.I was introduced to Royal Poinciana Golf Club by Scott Garvin, the General Manager at Naples National Golf Club, Florida. Garvin had recently toured the club and was taken aback by the kitchen rebuild as well as the culinary team. I took his advice and headed to Naples. Scott Haegele the Director of Culinary Operations at RP gave me a tour of what I can only call - every chef’s dream kitchen. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Scott, where did you grow up, and what influenced your culinary aspirations?
I grew up in Damascus, Maryland, in the most northern part of Montgomery County. It was a tiny dry town with a lot of farms and churches. My mom always cooked and from a very young age, I would watch her, and then I would emulate what she did visually. Eventually, I was able to cook dinner, and I enjoyed working at the stove. I was still in school when I started working in a small mom and pop restaurant, and coming from Maryland, they cooked seafood and steamed blue crabs. That’s where I began my career; I loved interacting with people and learning about the restaurant business. I started out washing pots, and I worked my way up through the kitchen. I did that through high school. I had no desire to go to college, that wasn’t my path, but my sister said, “you know, I know this guy, he went to culinary school, and maybe it’s something you should consider doing.” I took my sister’s advice and enrolled at Baltimore’s International Culinary College. I did a two-year program there. I had a natural knack for cooking, and I wanted to continue to learn and do an apprenticeship program. I looked at Hotel Hershey, I looked at The Greenbrier and interviewed at both, and I chose the Greenbrier. The Greenbrier is an extraordinary place, and I loved the culture and the hills of West Virginia. When I was very young, I was told, “you don’t get good to work in good places, you work in good places to get good.” There’s much humility in that. You have to work hard, you must be able to take criticism well, and when you get knocked down, you get back up and keep driving forward. Many chefs come out of the Greenbrier and are doing well in the industry.
GK: What was one of the essential lessons that you learned at the Greenbrier?
The Greenbrier is where I learned how to cook and sharpened my culinary fundamentals. The hotel is a great training environment for an aspiring chef. The hotels back of house was extremely large and the processes of moving things around the kitchen are vitally important. How do you move goods coming in, food going out, people, dishes, equipment, you know, where’s it all stored, what’s the flow of how we do business every day? I learned all of this at the Greenbrier. In any good resort or hotel, you shouldn’t see your dirty laundry. We know great things are going on behind the doors, but we don’t know how it happens when you’re sitting in the dining room from a guest’s perspective or a five-star, five-diamond perspective. When they come and inspect your hotel or your operation, it should be flawless. It shouldn’t be, “oh, I see the broom in the corner where you’re going to clean up later.” Everything should be impeccable.
GK: How long did you stay at the Greenbrier?
Eight years. I did my apprenticeship for two years, and then I worked through the ranks of the kitchen to sous chef. I left the Greenbrier in my late 20’s and headed to New York City. I have always taken the posture of a student and thought that working in Manhattan would be a good training ground. I first worked at the iconic Tavern on the Green restaurant. It was a culture shock coming from the hills of West Virginia, and I took the position of Executive Sous Chef. The restaurant was bustling and gave new meaning to the term high volume. We did omelets for 1000 people every Sunday brunch off the a la carte line, and the French Fries were hand-cut, we would fill 50-gallon rubber trash cans with cut fries and soak them in water until we had to cook them. The owner at the time was Warren LeRoy; he was a shrewd businessman. It was my first experience working in a multi-culture kitchen, and I loved the people I worked with.
My second stop in the big apple was at the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel. I worked in the fine dining restaurant Peacock Alley for Chef Laurent Gras, he was a French chef with Michelin experience, and he was Alain Ducasse’ Chef de cuisine. Laurent was super talented and worked every day in the kitchen. His station was right in front of me, which was a little nerve-racking. His food was classic French with much influence from Ducasse. We worked with the best ingredients, such as Osteria caviar, fresh truffles, and foie gras. I respected Laurent’s work ethic; if a cook called off work, he would work the station himself. He worked meticulously clean and efficiently; there was no margin for error with Laurent. He taught me how to cook refined food and the focus that is required in that environment. His kitchen was spotless, and we spent as much time cleaning as we did preparing food. My only regret is that I didn’t spend more time working with him, but this experience left an indelible impression on me about cooking food at a high level and the commitment it requires.
After leaving New York, I returned to the Greenbrier to be the Chef of the Tavern Room, which was the hotels fine dining outlet. During my two years there the restaurant was awarded the 4 Star Forbes rating. This was an accomplishment I was proud of and owed to my previous mentors.
My formative years working in quality environments prepared me to join my mentor John Johnstone once again. I took the position as the executive sous chef during the opening of the Ritz Carlton at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Georgia, and after a year I became the Executive Chef.
It was the Ritz Carlton that taught me how influential culture is at a resort or hotel. There must be guiding principles. Although you had your department, everybody had each other’s backs. If I needed help from another department, we made it happen. It was a reciprocal relationship; we did whatever we needed to do to ensure the guests had a great experience. I appreciated the array of incredibly smart people in that company. Steven Freund was the General Manager at the time, and he was a great man. He had humility, and this executive presence, he knew every person by name and had a genuine interest in helping people grow in the front or back of the house.
After five years at Reynolds Plantation, I took an ambitious position at Casa Marina, which at the time was an LXR property owned by Blackstone in Key West, Florida. They had invested heavily and redid the entire property. My position was the Food and Beverage Director / Chef. It was here that I learned how to set up a restaurant from scratch; I learned how to plan the flow of service during the design stages. The General Manager was Kevin Speidel was from New Jersey and was the captain of the wrestling team, that was his persona, he was a go, go, go, guy! Kevin took no excuses, but he was also very fair, if he ever called you out, it was the truth; he cared about making things better. No matter what you do in life, long term, it may not be what you want to do, but I think some people come into your life that you learn from and you have to be open-minded enough and humble enough to, to see where your defects are to improve. My biggest takeaway from Casa Marina was the front of the house experience. I learned how to manage the international staff who were all on H-2B visas. I was working with people from all over the world whom all came from different cultures; it was great.
GK: When did you join the club industry?
I took a position with Club Corp at the Citrus Club in Orlando; it was at the top of the Citrus Center and had 360-degree window views, it was beautiful, but for me, it was a city club, and I needed to continue to grow.
GK: How did you land at Augusta National?
In 2011, John Johnstone gave me a call and said that Augusta National was going through a tremendous growth spurt. John Johnstone is, in my opinion, one of the best Food and Beverage professionals I have ever worked with, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for nurturing me in my career. Everything about Augusta National is about growing the game of golf. What’s unique about the place is that people have worked there for their entire career. They grew up across the street, and they have seen the town and club evolve, they’ve been a part of that, and they take much pride in working there. The tenured staff are true ambassadors of the community. To make significant changes for the club and the tournament, they had the vision and foresight to see that they needed to bring in professionals that knew how to manage the expansion.
It was an exhausting four years. However, in the end, it was remarkable what we created there. There’s a reason why Augusta National is the number one Platinum Club, they have such integrity in what they do, and they have the resources to do it. They are committed to executing at a high level. That whole experience was outstanding.
GK: What did you leave behind at Augusta National that makes you particularly proud?
I think the most important thing is a good culture and a significant improvement to the food and beverage experience. I was the Executive Chef, and I was involved in the opening of Berckman’s Place. Berckman’s place is like walking through a museum full of the history of Augusta National and the people who made it what it is today. They have a retail store, a southern restaurant Ike’s, a burger bar Calamity Jane’s, a Scottish pub McKenzie’s, The Pavilion restaurant, and the New Orleans Restaurant Augusta. This was all built for membership use. They bring their guests and watch the game, eat excellent food paired with wines andbeverages, and they enjoy the experience of being at the Masters. It is a genuine bucket list item for most people.
I would be remised if I do not give accolades to Chef Roberto Bustillo, who was instrumental in helping me open Berckman’s Place. Roberto has now taken over Berckman’s Place as the Executive Chef.
Under the tutelage of John Johnstone, the Director of Operations & Jim James, the Senior Director of Operations, I learned about planning from looking at blueprints and trying to envision what everything will look like when it is complete. It required much forward-thinking. We were working with kitchen designer David Chislett from Ricca Design Studios from New York; it was a great relationship.
We collaborated as far as how everything was going to flow and ultimately if the result is two inches too short when you’re building, well, you only get one chance to get it right. The process was educational, and there was so much to be orchestrated; communication was vital.
Managing all the equipment to put into a kitchen was another huge process as was how the food comes in and the flow of people. The place is only open for a week! How do you we get a restaurant up and running in two days, staff have to be prepared efficiently and quickly.
We had to bring in 1200 food and beverage professionals to help us. I had 50 sous chefs coming in, and these were all people that are at my level. It’s stressful to get staffing because you’re asking a lot. You’re asking somebody to come for a week and a half, and they’re using their vacation time or taking time off from their job. There are so many balls to juggle during planning and execution of the Masters Tournament I could go on for hours!
GK: What about the rest of the year at Augusta?
The club operations are minimal at Augusta; there are two business models. There’s the tournament, and then there are club operations from 15th October through 15th May. There might be 120 for lunch and no more than 60 for dinner. We have cottages on the property where members can stay, and, it is a very controlled environment. We know who’s coming, they have to make a reservation. They come to Augusta to play one of the best golf courses in the world, and the facility, the service, and food must be impeccable.
GK: Tell us about Royal Poinciana Golf Club.
I got the position here through a Search firm; they’re a good source at my level; it’s the best way to find opportunities other than word of mouth. Naples is beautiful. It’s a great environment. At Royal Poinciana, I have room to grow, at Augusta, I would have retired as an Executive Chef as its very golf-centric. RP is a social club, and if you’re looking at being a General Manager in the future you’re going to deal with committees, and you’re going to deal with some different governance issues that you can apply in a lot of different jobs. That’s what attracted me here. I am studying a four-year degree in hospitality management online, and I am a member of the CMAA (Club Managers Association of America) The club is very supportive of my aspirations. Coming here to build the new kitchen in itself, was a huge draw. I learned a lot at Augusta, but I wasn’t running the project, I was number two, but now I have taken all of that experience to build the new kitchen here, and it has been my project. That propelled me forward.
GK: How long did it take you to design the layout?
I partnered with Eamon Murphy, who was the former Assistant General Manager at Mirasol, and he had been heavily involved with the renovation at Mirasol. Eamon had the front of the house expertise, and I had the back of the house expertise. It was a real pleasure working with Eamon. We selected Cheney Brothers as the Kitchen Designers, and Don Garrett was the General Contractor. Everybody had a real connection to this project. It took a year to design and we vetted it again and again. We have improved the usage of the club tremendously. The members love the changes and are spending more and more time at the club.
GK: Tell us about the food at RP?
Food and beverage are becoming more and more critical at golf and country clubs in general, just as important as the golf course. Think about it, you are playing golf, or you’re inside the clubhouse. RP’s club membership is very well-traveled. They have the means to eat wherever they want, and they know what excellent cuisine is.
GK: Tell us some of the changes you have made.
We’re changing it from the clubby food to a casual restaurant that can compete with outside restaurants, that’s the expectation. I want to be our members first choice when they decide to eat out. There are still some traditional people that want liver and onions, and that is not a problem. I’ll do that for them. We have to provide that diversity and variety. I think sometimes we’re scared because in clubs, sometimes that minority voice is always listened to as if they were the majority. We listen to all opinions and make changes based on objectivity and good business sense. Complacency isn’t a good business decision. Building good relationships is vital; they start to trust you, and then it’s easier to make effective change. Trust is an essential attribute in a relationship. If you have that with people, they are more likely to forgive you when things don’t go 100% right.
GK: What do you hope to leave behind at Royal Poinciana when you become a GM?
I think, improving the clubs Food and Beverage operation and changing the culture is what I’m most proud of at RP. From the executives down, we all support each other. We work together, and it is rubbing off on the staff as well. They are proud to come to work every day, and they can provide for their families. It is a great place to work.
I want to be able to mentor others and help them to achieve their career goals whatever they might be. It could be an employee that makes soups for 15 years and retires or a restaurant chef who wants to become an executive chef. I am very proud of my team, and I look forward to working with them every day.
GK: The membership?
The members here are so kind in their words and emails. They often send me handwritten cards to tell me how well we are doing, you know, it’s extraordinary, and I cherish that.I enjoy getting out in the dining room, building those relationships, and listening to them. That is how I learn what I need to change.
Scott has now moved up the Royal Poinciana ladder and has taken the role of Director of Clubhouse Operations. Mark my words he will still be heavily involved on the culinary operations at the club as he is well aware how important it is to have a strong and collaborative team in the kitchen.
Royal Poinciana Golf Club, Naples, Florida, USA. Image by Stephanie Starr