Outdoor setting + portable provisions = profitable moveable feasts.
Club and resort members and guests may regard outdoor dining as a breath of fresh air. But it’s the multi-sensory sizzle of al fresco cooking that really blows them away.
Summing It Up
• No location is too remote for a cookout
From the mesas of New Mexico to the mountains of Wyoming, and from the Florida to Hawaii coasts, chefs are firing up the charcoal for their grills and the mesquite for their wood stoves. They’re heating rocks in glowing red in-ground imus, and toting out portable gas-powered teppanyaki tables. They’re holding luaus on lush lawns, cowboy-themed cookouts at chuckwagons, clambakes on golf courses, and Mexican fiestas at poolsides. And for all of these meals, members and guests are being drawn in droves by the enticing sights, smells and sounds—turning them not only into signature, open-air culinary adventures that bring genuine new excitement to club life, but that also drop dollars with real bite to the F&B bottom line.
Smokin’ Hot Attraction
At the end of the one-and-a-half-mile trail at Bishop’s Lodge Resort and Spa in Santa Fe, N.M., horseback-riding guests gather around the campfire while chefs rustle up hearty helpings of cowboy-style grub on a six-foot-long grill, built into the back of a stationary chuck wagon.
Every Friday and Saturday night, Executive Chef Patrick Hartnett and his team greet guests with a roaring campfire; steaks, ribs, chicken and sometimes trout, ready for searing in cast-iron skillets; and pots bubbling with baked beans. For Saturday morning rides, the menu switches to scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns.
A portable gas grill allows Hartnett to keep moving these feasts—which he tries to keep cozy by limiting the number of guests at picnic tables to about 15—to new locales on the 500-acre resort. In this way, guests keep coming back for more, lured not only by the food, but also the promise of another spectacular setting.
Hartnett first tried portable stoves for his initial ventures into ourdoor cooking, using them to prepare fajitas, quesadillas and his very popular fish tacos for poolside and lawn buffets. But, after some experimentation, he now prefers to cook all of his outdoor specialties in cast-iron skillets, set over cans of sterno surrounded by rings of flagstones built up on tabletops.
“With portable stoves, you don’t have as much control over the amount and distribution of the heat,” he says. “With the sterno, you get just the searing and smoke that you want.”
All of Hartnett’s go-with guacamole is mixed to order. Guests can choose to leave out the onions, add black olives, or spice things up with some roasted poblanos or pungent leaves of epazote, a popular Mexican herb.
The success of a recent barn-raising event on the Bishop’s Lodge property has also inspired Hartnett to develop a hoe-down party package, featuring grilled steaks, chicken and other Western-style fare. “We’ve already sold a few of these hoe-down parties for summer,” he notes.
Cookouts aren’t even being limited to the traditional barbecue season anymore. From November until April at the Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, Wyo., a horse-drawn sleigh picks up guests for a 20-minute dash through the snow-covered mountains to a remote spot for a rustic feast. There’s no power in the yurt, a circular, tent-like structure used for centuries by Central Asian nomads. But that doesn’t stop local concessionaire Paul Martin from using a wood stove and the light of kerosene lanterns to cook up steaks, Dutch-oven potatoes, mixed vegetables and his family’s recipe for deep-fried scones.
Club chefs also aren’t letting the lack of traditional cookout settings hold them back. While “New England clambakes” are normally prepared by steaming individual packets of seafood and other indigenous delicacies in holes dug at the beach, Executive Chef Robert Shurger has successfully moved the concept down the Atlantic coast, to Port Saint Lucie, Fla. Shurger doesn’t even need a beach to create the experience—he’s brought it to a variety of club locations, from the grill restaurant terrace to the golf course driving range.
Since, as he notes, “you don‘t want to be digging holes in the golf course,” Shurger substitutes water-filled, propane-powered ten-gallon turkey fryer-type pots, to which he adds seaweed or kelp for “authentic flavor.” In the pots, he boils lobster claws and net bundles containing individual portions of clams (Ipswich or Little Neck), mussels, corn on the cob and kielbasa (“It gives the whole thing a great flavor,” he says). Haddock or cod is prepared on the grill, and cornmeal-based Johnny cakes are fried in skillets.
Southern Floridians like their clambakes to have a bit of a Caribbean accent, so Shurger might also grill up some grouper, snapper or conch instead of haddock or cod, add Jamaican jerk-seasoned chicken wings or half-chickens, and sizzle some Conch fritters.
At the Tesoro Club stations, chefs remove the lobster claws from their shells, carefully putting aside the knuckles on ice, to use for lobster salad or rolls featured as specials in the club’s restaurant the next day. While some guests like to tear apart their own net packets in traditional clambake style, club personnel is on hand to take care of the messier parts of the job, such as placing the seafood in bowls, shucking clam and mussel shells, or cutting corn off the cob.
Pricewise, the private club’s goal for these clambakes is to break even, says Shurger. “But when members come and bring guests to share the experience, the rewards in terms of their satisfaction is priceless,” he adds.
Payback in those terms has been so great, Shurger now feels that no location is too remote for a cookout. “You can set up an omelet, stir fry or pasta station with Bunsen burners and propane tanks just about anywhere,” he says.
Pasta, for example, is precooked to al dente in the kitchen and brought out in chafers. Guests may choose their favorites from among a variety of sauces and condiments such as olives, anchovies and sausage. For each order, the chef will briefly blanch the pasta in hot water, then combine with the selected add-ins in a hot saute pan for a la minute appeal.
Only a little electricity is required to power the pancake griddle on which Shurger’s chefs prepare homemade tortillas for quesadilla, fajita and burrito stations. Chicken, black beans and rice, and caramelized onions and grilled peppers for the fillings are prepared in the kitchen for a quick reheat at serving time. Beef is sliced thin enough to saute on the spot.
Even dessert is a show-stopper at these fiestas, with sundaes made with two- to three-ounce cornflake-coated scoops of ice cream that are deep-fried at a station, then topped with the guests’ choice of fruit and liqueur-based sauce that is flambéed as they watch.
When Northern snowbird members and guests flock to the Sunshine State, they want to be outdoors as much as they can—and that includes mealtime, says Kenneth J. Gilbert, Director of Food and Beverage/Executive Chef at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa in Jupiter, Fla. To give them a true taste of the tropics, he cooks up brined or marinated whole butterflied pig in a cooking device called La Caja China —basically, a wooden wheelbarrow lined with aluminum (the name means “Chinese box,” but the technique was developed in Cuba).
The pig is placed inside and a steel lid with a grate filled with charcoal is placed on top. Cooking is a long, slow process (about five-and-a-half hours total), but guests are intrigued with the device and delighted by the authentic Caribbean flavor, says Gilbert.
The commercial-grade La Caja China used at The Ritz-Carlton Club costs about $500. Smaller models can go for as little as $175.
For poolside barbeques, Gilbert currently uses a gas grill. But he’s planning to upgrade his al fresco apparatus with the purchase of a charcoal-based smoker/grill.
“A charcoal grill marks the meat nicely enough, but I’m looking for a true backyard barbecue feel, smell and flavor that I know members and guests who come down from the Midwest through the Carolinas will particularly appreciate,” he says.
Gilbert also feels that the grill, which will cost approximately $5,000, will prove to be a worthwhile investment as it helps the club to build its catering business. And, this spring, he plans to make interactive outdoor cooking a hands-on activity for his club’s members.
In April, he plans to launch the Jupiter Ritz-Carlton Club’s first annual “Members Barbeque Cook-off.” Participating member teams will be invited to prepare their own recipes (assisted by club chefs) for ribs, sauce, baked beans and slaw.
Each team will have its own station equipped with a “Big Green Egg” charcoal barbecue smoker, each of which costs somewhere between $500 and $1,000, says Gilbert. A panel of judges (also members) will determine the winners, and proceeds from the event will be donated to local hunger-fighting organizations.
Between contests, the “eggs” will be used to add even more mobility to the club’s cookout capabilities, Gilbert notes.
In Hawaii, where outdoor cooking is a way of life, the centerpiece of the signature feast at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa in Kona is a whole suckling pig that, for large groups, can weigh anywhere between 100 and 150 pounds. After being buried in the earth all day, the pig is slowly roasted over flat river rocks heated by a local mesquite-like wood called kiawe in the traditional island cooking pit, called an imu.
While the imu is a permanent fixture on the property, the pig prep and cooking process is so elaborate and labor-intensive that the resort calls in local specialists to handle that part of the meal. To cover that cost, the resort charges groups a flat rate of $1,500. Still, says Sales and Marketing Director Revell Newton, the authenticity of the experience makes it a popular option.
By setting up a spit over the kiawe-filled imu, the Keauhou Bay Resort can offer another signature event: the “Hou Down,” a tribute to the culture of Hawaiian cowboys known by the natives as paniolo. After slow-roasting beef all day, the open-air rotisserie becomes a carving station at serving time.
For a different kind of show, the resort can set up a variety of action stations for a business or social reception. In addition to a sushi-making station, chefs cook tempuras and stir fries in huge woks over gas burners. But the real scene stealer is the food-juggling, knife-flashing, rapid-fire tabletop cooking of the teppanyaki chef. The Sheraton has a portable table that becomes an action station perfect for outdoor showcasing of the chef’s showmanship.
Keauhou Bay Resort guests staying en suite who prefer a more intimate al fresco dining experience can also have the catering department bring a gas grill or flattop to their own balconies, to cook up omelets-to-order for breakfast, or meat (or fish) and veggie kabobs for dinner. C&RBfeedback