Country club cookery: It’s all about the service

May 12, 2011
Chef Phil Lambert and Gary Wheeler keep things fresh at Kings Creek. BY BOB YESBEK

Restaurants take pride in branding themselves. We hear the word Mariachi, and we think Mexican and Spanish. The Italian influence at Lupo di Mare is undeniable. We get a hankerin’ for Asian and Japanese when we hear the names Confucius and Saketumi. Somebody says Five Guys, and it’s all about burgers and dogs.

Restaurateurs bank on the prospect that there are enough potential customers out there who will find their particular concept enticing. Given the number of people who regularly dine out, it seems like a safe bet. Even if mistakes are made - and it happens - there’s enough turnover, especially in a resort, to guarantee that new patrons arrive without preconceived attitudes.

But, imagine an eatery that dishes up lunch, dinner, happy hour, late-night snacks, catering services, wine tastings and cookouts for the very same people every day.

And not only do those people talk to one another, but they have every expectation of privacy and personal attention.

Even on a cruise ship or in a hotel, new faces eventually replace the old, affording a fresh opportunity to satisfy and impress. Such is not the case at Kings Creek Country Club in Rehoboth Beach. With its membership divided among couples, singles, families and weekend visitors, Kings Creek’s food and beverage department has to be many things to the same clientele - day in and day out.

Executive Chef Phil Lambert knows many of the members by name and stays attentive to their individual likes and dislikes. French trained in the classic style, the Irish-born Lambert worked in Germany, Ireland and Bermuda, even spending seven years as head chef at 1776 Steakhouse in Rehoboth.

We love to watch TV chefs push the boundaries, but Lambert faces a different challenge. In his words, he has to do regular food well, mixing standards like pot pies, burgers, crab cakes and club sandwiches with classic French fare like baked stuffed salmon and halibut en papillote.

At the same time, the menu must be dynamic, lest the members get bored. Every day, he and Clubhouse Manager Gary Wheeler craft menus and specials aimed at pleasing the palates of the members. It isn’t unusual to see the chef’s signature shrimp po’boys, steak au poivre and crab burritos rotating with Buffalo wings, hot dogs and Caesar salads. Members speak reverently of Steak Night, where Lambert applies his 30 years of culinary experience to the broilers.

Wheeler is also no stranger to the hospitality business. He’s a veteran of the Marriott Corporation and Ocean City’s long-standing Carousel. He works closely with Food & Beverage Manager Leslie Boehlert to ensure that servers and bartenders recognize the members, perhaps even topping off their favorite cocktail by the time they take a seat at the bar.

Kings Creek may be exclusive, but this is still the beach. The challenge is to keep the food casual, but with a hint of elegance. Summer events, cookouts and treats for the kids are always on the schedule. It’s like one never-ending catered affair.

Lambert, Wheeler and Boehlert know that the members are their bosses. They pay to belong, and they expect first-class treatment for their money. In fact, many local members consider the club to be their second home.

So, rather than focusing on sushi, pizza or seafood, the brand at a country club is simply to please the customer. The menu must include something for everyone, with a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. In fact, Lambert often creates his specials while making the dinner rounds in his dress whites and asking the members what they like.

When I asked him to list the three most important aspects of country club food service, he replied without hesitation, “Service, service, service.” The kitchen at Kings Creek seems to have a good handle on all three.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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