The challenge of creating a world-class dining room in a seasonal operation secluded to an island was met by Executive Chef Mark Chaput at The Vineyard Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard.
Concern for the fragile Martha’s Vineyard ecosystem was high in the late ‘90s, when a group of developers proposed construction of the first new golf course on the island in over 30 years. First, they had to commit to reduce the overall area of managed turf, be pesticide-free and use only organic fertilizer. Secondly, there was no model to follow, since this had never been done before.
Looking back, proprietary members of The Vineyard Golf Club can now say they have a piece of one of the most environmentally sensitive golf courses in the world. What was a 235-acre failed housing development is now a relaxing world-class golf venue in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The food at The Vineyard Golf Club is exceptional as well. Executive Chef Mark Chaput has been given free reign since the club opened in 2002 to create a world-class dining room. He has done just that, despite the challenges of running a seasonal operation in an out-of-the-way location. We thank him for taking time during his busiest month of the year to share insights into his success.
Q: Chef, you are on an island with a short season, so your major challenge is obvious. How have you been able to staff your kitchen and the rest of the club?
A: Living on an island is challenging all by itself, and running a seasonal business is quite difficult. Staffing is undeniably our biggest obstacle. We spend a large portion of our winter months recruiting our employees for a five-month season. In the past, we’ve traveled to Florida and hired staff at golf clubs where the seasons run opposite to ours. We also attend career fairs at C.I.A., Johnson & Wales and Cordon Bleu, which has worked quite well for us. We’ve managed to retain some of our best help through the years; my Chef de Cuisine is on his eleventh year and our two Sous Chefs have been here for several years. We also have many students from Eastern Europe who spend summers on the Island and work as line cooks, servers, busers and dishwashers.
Q: Is procuring everything you need to operate a fine-dining restaurant equally challenging?
A: Before moving to the Island, I assumed getting quality product was going to be difficult. It turns out it’s just the opposite. Because there are so many excellent restaurants here that are packed every night, every major purveyor delivers on a regular basis. Sysco, for example, delivers six days a week. And I have access to the freshest local seafood and produce every day we’re open. However, we do pay a little more, since traveling to the Island is expensive.
Q: Chef, we are all running our club kitchens more and more like upscale public restaurants. This goal was communicated to you ten years ago when the club was built. You have worked at other clubs, so you know what we do on a daily basis. What is it like having just an a la carte focus without outside parties, swim meets, weddings, etc.? Does it even feel like a club kitchen?
A: When I was hired, the three original developers expressed their vision for a high-end upscale restaurant without the typical buffets, weddings etc.—and I feel we achieved that. In recent years, however, we’ve added a bar menu and a kids’ menu, and we are planning a lunch buffet four days a week. We also have the normal club events (Member/Guest Weekend, wine dinners, club championships, etc.) throughout the season. But on a daily basis, offering only an a la carte menu without the distractions is a dream. We can really focus on the food and dining experience and concentrate on bringing our members the best possible product. It feels like a club kitchen simply because we’re not open to the public—and an enormous amount of members’ “special requests”!!
Q: Mark, your menus are interesting and innovative. Tell us about the French influence that is evident accompanying your seasonal American style.
A: Believe it or not, my first mentor was Julia Child. I grew up watching her on TV and thought that this might be something I wanted to do. So I stayed with the French influence in my training, style of cuisine and menus. I also attended professional studies at The Ritz Escoffier Hotel in Paris, where I fell in love with French food.
Q: I was surprised to hear there were so many farms on the Vineyard. Tell us how you use them and the products they offer.
A: I am amazed every day at the number of farms that operate on this small island and what a diversity of products they grow and raise here. I can buy local lamb, poultry, eggs and shellfish, as well as local produce, from island farmers. Because of the salt air, I have access to the sweetest corn I’ve ever tasted. We are very fortunate to be the closest restaurant to Morning Glory Farm, which provides not only their own produce but items from other farms in their market. This year, we’ll be using the Produce Connection, which picks up local produce and meats and delivers them to our door. On our current menu, we’re featuring local oysters, yellowtail, lobsters, asparagus, pea shoots and microgreens.
Q: Mark, you have a long off- season to rest. But how do you prepare yourself for such a long period without time off, and motivate staff late in the season?
A: After we’ve closed for the season, the kitchen is thoroughly cleaned, shut down and budgets are done. We start right in on planning for the next season only days after we close. The more we do in the winter, the smoother it goes in the summer. I’ll meet several times with the General Manager to talk about the past season and how we can improve the next one. I’ll attend career fairs, food shows, the “Chef to Chef” Conference—and before you know it, we’re back and off to the races! I keep my staff motivated by encouraging a team atmosphere, allowing them to come up with specials, menu items, etc. My goal is to try to be the best of the best—and hope they want to be a part of that, too.