Culinary Career Choices: Private Clubs – City, Country and Yacht


Culinary Career Choices:  Private Clubs

“I am not ready for a private club yet,” says one candidate. Actually so say a lot of them, insinuating that private clubs are the graveyard of a culinary career, and that accepting a club job means “settling”.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a big fan of club jobs. They have a lot to offer.

How clubs work and what are the advantages of working in them:

Private clubs fall into three main categories: First – country clubs, complexes which include golf courses, sports facilities like pools and tennis courts and generally a social membership category. The second group is the city club, most of them prestigious with a purely social membership.

The country clubs usually have multiple outlets from fine dining to carts on the course. A three meal restaurant on the 19th hole is obligatory. The “Top 10”, the top ten percentile of the clubs in the country include some which are best described as luxury resorts. The city clubs derive a great deal of their income from member events.   A third variation, the yacht club, is similar enough to the country and city clubs, that we won’t deal with it separately.

Although the diehard chef prejudice that clubs are the last bastion of Jell-O salad and roast beef Fridays still holds true for a few clubs, most of the better locations have added younger members with extremely well developed palates and high culinary demands to their membership,  who demand a varied and high end cuisine.

For the chef this means a highly varied and satisfying set of culinary demands and challenges.  Unlike  a restaurant chef, he needs to master , develop and create a wide range of cuisines in a number of departments.

The chef is responsible for banquets, a casual restaurant, and several rather than one cuisine.  His clientele is repeat and in many cases his diners are also his employers. Some of them dine to be in their comfort zone and demand comfort food. A number will clubs use the dining room business dining and expect a menu which will impress their clients. Younger, affluent members will want the club’s cuisine to approach the standards and diversity of well-known restaurants.

Women have changed club daytime cuisine over the past year with demands for lighter and more innovative fare than the traditional burger in at the bar, and country clubs have tended towards adding young families to their membership, which means that lunch menus have expanded to include child appropriate foods as well as the usual offerings for golfers and sports enthusiasts.

City club fare tends to be business style at lunch and aim at a more sophisticated cuisine in the evening, with many offering sandwiches for members who play cards or dice during the day. There’s a reason it’s called the “club sandwich”. Clubs serve a lot of them. From second hand information I understand that the few remaining men only clubs still favor beef and protein. One club manager once confided to me: “This where men come to cheat on their wives. She serves him nonfat, high fiber cereal for breakfast, then they have a 12 ounce steak, potatoes with butter, two eggs and ice cream for lunch.”  This doesn’t mean, however, that these kitchens are not required to include more complex and lighter dishes in their offerings.

The club chef enjoys a great deal of contact with his diners,  who usually expect to see him in the dining room, to get to know him and expect him to know them. Most keep a clean coat hanging in the office for dining room visits. They also expect special treatment – they pay dues for this. There is no place for a prima donna in a club kitchen, where the member/customer knows best. If a father comes in with his daughter for a golf lesson and she asks for a peanut butter sandwich, when the club has no peanut butter, the club chef may send someone off to Safeway.  Special requests are the order of the day, and most club freezers have a couple of portions of individual members’ favorite dishes put aside.

Club chefs get little or no publicity, but in return they receive a great deal of appreciation from their members.

The job of a chef at the largest clubs is fairly similar to that of a hotel chef: He does not handle a lot of ladles and whisks. Where tilt kettles handle the stock and kitchens are more like brigades than the line system, the chef is creator, manager and administrator who is responsible for others who do most of the production.

There are various club structures.  The traditional club is member owned.  Most clubs require new members to buy a piece of the club, which they sell when they leave. Member dues not only go to pay for renovations, upkeep and club programs, they also subsidize the kitchen.  Many clubs require members to spend a minimum yearly amount for dining. That means that food cost in most locations is a secondary concern, as it is subsidized by dues and fees. Having paid in advance, the members want to be taken care of – call it a justified sense of entitlement.  One club we worked with fired the chef because he was keeping cost too low: “If my members see salmon on the menu Tuesday night, they don’t want to see Salmon mousse on the Wednesday lunch menu,” said the General Manager. Leftovers are for the other half.

Most clubs offer adequate to spectacular facilities, with a few regrettably notable exceptions., which are easy enough to identify.

Compensation in clubs obviously depends on the venue. Most pay well to very well. In addition to salary, most clubs give their chefs, managers, and some or all staff an annually increasing bonus which can top $20,000, usually derived from a member assessment based on their dining expenditures during the year. All clubs offer good benefits and many offer 401K plans.

Working schedules in clubs tend to be very reasonable. Few clubs are open very late, and most chefs have 1 ½ t wo days off, usually Monday and Tuesday and full vacation. The kitchens are open on holidays, Thanksgiving and December holidays being popular with club diners, but they receive alternative days off. Most club kitchens are very adequately but not luxuriously staffed.

Due to the diversity of cuisine and wide range of tasks in a club kitchen, clubs offer exceptional training grounds for aspiring culinary professionals.  Like hotels, clubs may offer opportunities to work in garde manger, pastry, bakery and even ice.  Clubs are not edgy, but they can be extremely interesting.

Club Management structure – how it impacts the kitchen:

Traditionally clubs have been member owned and member driven by an elected board composed of people who are non-food and beverage professionals. The chef generally answers to the GM, chosen by the Board, and the Board itself.  Obviously  this can be a mixed blessing. At the very  least it demands excellent communication and listening skills.

In the last two decades non-member clubs have proliferated, especially in gated communities during the housing boom.  These may be staffed by highly qualified management or run by a real estate company with little understanding of the profit and cost basis of club management. Many, furthermore, are open to non-members, which may complicate the issue. Some mixed venues are half club half resort.

A few clubs, furthermore, are opting  to hire outside management firms to run them, and there are a number of club corporations (Club Corporation of America, Troon, Arnold Palmer) which run for profit operations. While the demands and practical environment of these properties are similar to those in member operations, compensation may be less, since they are for profit.  As some compensation there is some assurance that the property is run, as is a corporate restaurant, by people who know what they are doing.

Other things that clubs have in their favor: The employment in clubs is usually quite stable for the chef, and once in the club circuit, an aspiring chef can expect to find employment in other clubs. Club employment rates  high on the sanity factor, as a staff of qualified food and beverage professionals at most clubs support the kitchen in their daily tasks, and club schedules allow the kitchen of foresee and manage the business of the kitchen for a period weeks to months. Clubs offer good hours with fewer surprises than restaurants of any kind, seem on the whole to be more collegial and less political than many hotel or restaurant venues. Most clubs offer chefs and their families use of facilities, and many include Culinary Institute of America continuing education in their benefits.

Club employment,  furthermore, provides a path for a chef to progress from the kitchen to a position as  Director of Food and Beverage and eventually General Manager, an enjoyable and lucrative career path.

Who do clubs hire: Clubs tend to be open to any candidates who bring the skill sets they require: a wide range of culinary styles, good interpersonal and management skills, banquet and event exposure, completely developed culinary technique and strong administrative background. That means a large restaurant, a hotel or another club can lead to a club job.

Where do you go from here: Looking at most club chefs, you don’t . You stay there. Club chefs I placed twenty years ago are still there. If you do leave, you can work in hotels, other clubs and food service. There are limited options for club chefs to return to restaurants, but most would not want to.

What are the challenges and the negative aspects of club employment?

Some clubs have been hard hit by the recession and are struggling. The last downturn closed numerous urban and country clubs, so determining the stability of the property is a necessity. You need to get along with the board and the GM. Since the GM’s position depends on the kitchen, s/he will not tolerate a chef who does not work with the club rather than for him or herself for more than a few weeks.

Members or boards frequently decide to change the menu to something entirely new.  If you are considering a job in a club with this aspiration, you need to understand that, generally, only part of the membership wants this, while the rest will protest loudly if their favorite item is taken from the list. You need to be able to satisfy the “comfort” members while you impress the prestige food membership. It’s a good skill for any job, actually.

The club, as I said before, belongs to the members, and so does the menu. It is not your food. (It is never your food, unless you own the business.) It is their food, and because his job depends on their satisfaction, it is the GM’s food, and you can be sure the Catering Director has a thing to say.   You create in team with the Board, GM, membership and anyone else with a dog in the fight. You have to be able to do it all with a desire to serve and make happy. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, but when a F&B director told a chef the membership was complaining,  his retort, “What’s not to like?” got both of us in trouble. If they say there’s something wrong with the food, there’s something wrong with the food.

Being a spectacular cook in a five star restaurant does not mean you will succeed in a club. We just watched a highly competent winery chef fail at one. I would never have put him there, but he thought he could do it because he had done events at the winery.  I could have told him. You need to know that a club demands an ability to keep multiple balls in the air at a time. If you think you can do it but haven’t tried it, you are fooling yourself. You have to  have done it to succeed.

The policies in clubs are set by the members, unless they are corporately owned or managed, and they are generally more open than many policies elsewhere.

Most city clubs tend to be unionized, as are some country clubs. The most prestigious city clubs have retreat properties  –  a sort of summer camp of their adult members, some very powerful  – which require that the chef staff and plan for several weeks off site. This requires exceptional organizational abilities and time away from home.

Finally, there is the weekend club or hobby club. These really do not count in the club category, as they hire chefs for only a few days or serve only lunch. They tend to offer extremely low compensation, even if they are full time. A club owned by  plumbers once asked us to get a chef for compensation which would exceed minimum wage by little. “But you’re plumbers!”  I gasped, just having paid something like half a month’s income to fix a sink. “If you can get me a plumber for that amount, I’ll find you a chef.” They did not call back.

These locations may offer a second job or occupation to divert you after you retired, but they are not part of the club structure and will not give you any career traction in any of the club related venues. They are just jobs, although they can be nice ones.