How General Managers Can Be More Involved In Culinary Excellence

Most successful culinary cultures share similar norms. These elite clubs are aligned with strong visionary general managers, a membership base that understands their role in the club’s food and beverage success, and both possess transparent trust in the executive chef.

The general manager is often the most important partner for the executive chef, followed closely by culinary resources, a supportive board, and often written strategic plans around the importance of culinary value propositions.

When working with club boards, search committees, and especially general managers on topics of sustainable food and beverage excellence, the conversation always seems to touch on the following areas.

Many clubs believe they have hired executive chefs to bring their culinary vision and direction to the clubs. Feeling confident in hiring the best while not interfering, they hope these steps take culinary excellence to the next level.

The reward comes with a risk whenever leaving professionals to their own uninterrupted actions, even resulting in misaligned service execution, siloed departments and soft or even nonexistent member feedback in the worst-case scenarios.

History has shown that elite clubs act in converse. The more a chef is part of the executive committee discussions, the better the organization’s mission, vision and standards can be absorbed. One of the most important factors is mentoring the chef in defined guidelines for menu offerings. Sharing membership data and comments can help to secure accurate, expected and approachable menu offerings. These conversations include when menu selections can be rotated, time-honored signature dishes and even popular items that need to be improved.

These menu vision sessions are not to be mistaken as requirements. They have been developed from club wisdom through membership interactions. Vital conversations in which direction of a more consistent culinary experience can exist in the club. Often general managers might feel this imputation could dampen creativity. Traditionally shown, creativity is enhanced when the vision is clearly defined, mutual expectations are measured and consistent customer feedback is shared.

The chef was hired for their culinary technique first. Defining membership needs and wants is the responsibility of the entire leadership team. In the same breath, a general manager must embrace a calculated change in the club’s culinary offerings and kitchen structure for the mutual support of the chef.

Great general managers measure the risk in the progression of the culinary arts. They are defining with the chef what are fads before they are trends, even recognizing emerging technology that has or will become part of the service culture.

A vital piece of this leadership relationship is the trust in sharing positive and constructive feedback from members and employees. In that context, partnering in menu feedback while creating a collaborative culinary whiteboard exercise is beneficial.

This process defines what creativity and conservativity look like in the club’s culinary offering, providing the chef areas where the chef can play while defining tight structure around traditions or iconic events. Menu engineering is a partnership between the chef, key club leaders and historical successes in the eyes of club membership. These over-communicated requirements often keep the chef from misunderstanding what can change while ensuring that innovation doesn’t sit on the chef’s shoulders alone. Another great practice found in annualized KPIs is that of a stop-start-continue exercise, a process that, when done correctly, gives general managers a sense of how club chefs see their role.

This exercise can include various stakeholders, employees, leaders, selected committee members, and even vendors. Often, we recommend the general manager or president perform this exercise for a new executive chef, providing the new professional with a clearer sense of expectation and, importantly, historical habits that are appreciated.

If the new executive chef has not been exposed to many of these strategic techniques previously, define “executive” in the title, empowering them to have ownership in the overall club strategy, staff development and alignment with the executive committee. A lack of involvement will alienate true ownership and responsibility of the vision of the club as it relates to culinary excellence. 

Building a relationship between the general manager and the new executive chef will take time and mentorship. Schedule an hour each week (their hour) where the chef and the general manager sit and discuss items necessary for supportive action.

Meeting consistently formulates a better understanding of the partnership and expectations. Staff retention always starts in this relationship and teaching the chef how to manage and participate with defined agendas strengthens it.

Leveraging the organizational chart by alternating the weekly meeting between two offices is a benchmarkable best practice. Young culinarians learn to further respect the craft when seeing a general manager in the chef’s office. These sights inspire and highlight the importance of the executive chef’s role in the organization.

In preparation for these meetings, advice to budding or even established chefs is don’t come to the sessions empty-handed. If your partner, the general manager, can taste, see and feel the product, they have a better understanding of how, if necessary, to pitch it to members and, therefore, better support for the chef.

A talented chef wants new kitchen products, tools and equipment. Those who have a “wish list” traditionally are lifetime industry learners. To support these requests, ask for a capital project business plan, accompanying the vision. Normal costs, projected revenues, potential savings, as well as staff and member improvements are key components to include with wish list requests.

A successful proposal must be able to determine the value proposition to the club. With any capital request, the less personalized, balancing a complete club benefit is more likely to earn a higher probability of support.

In key member touchpoint capital projects, business cases can include a strategy for a “pilot.” This provides less finality to commitment, potentially giving subliminal board support, knowledge and engagement under a culinary research and development method.

Understanding the risk of change, temporary timelines might be more acceptable. These plans include measured feedback, with repair and maintenance for a set schedule of time. Pilots are vital to continue idea generation, uncover potential demand for services and endorse the concept of change.

Examples include menu designs, changes in service ware, service styles, various technology, or even uniforms. During the pilot, both member and employee feedback sharpens the scope and final decisions.

Some clubs have even turned the board meetings into light F/B research and development platforms. Hidden between monthly governance issues, emerging membership updates, or budget assumptions, hospitality can be sold continuously. A gentle reminder at this high-level meeting to not overlook culinary excellence as a key part of the membership value. 

Board members understand that great deals are done over dining. A simple act of culinary inclusion ensures the chef interacts for a few minutes each month, being known and energized at this audience level.

In numerous club visits or discussions, innovation, creativity, or lack of change plagues the reputation of many executive chefs. The balance of change and the consistency required might never be solved.

With these conundrums, an executive chef can begin to lose that creative edge if not measured through education, benchmarking or conference participation. Dining out is required for any club’s culinary product to stay fresh and vibrant. Often members are more versed in local establishments, which can leave the kitchen out of the conversation.

A general manager benefits from dining partnerships by learning insights about culinary excellence. The more time spent on the club’s authority on food, the stronger members’ needs can be understood. One doesn’t need to be in love with food to respect those who are.

Finishing the education sector and creating annual goals around certification within the industry is paramount to the motivation of the existing talent. It is also a tool for recruitment. Education is the number one value proposition of a stronger culinary department.

While all clubs discuss staffing, chefs who have industry reach, local community involvement and succession planning have the greatest chance for a balanced staffing model.

Great trust, respect and education will always be timeless pillars in a lasting partnership. As a mentor once said, “I come to work to be with my friends and together we create greatness.”


Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC, ECM is a Certified Master Chef and Search & Consulting Executive for KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE. He is also Executive in Charge of the Club Leadership Alliance Food & Beverage Experience Network. Prior to joining KK&W and CLA, Lawrence served as General Manager/COO of the 146-year-old Union Club of Cleveland. His impressive 30-year career spans the globe with roles in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as some iconic operations state-side, including The Greenbrier, MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, The Ritz Carlton Company and The Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Annette Whittley, is a food and beverage training consultant and search executive with Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace, a consulting firm providing executive search, strategic planning and data analysis services to the private club and hospitality industries.