The dynamic world of country club cheffing
Restaurants take pride in branding themselves. Rehoboth foodies hear the word Semra’s Grill, and we think Turkish and Middle-Eastern. Touch of Italy and Lupo Italian Kitchen speak for themselves. Diners get a hankerin’ for Asian and Japanese when they hear the names Confucius and Saketumi. Somebody says 5 Guys, and it’s all about burgers and dogs. And loosely translated, the word “Thrashers” can only mean only one thing (without ketchup, of course).
Restaurateurs bank on the prospect that there are enough potential customers out there who will find their concept enticing. Seems like a safe bet. Even if mistakes are made - and it happens - there’s enough turnover 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 for chefs to impress. Such is not the case at Rehoboth Beach Country Club and Kings Creek Country Club in Rehoboth Beach. With membership divided among couples, singles, families and weekend visitors, a country club’s food and beverage department has to be many things to the same clientele - day in and day out.
Rehoboth Beach Country Club Executive Chef Dan Reilly is relatively new to the beach, having distinguished himself at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe and the 2,000-seat Union League of Philadelphia. He oversaw their four restaurants and 14 banquet rooms with a crew of 75 people. Irish-born Executive Chef Phil Lambert at Kings Creek is trained in the classic style, honing his skills in Germany, Ireland and Bermuda. He spent seven years as head chef during the early years of 1776 Steakhouse in Rehoboth. And like Dan Reilly, one of his duties is to get to know many of the country club members by name, and to stay attentive to their individual likes and dislikes.
We love to watch TV chefs push the boundaries, but country club chefs face a different challenge. They, in Chef Lambert’s words, have to “do regular food well,” mixing standards like pot pies, burgers, crab cakes and club sandwiches with fine-dining fare you’d expect on a table of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs or accompanying a fine burgundy at La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Chef Reilly, the Top Chef of the Culinary Coast 2016 winner (to benefit Meals on Wheels Lewes-Rehoboth) bottom-lines it similarly: “Every day we try our best to keep our people happy.”
Both chefs agree that the menu must be dynamic, lest the members get bored. Every day, they craft menus and specials, and it isn’t unusual to see steak au poivre and Mediterranean-style seared scallops sharing the same menu with crab burritos, Buffalo wings and Caesar salads.
Kings Creek and Rehoboth Beach country clubs might be exclusive, but this is still the beach. Both of the seasoned chefs rise to the challenge of keeping 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.
These seasoned toques both know that the members are their bosses. The members 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 just on sushi, pizza, steaks, Italian 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. Both chefs get ideas for upcoming specials as they stroll the dining rooms in their dress whites, casually asking the members what they like.
I asked both chefs what they thought were the three most important aspects of country club food service. Both replied, independently of one another, “Service, service, service.” And the huge kitchens at Rehoboth Beach Country Club and Kings Creek Country Club seem to have a tight grip on all three.