Creating the ambiance and experience that members and guests expect for a la carte dining and special occasions calls for a team effort and a deft ability to combine the right variety of tabletop components.
With two full-time restaurants and another about to open—each with its own personality and manager—Ashleigh Scherman, CEC, WCEC I, Executive Chef of Hope Valley Country Club in Durham, N,C., gets plenty of input when it comes to tabletop design for a la carte dining.
For banquets, Hope Valley’s catering director and staff share their suggestions and sometimes even provide hands-on help to create props for decorating buffets and individual tables. Recently, Scherman enlisted the club’s Membership Director to assist with the dining area and table décor, so the club’s seasonal pool dining area could be rebranded as a colorful tiki bar that would have added appeal to younger guests.
“I try to work with the staff members who are most invested in a particular dining area or event, because they have their finger on the pulse of what our club members want,” she explains. “I also want to get them excited about what we’re doing, so they can convey that excitement to our members.”
For example, she notes, the Membership Director could showcase the tiki bar to prospective members as a fun place for families to dine. And Hope Valley’s catering team worked on the decorative aspects of a large event built around James Bond and “Casino Royale,” even building lighted glass dice for each table.
When dining a la carte, older club members prefer traditional table linens and multi-course plates and silverware, Scherman says. Younger members, especially those with young children, seem to gravitate to more casual settings with colorful plates, bowls, silverware and napkin rollups.
Big and Small
Aside from the club staff, Scherman often works with an ice sculpture company to design buffet centerpieces with a “wow” factor. For the Casino Royale event, a “007 sculpture” was created with a luge that Scherman filled with shrimp. The carving was surrounded with oysters, crabs and a variety of sauces for the seafood.
For an upcoming event featuring the wild and colorful fashions of Lilly Pulitzer, the ice-sculpture company will build a huge, intricately detailed vase filled with spring flowers.
“The host of the event wanted white linen and pops of color, which we’re carrying out with our platters and the flowers,” Scherman notes. “On the buffet, the food will be displayed in clear-glass serving dishes, providing another source of vibrant colors.”
Even the smallest detail is not overlooked when setting Hope Valley’s tables. After noting how the club’s women members—and she herself—struggled to use the “massive” steak knives that had long been a staple of the club’s tabletop décor, Scherman replaced them with utensils that could be more easily managed by smaller hands.
Every week in the summer, the Hope Valley ladies’ golf association, “Chicks with Sticks,” has a buffet on the clubhouse terrace. Each week brings a different theme, such as “Night in Paris,” for which Scherman dispayed mini-Eiffel Towers and red, white and blue table linens, or “Mexican Fiesta,” for which she used pinatas and colorful Mexican blankets.
Nothing Goes to Waste
Over time, Scherman has amassed an extensive collection of props to help carry out the themes for all of the events on the Hope Valley calendar. “People often leave behind vases and other décor from weddings and other special-occasion events, and we add them to our prop collection,” she notes.
Items that do need to be acquired, she adds, don’t have to be expensive to add an eye-catching effect.
“We take advantage of seasonal bargains, such as buying Christmas lights on clearance in January,” she points out. “And if you think outside the box, you can literally make something from nothing—like we did with a broken mirror from which we removed the center and used to serve sushi in the beautiful frame for an Asian dinner, and small shot glasses of chicken tortilla soup with tiny cheese gorditas for a Mexican theme.”
Another time, Scherman took the two-and-a-half-foot round top of a table from the lobby and used it to build a riser by building it up on metal blocks, adding some florals and weaving in some wire lighting.
When designing a buffet set-up, Scherman likes to bring something new to the table—or tables, as she prefers. Instead of one long buffet, she usually breaks out the stations, putting a small-plate station in one corner, the bar in another and other stations around the room. On each station she intersperses induction burners and selections of colorful plates, to break up the rows of metal chafers.
Changing It Up
To update the table settings for the dining room at Mountain Brook Club in Birmingham, Ala., Executive Chef Justin Mooney swapped the traditional round plates with colored rims for a variety of different, more contemporary shapes; the silverware with sleeker, more refined pieces; and the bulky glasses with more delicate ones.
Seasonal centerpieces, which can range from floating flowers in glasses to individual, mini-live Christmas trees for each dining table, are arranged by a woman who has been doing it for the club for the past 40 years, yet still brings a contemporary feel to her designs, Mooney says
Working closely with Mountain Brook’s Food & Beverage Director, Mooney tries to get away from the expected “buffet line” by placing stations around the room. A la minute stations are spread out to avoid lines and congestion.
“There might be a charcuterie station next to the bar, to allow guests to get a snack while they’re waiting for their drink,” Mooney says. “Stations serving more substantial fare or a la minute cooking are placed in areas away from the bar, to keep traffic flowing smoothly.”
One of Mooney’s favorite stations showcases Mediterranean foods—a colorful creation on which he displays grilled breads, roasted and grilled vegetables, artichoke hearts, Kalamata and green olives, and pepperoncini in different-size vases and other glass containers, displayed at different heights. As a favorite décor theme, Mooney likes to use glass and earth tones intermingled with some silver for a natural look.
To avoid rows of chafers that all look the same, Mountain Brook invested in a Smart Buffet system in which the chafer dishes are not attached to the legs, instead providing two separate components to mix and match. Some of the chafer dishes are glass and some are stainless steel. The leg options are wood, black powder-coated steel, and stainless steel.
The system also offers induction burners that fit the chafers, replacing the need for sterno heat. The servers are magnetized, so they cannot be pushed off the burner when in use.
“This system gives us a huge potential to achieve our upscale goals,” Mooney explains. “They’re far away from old school.”
In place of chafers, Mooney also presents foods on small, square plates; in martini glasses; in baskets, and in cast-iron pans perched on bricks for heat conduction and height. One novel serving piece made by one of the club’s chefs is a ”taco board” made from butcher blocks with holes drilled into them, to hold golf tees that keep the tacos upright.
For the club’s President’s Dinner in December, Mooney put together two very long farm tables to create one 10-foot-long table, instead of using the dining room’s regular circular tables. The tables were then decorated with moss and flower arrangements and candles.
“It looked really nice and allowed us to combine elegance with a warm family feeling,” Mooney says.
Sometimes Mooney will decorate individual dining tables to match a themed buffet. For a Lobster Fest seafood buffet, he furnished each table with lobster bibs, claw crackers and wet naps.
“It’s nice when the decorations can be useful for the meal,” he notes.
Minimalist Style, Maximum Impact
Chris Olson, Executive Chef of Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif,, takes a “less is more” approach when it comes to tabletop décor.
“We have copper-topped tables and copper chafers that look really good; all we have to do is add some glass bricks for risers to create different elevations, and we might add a simple plant or small floral display,” Olson says. “The food adds pops of color.”
If a member wants more color, the chef can break out his colored overlays and other fabrics to easily work them into the display. He can also use different colored platters, tile slabs and cutting boards for serving.
This minimalist style saves labor costs and time for setup and breakdown, Olson notes, and minimizes prop-storage issues for the club. He is usually able to set up a themed buffet with just the assistance of a couple of interns.
Let There Be Light
At Hope Valley Country Club in Durham, N.C., Executive Chef Ashleigh Scherman uses differents kinds of lighting to add sparkle, color and glamour to her buffet and a la carte dining tables. For a recent fashion event that required whimsical pops of color, she replaced the lightbulbs in the room’s traditional chandeliers with fluorescent pink bulbs.
“The combination of the antique chandelier with the modern colored bulbs added an elegant, yet fun touch,” Scherman says.
Scherman also weaves water-resistant wires of various-colored mini-LED bulbs into floral displays and among table props, to accent carving stations, hors d’oeuvres trays and seafood bars.
“Warm-colored lights give the perception of heat, and blue ones the perception of cold, giving an interesting way to play up the temperatures of the foods,” Scherman notes.