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The challenges of country club cheffing

August 16, 2019

Restaurants take pride in branding themselves. We hear the word DiFebo’s and we think Italian. We get hungry for Asian and Japanese when we hear the names Confucius and Saketumi. Mariachi can only mean one thing: Mexican and Latino cuisine. It’s hard enough to entice customers to try out your restaurant, and an unclear or non-specific brand makes it even more difficult. I have watched several restaurants fail partially because potential guests had no idea what to expect for their dining dollar. 

Restaurateurs bank on the prospect that there are enough people out there who will find their particular concept enticing. Given the number of guests who regularly dine out, it seems like a safe bet. Even if mistakes are made - and it happens - there’s enough turnover in a resort environment 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 also have every expectation of personal attention. The situation may be similar in a hotel restaurant or on a cruise ship, but new faces do eventually replace the old, affording a fresh opportunity to (hopefully) satisfy and impress. 

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to Executive Chef Ryan Cunningham, the chief toque at The Clubhouse at Baywood. As we chatted at the bar, a regularly scheduled members’ event was in progress out on one of the patios. I asked him if it was a challenge to provide enough culinary diversity to keep members interested without departing from what he knows is popular there at the club. He told me that a lot of thought goes into the menus for regular members’ events, and that his getting to know some of the members has helped this process immensely. In spite of the majority of repeat diners, Chef Ryan reminded me that The Clubhouse at Baywood is not an entirely “closed system”; i.e., the public is invited to dine there as well. So the guests who are treated to his cooking are not 100 percent the same, day in and day out. 

Such is not the case at Kings Creek Country Club in Rehoboth Beach. With their 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 every day. 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 toque 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 Chef Lambert faces a different challenge. In his words, he has to “do regular food well”; mixing lunchtime and snacktime standards like pot pies, burgers, crab cakes and club sandwiches with classic dinner fare like baked stuffed salmon and halibut en papillote. 

At the same time, the menu must be dynamic, lest the members get bored. He and his team 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 35 years of culinary experience to the broilers. 

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

Chef Lambert knows that the members are ultimately his 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 popular restaurant “brands” like sushi, pizza or seafood, the overriding “brand” at a country club is to please the customer. The menu must include something for everyone, with a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. In fact, Chef Lambert comes up with his future specials while making the dinner rounds in his dress whites and chatting up the members about 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.” Though this should be the mantra at every restaurant, the popular 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 byesbek@capegazette.com.