With a four-star restaurant and catering pedigree, The Cleveland Yachting Club Executive Chef Michael Valentino is versatile, adventurous and cool under pressure.
The Cleveland Yachting Club (CYC) sits on an island at the mouth of the Rocky River near Lake Erie, in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio. CYC traces its roots to 1878 and has endured everything from the Great Depression and massive ice jams to 105-knot (120-mph) windstorms. Today, as home to over 300 sail and power boats, CYC is a vibrant, member-owned club that hosts a variety of events for sailing and other water sports.
Professional Affiliations and Accomplishments:
CYC is also an extremely active social club, with all types of events hosted year-round for its nearly 750 members. Last year, CYC hired one of the Cleveland area’s rising young culinary stars in Executive Chef Michael Valentino. As he revealed in our interview, Michael has big plans for the club and is already very proud of the increased cover counts that have been generated since he arrived. It is clear that Michael understands what it means to service a club membership, and we appreciate his taking the time to share some of his experiences with us.
Q: Michael, the three years that you spent with a four-star restaurant and catering company must have taught you some really valuable skills that now help you execute events at CYC. Can you tell us about some instances where this experience has come into play for the very diverse catering you do around your property?
A: Catering, on- or off-premise, can always present a challenge. You plan for the best, but must be prepared for the worst. One instance I remember at the restaurant was when we were doing off-site catering for President Obama and had to build a kitchen in a field with three inches of mud. When you have situations like this, you must work as a team and understand that anything is possible.
One of my first big parties I had at CYC was a five-course meal for 200-plus people. Our kitchen is narrow, so to avoid congestion I turned an unused party room into a cold-course plate-up room, by turning on the air conditioning. By doing this, it created a better flow of traffic while servers cleared and served tables. My catering experience has strengthened my ability to execute elegant dining, no matter what the circumstances may be.
Q: Chef, you do a lot of kids meals as you host Junior Regattas. What are some specific ideas you have come up with to keep what you’re serving on the healthy side?
A: Our buffets are always prepared with multiple salad choices and fresh fruit. Grilled chicken and vegetable skewers are our healthy alternatives to fried chicken fingers. The chicken is Ohio-raised organic, allowing us to support local business and provide the freshest options. We also offer salmon and broiled white fish for healthier options.
Q: Michael, you work out of a really confined space serving a la carte meals. What modifications have you made there to speed service and efficiency on some of your very busy nights, without sacrificing quality?
A: The menu I prepared was a heavy prep but fast-execution menu, using things like chilled coulis, salsa and insalatas to help with faster plating. For items such as jambalaya and étouffée, we keep them warm to cut down ticket times, and the proteins we have are faster-cooking. We also have a grill on our patio to take stress off the kitchen. On Fridays, we offer different seafood entrées off the grill, and Saturday we offer BBQ night.
It’s also of the utmost importance to set up your kitchen staff in a way that fully utilizes everyone’s strengths; this is critical to creating a great team.
Q: I think it’s cool that your membership takes to many types of cuisine as you implement new themes from the a la carte side and on your entertainment calendar. What are some of the most successful ones you’ve added?
A: Having a membership on the same page as a chef is a true blessing. After returning from the Chef to Chef Conference in New Orleans and seeing the demonstrations on Cajun cooking and other regional specialties, and also sampling some of that city’s great restaurants, we decided to create a section on our menu for Southern-based foods.
In Northeast Ohio, we are accustomed to having fresh perch and walleye, so this created a great alternative. This past winter we hosted an eight-course wine dinner featuring Spanish wines and food pairings. This fall, we will be busy with the clambakes we offer, along with a membership-driven chili cook-off and our Fall Festival.
Q: Michael, as a relatively new club chef to the industry, what first attracted you to the last Chef to Chef Conference in New Orleans, and what knowledge and valuable experience did you leave with?
A: Continuing education is a must in this career. Being introduced to the cuisine and chefs of different regions can be a tool we can all use to great benefit. Styles of cooking, wherever you may be, can always be brought home and utilized. My buffet ideas and presentation were expanded from attending the Conference, and I also learned some valuable things about the financial aspects of a club’s success.