This month, Merion Golf Club’s Executive Chef (and C&RB Contributing Editor) Jerry Schreck is answering, not asking, the questions, as we discuss his experiences leading his culinary team through the 113th U.S. Open.
Editor’s Note: Normally, C&RB’s monthly “Chef to Chef” feature presents an interview conducted by Jerry Schreck, Executive Chef at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., with another leading club chef.
Jerry was somewhat otherwise occupied, however, in the weeks—actually months—leading up to publication of this issue, as he prepared Merion’s culinary operation to help the club host the 113th U.S. Open from June 10-16. Shortly after he saw Justin Rose kiss the Championship trophy and before he escaped to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for some well-earned R&R, Jerry was kind enough to let us turn the tables and have him be the one to answer, not ask, the questions for this edition of “Chef to Chef.”
Q: Jerry, now that you’ve had some time to start to decompress and let all that happened leading up to and including Open Week sink in, what are the primary emotions you’ve been feeling?
C&RB CLUB RECIPE
The kitchen staff (including C&RB Editor Joe Barks) that fed the masses in the members’ hospitality tent during Open Week was powered through the long and hectic days by a special protein shake whipped up for them each morning by Sous Chef David Daddezio, who directed the tent’s F&B operation. It worked so well, we thought it would be a valuable recipe for all club managers, to give your staff the needed boost to get through their most challenging events, too.
Yield: 48 ozs.
Submitted by David Daddezio, Sous Chef, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.
A: I decompress slower than most, but what I can tell you is that the action leading up to the Open is no picnic. Media days, corporate partner outings, regular Monday outings, May weddings, elevated May a la carte dining covers, background checks for temps, general paperwork, purveyor credentials distribution and regular and temp staff training are just a few of the tasks in the 40 days leading up to Open Week.
And once the week began, I am really thankful to my staff that logged all of those hours and persevered, even when they were forced to park in a different offsite location and get shuttled in for several days because of the weather. Through it all, they all helped us keep pushing forward to stay ahead of daily prep—a factor that is essential when attempting to serve all freshly prepared foods for huge numbers of people.
Q: Anyone you want to give special shout-outs to, both from within your regular staff and among the outside help you got, for going even more beyond the call than you’d already asked everyone to?
A: My two sous chefs, Noel Quigley and David Daddezio, each played a key role in the success of the week. Noel took charge of the production kitchen and his knowledge of big events, dating back to when Merion last hosted the Open in 1981, helped immensely. He also drove the very busy USGA dining area with his team. David took charge of the member hospitality tent and all of its surprises. Both chefs, knowing the property, staff’s abilities and remembering all of what we had discussed prior to the event, allowed me to focus on production, daily purchasing and general organization of the kitchen, refrigerated trailers and serving areas.
Outside of our staff, Paul O’Toole from Deerfield Golf & Tennis Club, Michael Kelly from the Vicmead Hunt Club, Jim Byrnes and his team from Aronimink Golf Club, Chris Grady from nearby Gulph Mills Golf Club, and even my brother George, the chef from The Lodge at Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vt., were essential to the success of the week. Without their partnership and attention to certain dining venues, it would have been impossible for me to have a clear overall view of operations.
Q: I know you spent a lot of time in the past few years going to other venues that hosted Opens and other major events, to try to get a feel for what you’d be in for. What proved to be the primary value of these trips, and how did they help you fine-tune your own approach and operation?
A: Every championship, tournament and club is different in how an event is hosted. The key is to take away small pieces every time you see an opportunity to streamline service. Over the last few years, I have had the chance to see how the concessions at Augusta National get folks through so efficiently, and how Forest Bell, Executive Chef at Congressional Country Club, organized his kitchen while serving 8,000 lunches within the clubhouse daily during the 2011 Open. By observing these situations, we can take away systems and concepts that will save time and make us more efficient.
It also helped a lot that I, along with Clive Smith, our Clubhouse Manager, had a tremendous amount of experience in corporate hospitality during our days with Restaurant Associates in New York, turning out large events.
Q: The Champions Dinner held on Tuesday night for former U.S. Open champions certainly had to be a highlight. Give us some insight on how that was planned and executed successfully, and what was particularly special about it for you.
A: To say that there was no anxiety about that evening would be a lie. While trying to get the week off to a good start, we had this very important dinner to execute on Tuesday evening. We really wanted to make an impact with the food, but knew that the night was about the camaraderie among the champions, given that this was the first time in many years [since Pebble Beach in 2000] that the USGA had tried this.
The food wasn’t complicated [see menu above], but the ingredients were the best we could buy—whether it was the Jersey strawberries on the salad, the Oregon morel mushrooms served with the steak entrée, or the white-chocolate cookies that were presented to each champion at the end of the dinner as customized favors—each cookie had our club logo and the year(s) each man had won the Open inscribed on it.
Thanks again to a lot of help and great performance from my staff and guest chefs, the dinner went off without a hitch, and I will certainly remember it as one of the most special I have ever been a part of.
Q: Looking back at how you prepared for the Open, was there anything you think you spent too much time on?
A: I don’t think you can be overprepared. Chefs wake up in the middle of the night thinking about produce and seafood orders, and that’s what makes us good at what we do. Focusing on small details is what sets us apart.
Q: Anything you wish you’d spent more time on?
A: Yes—being better organized to prepare proper thank-yous for all the outside chefs who traveled to Merion and worked all those hours to make the Open so successful. And doing more to stress the importance of getting the visiting chefs and our staff out on the property a little bit more, to enjoy and visualize what a spectacle it was that they were preparing all that food for.
Q: Despite all the time you put into trying to anticipate everything, were there still some surprises?
A: Those primarily came with having to react to the flow of business in hard-to-get-to foodservice locations and providing the proper staff support, either through more hands or better communication. In a satellite location, it’s a lonely feeling for those who are getting peppered with business and aren’t receiving the proper support. We did the best we could all week to move product and people around to adapt to upswings and downturns.
Q: The volume of activity, especially in the members’ tent, quickly proved higher than anticipated and kept outgrowing projections by bigger percentages with each new day. What kind of on-the-fly adjustments did that require, to make sure quality and service stayed at top levels?
A: Our food concept for that location was “grab-and-go,” similar to what you might see in a B&I servery in midtown Manhattan. When we saw severe waves of member and guest flows, especially when weather forced people inside at unexpected times, we adjusted our features at the “Chef’s Table” to better control where they were going and steer them away from the refrigerated cases that had more labor-intensive items like sandwiches and salads, and were harder to restock.
When we saw on one of the days early in the week that 300 cheesesteaks sold in 20 minutes, in a tent that held only 1,000 people, we knew we had opportunities—and that we were also in for a fight.
Q: The grounds maintenance team got a lot of attention and plaudits during the week, and deservedly so, especially with the weather challenges that came up. But it seems like very little public or media attention was given to what other club departments, and in particular F&B, were doing. Is this just the nature of a major golf tournament?
A: It is what it is. People come to Merion for the chance to play one of the best tracks in the world. I know that, and I can only strive to enhance that experience by also startling those guests with a level of food-and-beverage service they can’t get elsewhere. Our Greens and Golf departments work incredibly hard, as we do, and we all take a hit if any one isn’t clicking.
Q: As you go back to handling “regular” club duties, what are the main takeaways from the Open experience you think will prove to be of the most value for you and your team? And what lessons did you learn that you would pass on to others for handling events more effectively, even at clubs that will never host a major tournament?
A: The main thing we all came away with was a great sense of accomplishment. Going forward, nothing will seem daunting after handling all of the logistical and volume challenges that arose before and during the Open.
As a personal lesson, I learned that I will never underestimate the amount of work our full-time culinary staff can produce when the pressure is on. My biggest problem early in the week was holding them back from prepping too much. We bought nothing processed or pre-cut, and the finished product showed that we didn’t. This was due in large part to our team working in their own kitchen at their own stations, and adding just a few more hands to boost the level of prep that was needed daily.
I also learned that for a week-long event like this, which keeps building up with each day, you must remain a day or two ahead as Wednesday approaches, to have any hope of staying out of the weeds. By the time Saturday and Sunday come, you want everything to be fully efficient and organized. There is no extra gear at that point, so to stay ahead, look for anything you can make ahead of time without compromising the quality of the item.
Also, get trusted friends from your chefs’ network to help you pump out hot food prep and big jobs first thing every day, even if they can’t stay all day, to give you the best head start.
Lastly, it’s important to streamline your purveyors and vendors. With the way security is at special events these days, the less trucks being scanned overnight and the fewer deliveries, the better. Our partnership with Sysco Philly was crucial in our success. A big order, distributed before things started between two empty trailers that were dropped outside our clubhouse and members’ tent, and then topped off daily, helped us to be trimmed down at the end of the week, break down more efficiently, and lessen the number of items going back.
Q: As members come back to enjoy the club in what’s still a special year for them, how do you now guard against staff letdown and work around all of the disruptions from tear-down and repair activity, to still ensure good quality and service?
A: As much as we—staff and membership—were excited to be on the world’s stage and host America’s national championship, I think we’d all agree that it will be nice to get back to what we are on a daily basis: a medium-sized, family club with great golf and F&B, immense member trust and satisfaction, and an interesting events calendar.
The staff will welcome back normal days and schedules, so I don’t see any potential letdown issues there. And our membership unanimously voted to host the Championship, and with the huge role they played in its success, I am assuming they will be patient as the course mends and things return to normal.
Q: Final question: With everything else you had to worry about, how much heartburn did it give you to have to find a place on your Open Week team for a “50-plus” (very “plus”) editor with no culinary skills and little service experience?
A: I didn’t take one Rolaids all week because of having the “embedded editor” on our staff. He quickly picked up on the concept of how the satellite tent kitchen worked, and even with no experience, came up with a useful “Henry Ford assembly line, build the chassis first” concept for sandwich-making and put it to work to help us keep the members’ tent well-stocked with all varieties, even when they were being taken off the steam table as fast as we could put them out on it.
I did get a chuckle when one of our members walked by who knows him, and I said, “Did you see Joe back there?” The look on his face said “Yeah…poor guy.”