Left: Christopher Park, Executive Chef at Wycliffe Golf and Country Club, Wellington, Florida, USA
Right: Pumpkin Swordfish with Strawberry and Mango Vinaigrette and Wilted Arugula
I was introduced to Christopher Park, by Rob Martin, the General Manager, who contacted me via LinkedIn to tell me about their extensive renovations. He was very passionate about them, and when the renovations were complete, I was delighted to meet and work with Rob, Christopher, and their passionate and enthusiastic team. I was particularly impressed by the member/staff communications policy. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us a little about your background history.
I am originally from Texas, but moved to Palm Beach County, Florida, when I was five years old. I went to high school here, and two weeks after graduating, I went right to the Florida Culinary Institute. At age 16, during high school, I started working in a restaurant for a Marriott Hotel in the area. I quickly went from washing dishes to working the fry station, and I fell in love with it. I signed up for culinary school in my sophomore year of high school. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a chef. When I graduated, I worked at The Breakers in Palm Beach, which was a Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five Diamond resort. I started as a cook and quickly got involved with everything. After six months, I became a Saucier Chef.
After 9/11, everyone stopped traveling, hotels and resorts became like ghost towns and had to lay off a lot of staff. I went to work for a private club as a Restaurant Chef for a little while, and then an a la carte restaurant. My mentor at the time, Warren Lee, said, “you have learned this, and now it’s time to move to a high-volume restaurant to learn more speed and mass volume.” From there I helped open a new restaurant, Bimini Twist. I worked my way to Sous Chef by the time I was 20, and then I knew it was time to move onto something more challenging.
A friend of mine told me that a position was open at BallenIsles Country Club as a Restaurant Chef. I went for an interview, was asked to do a tasting, and that’s where I met Michael McCarthy, who was the General Manager at the time. I got the position and began working with Chef Jerome Nicholas. I was promoted to Executive Sous Chef after a year and stayed for five years. When Jerome went to Ibis Golf and Country Club, he asked me to join him and I worked as his Executive Sous Chef for ten years.
GK: What brought you to Wycliffe?
It was 2017, and I was waiting for the right opportunity as an Executive Chef. I interviewed at many locations but couldn’t find the right fit until I met Rob Martin, the General Manager. I liked the vision and the direction that Wycliffe wanted to go in. I thought it was a perfect opportunity as they were renovating the entire clubhouse, kitchen, and dining facilities. Just the thought of being a part of such an evolution excited me.
GK: Tell us about the transition?
It was an interesting one! When I came in, they had rough ideas of what they wanted to do. The entire program had to be redone including kitchens, dining rooms, and space allocations. I got involved with all these plans and layouts as I wanted to make sure everything would flow.
GK: How did the membership feel about the plans?
The membership was excited about what the future could be, and it was nice to work for them. We had all these drawings to help them visualize the end result and there was communication throughout the entire process.
GK: You have an open-door policy here for members and staff, tell us about that.
I have always encouraged my staff and members to share feedback with me. We have a select group of members that sit on a committee and we meet monthly to get feedback, good or bad, from the rest of the membership. It helps us immensely. I was told a long time ago when I started this business, I’m not cooking for myself, I am cooking for the members and their guests. I encourage my team to get out there to learn what the members want and listen to what they have to say. We have over 1,900 members. I know I can’t cater to every single one of them with every single dish, but I do have a policy that if they give me notice, I will do my best to help them in any way I can. If they have a special request and give me 24 hours, I’ll make it happen.
GK: Tell us how you balance simple foods, buffets, banquets, and fine dining.
Many times, members want simple food when they get off the golf course or tennis courts. They want a quick bite before they go home and relax. They also want significant events, and these change all the time. We can do a music concert one night, and the next morning a card party for a women’s group. It’s always something different, and we must continually evolve to impress them each day.
GK: What is your take on farm-to-table?
We’ve created four farm-to-table dinners, which started in 2019. Farm-to-table to me is using ingredients that are locally caught or grown. Palm Beach County doesn’t have many farms for beef, but I can find seafood in abundance. I have locally harvested honey from hives about two miles up the road. There are many different farms that we can go to for freshly grown lettuce, a lot of them are hydroponic lettuce. I was even able to find locally grown fruits and vegetables. I tell the members that 85% I can source locally, but the rest is not available, and I source from very reliable farms out of state or internationally, depending on the product.
GK: Tell us about the charity work you are involved with.
We give back by doing what we know, and that is cooking. A lot of chefs, through programs such as the American Culinary Federation (ACF), work with various charitable events, and
we’re able to do a lot as a group.
One stand-out event is the Culinary Creations Dinner that Chef Jeff Simms from The Breakers puts together. There are approximately 60 or 70 chefs, and we each make one plate. Each table seats ten, and every dish is different, we do about five or six courses.
I get to give back by doing what I love. I encourage my staff to get involved as well; I believe it is fundamental to give back to the community that has raised you.
GK: What is your advice to purveyors that wish to work with Wycliffe or other area golf and country clubs?
I’ve had a lot of vendors come in and try to sell me things or to use their products. I’ve been in this business for about 30 years, and I have purveyors that I know I can trust, the owners are still the same owners. New food businesses are being started every day, but for me it’s about trust and consistency. It needs to be a mutual partnership.
I prefer to do business directly with the farmers, if they grow the tomatoes, they have accountability and a passion, to ensure they are delivering on their promise of quality ingredients.
GK: How important is saucing in creating your menus?
Only certain dishes need a sauce. The sauce should accompany the other ingredients, not just to cover the food. It should be used as a garnish on the plate and help enhance the flavor of the dish. There are a lot of different sauces that we can create, but there’s also relishes, compotes and aioli’s that you can add to a dish to make it enjoyable.
GK: Tell us about your use of technology here?
We just started with a new Wycliffe app and I had access to it prior to the member launch. I admit, I’m not the most tech-savvy guy, but I found it super easy to use! What I love about it is for member identification; it helps me put a name to a face, so to speak. We’re able to post all our menus, upcoming events or schedule changes. There’s a great push notification feature that only adds to our ability to communicate with them.
GK: Where do you want to take the culinary scene at Wycliffe in the future?
The beauty of working in a country club environment is that there is no choice but to be evolutionary in everything that we do- from a culinary standpoint and beyond. We cater to the same audience, day in and day out, so becoming complacent just isn’t in the cards. As for the future of culinary scene – we listen to our members, we educate ourselves on what is hot in the market outside the gates and we do the very best we can to maintain satisfaction and keep our members inside the Club.
The front entrance of the clubhouse at Wycliffe Golf and Country Club, Wellington, Florida, USA
Image courtesy Wycliffe