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Chef club


November 2012

When the new Nines restaurant at River Club of Mequon opens this month, it will be open to the public — not the norm at most area country clubs. Executive chef Justin Disbrow plans on serving flights of three locavore-inspired dishes. "In this particular area there are a lot of local farms. The concept is that we’re really here to showcase Wisconsin." A separate bar menu features upscale snacks such as buffalo calamari (calamari infused with buffalo chicken-wings flavor) and smoked bacon peanuts, along with six Wisconsin beers on tap and 44 wines.

Chefs at country clubs have a tall order — to satisfy pickiest of palates. After all, members at these exclusive clubs eat artisan ingredients in far-flung nations and often host multicourse gourmet meals in their homes.

"We have people who call me up and say ‘Can you get me some lobsters? I have some clients coming out,’" says Greg Abbate. As executive chef at Wisconsin Club Country Club on Good Hope Road in Milwaukee he cooks for 1,500 members a year — not just in the dining room but also for members’ bar mitzvahs, weddings, birthday parties and corporate events hosted at the club. He’s even set up a tailgate at Lambeau Field for a members’ outing. "We know our members and how they want things. I see an order come in the kitchen and think, ‘Oh, that’s Mrs. Miller who likes her Caesar salad with a lot of dressing,’ or know it’s someone who wants their dressing on the side."

To that end, Abbate ensures he’s got top-notch ingredients like Strauss veal and lamb, produce from local farms, artisan Wisconsin cheeses and Lake Superior fish (whitefish, walleye and perch).

To get members excited about the week’s meals, Kyle Pett, banquet chef at Oconomowoc Lake Club in Oconomowoc, e-mails them the menu each Thursday. Fresh seafood is flown in weekly and produce bought from small, local farms. "We can get small, unique crops. It helps to build a more personal relationship with our members."

Being a country club chef also requires flexibility and a thick skin, because a dish could be a flop with members who don’t have the option to dine at another restaurant at the club. "It’s a very food-focused club. Our members will tell us if it’s something they enjoyed or something they don’t want to see again. There are different approaches (to the same dish). We try to keep a lot of height in the dishes for visual effects," says Pett, who has been known to drum up a burger bar or shrimp kabobs poolside.

That ingenuity is what Darwing Cruz, executive chef at the 400-member Ozaukee Country Club in Mequon, likes most about his job. "A country club is an extension of a member’s home," he says, which is why Cruz doesn’t hesitate to grill burgers and brats at a pre-game tailgate at Lambeau Field, or lobster tails and flambé desserts back at the club’s pool, which is fresh off a $1.2 million renovation. For Halloween he might craft a "scary foods" buffet, and he’s become skilled at cooking for multiple generations at Santa brunches each Christmas. "Our members know about food. Remember, you’re dealing with people who travel a lot. You can’t pull a fast one on them. They know their food," Cruz says.


This story ran in the November2012 issue of: