Winston Churchill painted seascapes from his cabana here. In the 1950s, General Motors debuted their new car models in its grand ballrooms. The club has hosted parties for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas MacArthur, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Tony Bennett and Julio Iglesias have sung on its stage. But not as a duet. And my own admittedly tenuous connection to the recently renovated Surf Club, at 9011 Collins Avenue in Surfside, is that I had driven by the place for years without realizing it. As a private entity, they keep a low profile.
Since 1930 The Surf Club has been known, by those in the know, as a premier destination for upscale dining and dancing in a sophisticated setting. Hotel rooms for members are stately, amenities are plenty, and a wide stretch of ocean front beckons. Grand receptions for up to 1,000 people? Yes, sir. Seated dinner for 800? Right away, Sir.
Last week I found myself in the Surf Club kitchen, my task being to make carrot cake for 100 people that were holding a birthday party there. It took me six hours. During the same period, executive chef Luke Livingston was busy orchestrating the cuisine for guests that would come to dine at the restaurant that evening, as well as for buffet banquets and five-course plated dinner parties taking place for some 500 people. He has sous chef José Tobon helping (Tobon has been at the Club for seven years), along with “eight highly qualified cooks” and “four of the hardest working dishwashers.” And during those same six hours Erika Zentz, the pastry chef, created deserts for those same half-thousand people. I have never worked so fast and felt so slow.
Banquet kitchens are much larger than those found in restaurants, and the one at the Surf Club is huge -- not quite as big as a football field, but if you cleared out the equipment you could definitely play a properly proportioned game of baseball. A massive amount of equipment whirls, hisses, and steams as workers are stationed at stoves, flattops, and grills, behind steamers and giant stock pots, and at tables prepping the food. There is a constant movement back and forth of cooks going in and out of walk-in fridges and freezers bearing large quantities of comestibles. There is camaraderie, but not a lot of chatter. This ain’t The Food Network -- it’s all action, baby, action.
Luke started here in August of 2006. The native New Yorker earned a four-year Bachelor's degree at Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales, then spent time working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Versailles and England. Besides all the big parties, he oversees the serving of breakfast, lunch, a la carte dinners, an outdoor beach bar and grill, and three banquet rooms. “During a busy week we could serve 1500 ala carte covers and usually have at least four parties in a weekend with at least 1000 banquet covers.”
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These are the menu items for just one of the parties on the day I observed (in stream of consciousness form):Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of Lobster and Vegetables Quesadillas, Chicken Brochettes with Curry- Mint Pesto, Wrapped Scallops with Asian Barbecue Sauce, Tuna Tartare in Sesame Cones, Smoked Salmon Croque Monsieur, Quail Deviled Eggs, then a first course of Herb Crusted Jumbo Shrimp, Fire Roasted Asparagus, Truffle Baby Tomato Salad, Puree of Artichoke and a Second Course of Marinated Portobello Mushroom Stuffed with Braised Short Ribs, Gorgonzola Gnocchi, Root Vegetables with Reduction of Natural Juices, and of course a third course of Keys Yellowtail stuffed with Olive Pepperonatta, Baby New Zealand Lamb Chop, Crispy Prosciutto and Rosemary Potato Cake, Baby Vegetables, and the desserts...
Pastry chef Zentz arrived at the Surf Club just months ago, after 13 years in the same position at the Indian Creek Country Club. She was trained in her native Switzerland, and my God, she was putting out the most beautiful mini-tiramisu, key lime tarts, petit fours, chocolate cakes, and fruit tarts that I’ve seen in years. Or at least since the last time I was in New York and drooled upon the pastry case at Bouchon. During a typical week Ms. Zentz will produce over 1000 such desserts. “All from one person”, marvels Livingston, who calls Erika “the best pastry chef the Surf Club has ever seen.”
And what is the biggest challenge in producing so much upscale food at once? “Organization” says Luke without having to think. “I always start early and try to get everything accomplished so I’m not running around at the last second. We never put something off for tomorrow when we can do it today.”
In retrospect, I should have at least prepared my icing the day before. -- Lee Klein