that about four apps and four mains will change again for Friday.
Additionally, in season I have to write 2 BBQ menus (Thursday and Sunday) that also change from week to week. More casual Bistro menus are needed for Saturday nights, and also change weekly.
Roast chicken, grilled salmon, New York strip steak and some type of large grill (lamb chops, veal chop) almost never change on the a la carte menus. Shrimp cocktail and chopped and caesar salad are my only “must haves” on the appetizer side.
I write ideas down constantly. I subscribe to or read a bunch of food magazines (Food Arts, Art Culinaire, Lucky Peach, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking and more). I live on the food side of the Internet. I belong to a private food group of diners whose sole purpose, it seems, is to collect Michelin-starred dining experiences.
I am a charter member of Mouthfulsfood.com and find the CIA websites, the Wednesday New York Times and Cookingdistrict.com to be invaluable resources. I search out restaurant websites and constantly look at the menus and pictures. Not to steal ideas, but to gather inspiration. GuySavoy.com is a great personal favorite.
Q: Finally, Nick, you are going to attend the 4th Annual Chef to Chef Conference in New Orleans in March. What are some topics that you would like to see covered and discussed?
A: Lately, I am obsessed with the “Grand Unified Theory of Club Food and Beverage.” This involves developing a large, relational database of every inventory item currently in use that’s linkable to every associated individual item cost and scalable to every recipe in use, so that a banquet or a la carte menu can be instantly costed per person and per portion, as it is written, in real time. This way I can leave my computer and spend more time cooking. How cool is that!
View Executive Chef Nick Gatti’s recipes for: