Executive Chef Jason McClain has led Los Angeles’ Jonathan Club to nearly $20 million in F&B revenue with an unmatched dedication to excellence.
As one of the largest food-and-beverage operations in the club industry, with nearly $20 million in F&B revenues, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Club operates under a simple philosophy: Passion for Quality.
AT A GLANCE
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.
Average Daily Covers: 1,000
Beach Club Foodservice Spaces:
Kitchen Employees: 60
Banquet Capacity: 400
Everything about the Jonathan Club speaks to an unmatched level of excellence—from the club’s partnership with local California farms, wineries and ranches, to its Urban Garden on the roof of its Town Club (see photo, above and pg. 23), to its newly remodeled Surf Side Grill at its Beach Club.
“Seven years ago, we established a vision of what the Jonathan Club could be, and we’ve worked hard to achieve that vision, making sure everything we do has a purpose and is meaningful,” says Matthew Allnatt, General Manager/COO. “Our garden, for example, is as much about our dedication to organic ingredients as it is a brand indicator for our members, to show that we’re serious about food.”
And of course, the dynamic professionals on the Jonathan Club’s management team—led by Allnatt and also including Executive Chef Jason McClain, Club Manager and Director of Operations Francois Grand, and Beach Club Manager and Director of Operations Ernie Dunn—enhance that impression by putting the club’s philosophy and vision into action every day.
The Power of the Chef
During the hiring process, McClain—who has been with the Jonathan Club for seven years and has been the biggest driver behind the club’s sweeping food-and-beverage changes—set himself apart with his obvious passion and impressive pedigree, which is filled with a variety of experiences from hotels, restaurants and casinos.
Once he became the club’s new Executive Chef, McClain was tasked with bringing more stability and cohesiveness to the club, along with elevating the food. “I came in with the mindset that I was either going to hit it big or get fired in six months,” he says.
Fortunately, the former proved true. “Chef [McClain] and I clicked right away,” says Allnatt. “There was a certain symmetry between us. He understood what I wanted and I got him at the right time in his career. It’s been a perfect fit.”
His first change as chef? The pancakes.
“I introduced a buttermilk pancake,” says McClain. “And the members noticed immediately. From there we overhauled everything and focused on ingredients and quality. Food has to have a soul, and simple things like a new pancake or a better roll can have a big impact.”
As evidenced by the pancakes, McClain focuses on the details with every dish he creates.
“You sell a lot more caesar salads and chocolate-chip cookies than you do foie gras,” he says, in emphasizing how a food program’s success hinges on ensuring that everything that is served every day must be outstanding.
“I like to showcase an ingredient in two or three ways on the same plate,” McClain adds. “It allows the member to taste different elements side-by-side.”
For example, if he is featuring an heirloom tomato salad, he’ll do roasted, dehydrated and pickled variations. “Then I’ll enhance the dish with the best basil or burrata on the planet,” McClain adds. “It’s by no means simple; it’s technique-driven.”
Quality Comes First
Over the past seven years, McClain has helped the Jonathan Club’s F&B operation grow by nearly 40%. During that same period of time, the club has added 700 members to its roster. Its dining operation, which spans both the Town Club in downtown Los Angeles as well as the Beach Club, located on the Santa Monica beach, remains its biggest and best amenity.
McClain oversees both culinary operations. As the larger of the two, the Town Club has five sous chefs, a pastry chef, and 30 kitchen employees. It rivals the best restaurants in California, with menus that are completely overhauled about five times a year. Meanwhile, specials change daily, based on what’s in season.
At the Beach Club, there are four sous chefs and a culinary staff of roughly 30. Dining is offered in the upstairs terrace as well as in the more casual Surf Side Grill, where a $6 million remodeling recently began that will make it a more family-driven operation, with casual fare and convenient, quick-service options.
“Our facilities must be impeccable,” says McClain. “The food can only deliver part of the experience. The other parts are in the service and the atmosphere we create for our members. It’s how they feel in the space. The [Surfside Grill] renovation will bring the space and the aesthetics up to the same quality as the food.”
Gutted all the way down to the studs in the dining room, the renovation of the Surfside Grill will be complete in May/June of 2017. The space will be transformed with glass walls, community tables, modern seating and a more efficient flow.
“Before Mr. Allnatt assembled the management team, the club had done a lot of piecemeal additions and renovations to the Beach Club,” says Dunn. “It was choppy and there were a lot of different themes and styles throughout the building. Once the renovation is complete, it will be more cohesive, creating a space for exceptional experiences for our members.”
The Beach Club menu features both family-friendly fare alongside more gourmet options. There are raw-bar pop-ups on the beach, an annual clambake (see photo, pg. 22) as well as Sunday family nights.
“At the end of the day, food drives the club,” says Dunn. “Members come here to go to the beach, work out or spend time with friends. These events happen around a meal period, so we have to have the best steak, the best protein shake and the best chicken fingers—and we do.”
Urban Farming Takes Root
While the Jonathan Club’s two properties are very different, the club’s approach to ingredients and completed dishes are the same. “I don’t believe chefs should over-manipulate food,” says McClain. “I believe that when you start with the best ingredients, the food will speak for itself.”
As part of the club’s quest to source the best-quality ingredients, McClain and Allnatt set up a 1,000-sq. ft. garden on an unused paddle-tennis court on the roof of the Town Club in 2010, with galvanized horse troughs used as garden beds (see photo, opposite, below). Seven years later, those beds now yield a wide array of vegetables, including micro-greens, broccolini, baby carrots, yuzu, blueberries, figs, snap peas and heirloom tomatoes.
Overall, the garden, which cost about $40,000 to build, now yields as much as $150,000 worth of produce every year. McClain and his chefs tend to it and harvest its bounty, with a local farmer coming by weekly to help maintain it.
But the garden does more than just provide organic and high-quality ingredients to the Town Club’s restaurants. “It’s a way for us to visually educate members and young cooks about the quality we provide and expect,” says Allnatt.
Going forward, the Jonathan Club plans to incorporate even more organic and GMO-free ingredients into menus through partnerships with local farmers. Allnatt and McClain are also looking to purchase a small farm where they can grow even more organic ingredients.
“It’s all part of building our brand,” says McClain.
Pop-Ups That Turn Permanent
When McClain first started at Jonathan Club, he pitched the idea to Allnatt for a pop-up restaurant with a steakhouse theme on the roof of the Town Club. Little did he know that pop-up would become the club’s hottest dining spot in the summer.
“We planned to do the steakhouse for a couple of weeks,” says McClain. “Then we ended up doing it all summer.”
And the next summer, too. In fact, since that first launch, “Chophouse and Sons” has become a summer staple for the Jonathan Club. Members can dine on the rooftop, overlooking downtown LA with a view of the Hollywood sign, and enjoy the best steaks in town.
“We are constantly trying to break the mold,” says Grand. “The steakhouse is one way, but there are dozens more. For everything from our mixology program to our annual ‘electric carnival’ party to the food-and-wine festival that we host, we refuse to accept complacency.”
Good People Inspire Success
Perhaps the secret to the Jonathan Club’s F&B accomplishments has been the dynamic and wide-ranging talent and experience within its executive team, which was built with four individuals who had no prior country-club experience—and one who had.
“We needed a team of professionals with strong business acumen,” says Allnatt, who has more than 25 years of experience in clubs. “Each manager brings something different to the table from their hospitality background. Collectively, we are stronger.”
For all five managers, their number-one priority is the member. And every dish that’s cooked, every table that’s set, and every party that’s planned is centered around creating a memorable and unique experience for those individuals.
“We’re in downtown Los Angeles,” says McClain. “Our competition is filled with some of the best restaurants and chefs in the world. We must be better, and we won’t accept being anything less.”
When McClain hires new cooks, he looks for individuals who are as green as possible. He takes them under his wing, trains them, offers them access to an ever-growing culinary library, and mentors them until they’re ready to move up, or on.
“My job as the Executive Chef is to create the brand and teach young cooks how to be a creative force,” he says. “This is a living, breathing operation. It has a soul, and we must continue evolving and changing.”
One way McClain keeps his cooks on their toes is by changing dishes or menus at the last minute. “Routines are great for set up, but I don’t want robots,” he says. “Every day, I’ll change a dish or an element to wake them up and force them to always be looking at how they can improve.”
Focus on Cocktails
The Jonathan Club has a Sommelier and Beverage Director, Caitlin Stansbury, and a Mixologist, Jen Len, who have revolutionized the club’s beverage business—especially the wine program, which is in a constant state of evolution and expansion. The club has more than 20 wine-focused dinners, seminars and events annually, and maintains over 3,200 wine selections between its two properties.
“Wine and cocktails are some of the most important parts of the dining experience,” says Allnatt, who says that he spends as much time on the beverage side of F&B as he does on food. “Thanks to our beverage team—which is as dynamic and exciting as any you’ll find in the country—our members are drinking more of both.”
The club’s back bar is home to over 450 ultra-premium liquor brands, including hundreds of rare, small-production artisan spirits and liqueurs. The diverse and eclectic spirits program focuses on quality, intensity and style, often featuring spirits from small, local distilleries. Local craft beers, sours, ciders and ales also share the spotlight—especially in the dining rooms, where their natural affinity with food is highlighted.
“We changed our glasses, retrained our staff, changed our ice and began introducing classic cocktails to members that they’d never had before,” says Allnatt. “Today, our best-selling drink is a bourbon old-fashioned.”
Drawing inspiration from classic cocktail recipes, the club takes tradition one step further by incorporating fresh seasonal herbs and produce from the club’s garden, house-made syrups and infusions, and the finest small-batch spirits, bitters and liqueurs into each complex and balanced cocktail. This is all thanks to Len, described by Allnatt as “savvy, refreshing and creative.”
“She’s been with us for five years, and she continues to grow and evolve,” he adds. “I rebel against the fact that people in this industry change jobs every two weeks. If you create the right environment, challenge them and inspire them, they will stay with you.”
This has proved to be the case for all managers at the Jonathan Club—especially McClain.
“How do you keep a racehorse in top shape?” Allnatt asks. “You keep training, conditioning and pushing them to be better. And give them the space to grow.”