In just four short years, Executive Chef Randy Zerfass has transformed Lehigh Country Club in Allentown, Pa. into a dining destination with creative cuisine and very innovative dining events.
Lehigh Country Club, located in Allentown, Pa. just 60 miles north of Philadelphia, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010. The club’s superb 18-hole golf course was designed by famed architect William Flynn in 1926, and opened in 1928. Just after completing the Lehigh course, Flynn’s next project, at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., started that same year.
Lehigh CC also has active programs for racquets (tennis and paddle) and aquatics, as well as a very busy food-and-beverage program led by Executive Chef Randy Zerfass. In just four short years, Chef Zerfass has transformed Lehigh CC into a dining destination with creative cuisine and very innovative dining events.
We are fortunate that Chef Zerfass, a 20-year veteran of the club scene in east-central Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, could take time during a very active holiday season at his club to share some of his secrets to success.
C+RB Chef, like me, you followed a longtime Executive Chef at your club. What was your experience like as you were trying to establish your own identity with the membership?
Zerfass I think the membership was ready for the next chapter, as long as I respected the quality and consistency that preceded me. They were welcoming, and because I had spent 16 years split between two other clubs in the Lehigh Valley, I think a good number of my members knew me or knew of me (and my food style), and that was comforting to them.
I also had a great deal of support from my General Manager, who at that point had been at the helm for 39 years. As for the culinary staff, when I arrived, the morning Sous Chef had been here for 37 years; the morning Line Cook for 39; the evening Sous Chef for 19; the Chef Garde Manger for 15; the evening Pantry Cook for 17; the evening Line Cook for 19; the Banquet Manager for 27, and the Assistant General Manager for 24. Imagine trying to fit into all of that!
C+RB Your kitchen garden at Lehigh CC gets better and better every year. Can you offer tips on getting started and then raising the bar each season, and on what streamlining measures you’ve taken?
Zerfass Have a plan and do it for the right reasons. Make sure the members’ real estate is paying off with garden-grown menu items, and plant with your seasonal menu in mind—have fewer items but more quantity, so you can use house-grown items for the a la carte menu.
Placement of the garden is key. I was given real estate just off the 9th fairway that is very visible to the members and guests, but still close enough to the kitchen for easy access by the culinary staff. We also considered irrigation and deer fencing. The area we chose also had room for parking, for when we do our “fairway to table” dinners and cocktail parties.
Also, be friendly with your Grounds Superintendent and his crew; I couldn’t do it without them; they till the soil and prep us for planting. The Grounds Crew assists us with regular weeding, cleaning and watering.
Kalman Sasdi, our Sous Chef, has a passion for this project and takes a lead role on planting and trellising. It truly is a clubwide project. Also, one of our members is a very successful grower of produce and flowers for the retail and wholesale market and has become a great asset to us.
C+RB The garden is where you stage your spectacular Farm to Table dinners. How did these come into being, what type of feedback have you received, and what’s your plan for next year?
Zerfass When I started at Lehigh CC, my General Manager knew I wanted to do a chef’s garden, but it wasn’t until my second day that I told the House Committee that the garden would be the perfect place to hold our Farm to Table dinners al fresco. So we put it on the books for mid-August.
We were nervous as the first one approached: Did we prep the grounds properly? Did we plant at the correct times for utilizing the harvest? Did I age the manure long enough? Will our family of nesting bald eagles help keep varmints from eating the harvest? And thousands of other thoughts.
But everything came together great and our Farm to Table events sell out like a Springsteen concert, usually in the first three minutes. The dinners have become one of the premier events at Lehigh CC; our members are so proud to see that we put that much care and effort into providing them and their guests with fresh, beautiful and flavorful products that all came from our local property.
C+RB You work proactively with your front-of-the-house staff to improve service and efficiency during all meal periods, as well as member functions. What are the focal points, challenges and critical areas that are discussed at your club’s F&B meetings?
Zerfass Lehigh CC is fortunate to have an extremely active and engaged membership; our members love their club and use it frequently. I believe we are the first choice and top of mind when they think about dining out.
Our operation will be crossing the $3 million per year food-and-beverage threshold this year, with just over $2 million of that in a la carte business and the balance in catered events. Our cover counts have increased about 90% since 2013 and almost 50% since I started in 2016, to now over 70,000 per year.
We do this volume of business without a food minimum, which is a strength and a testament to our product and service. But it’s also a challenge, as we have reached critical mass from a production space and execution perspective. In short, we have outgrown our kitchen, and this challenge has prompted the need to revisit and refresh the long-term strategic plan for the club.
Our Board of Directors, at the urging of our new General Manager, has begun the process of planning for the future with a much-needed, 10-plus-year strategic plan; we are currently engaged with Chambers in Baltimore to facilitate this process. It is my hope and expectation that this plan will include either expanding my current kitchen or building a satellite kitchen where I could shift some of the casual and family-centric dining volume.
In the interim, business goes on and we do have three key daily areas of focus with our F&B team:
1) Speed. This is probably the largest obstacle of being undersized; when the kitchen gets overwhelmed with orders, production slows down; it is unavoidable. We try very hard to create and design menu items that are simple and quick to produce, but creative to keep traffic moving.
2) Accuracy. The worst thing that can happen when ticket times slow down is for something to be prepared incorrectly, inconveniencing our members and requiring them to wait even longer while it gets corrected. We really emphasize with the front-of-the-house staff to repeat orders back to the members as a verification, and to be really diligent when they input orders into the POS system, as well as for my kitchen staff to thoroughly read the tickets and ask questions (measure twice and cut once).
3) Consistency. We preach often that we prefer to be good every night, rather than great only occasionally. Consistency sets the floor for our daily performance, but with a ceiling that I hope is always unlimited.
C+RB You have had success with actively involving your members in cooking classes. We all know how challenging those can be to organize and to ensure that the takeaways for participants are worthwhile. How do you entice people to come, and how do you find interesting topics?
Zerfass I talk to my members a lot—I try to be a good listener, and even the most casual conversation helps me shape events like cooking classes, special functions and a la carte menus. I make each cooking class interactive with members, prepping two items that I will prepare for a tasting, such as Butternut Squash Bisque, Seared Sea Scallops and Chicken Milanese. I like to be visible and interactive with the members, and always solicit opinions.
Executive Chef, Lehigh Country Club, Allentown, Pa. (2015-Present)
• Executive Chef, Northampton Country Club, Easton, Pa. (2007-2015)
• Executive Chef, Saucon Valley Country Club, Bethlehem, Pa. (1999-2006)
Education and Professional Achievements:
• Completed Continuing Education Courses at Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., in Nutrition, Restaurant Management and Chef Certification
• Attended Club + Resort Business Chef to Chef Conference, 2012-2019
• Lehigh Valley ACF Chapter Chefs Association Chef of the Year, 1994
• Wood Company (Sodexo) Outstanding Chef, 1990
BBQ Shrimp and Fried Green Tomato
2 ea. U12 wild shrimp 1 ea. fried green tomato, 3/8 Inch
1 oz. pimento cheese spread 1 tbsp. candied bacon crumble 1.5 ozs. Southern BBQ sauce 2 tbsp. lemon aioli 1 cup baby frisee 1 tsp. lemon vinaigrette salt and pepper
1) Coat green tomato with buttermilk eggwash, Dredge in cornmeal flour and pan-fry until golden brown.
2) Char-grill shrimp and toss in BBQ sauce.
3) Smear aioli in center of plate and place tomato in center. Top with quenelle of cheese and shrimp.
4) Season frisee with salt and pepper, Dress with vinaigrette and place atop shrimp
5) Sprinkle with candied crumbled bacon.
6 ozs. trimmed and trussed venison loin
1 tbsp. fennel coriander spiced rub (see step one below)
½ cup vanilla bean and celery root puree (see step two below)
2 tbsp. cranberry pancetta gremolata
1.5 ozs. orange cranberry gastrique
1) Make spice rub (fennel seed, coriander, peppercorn and sea salt).
2) Make celery root puree (celery root, russet potato and vanilla bean heavy cream).
3) Crust venison with spice rub, Pan-sear, baste until rare and let rest.
4) Spoon and quenelle the celery root puree on center of plate.
5) Slice venison and arrange on plate.
6) Dress venison with gastrique and drizzle plate.
7) Top with gremolata (Italian parsley, toasted pepita, lemon zest, rendered pancetta and dried cranberry).