Last year we took a peek into the daily lives of the executive chefs pulling the strings in the kitchens of some of the coast’s most celebrated country clubs. I chatted with Chef Robert L. Daugherty—at the time, a newcomer to the country club world after retiring from the hotel business—who expressed his excitement and anticipation for relocating to the heartland of America. A chef with a strong draw toward the Portuguese-influenced ingredients of his New England roots (not to mention the righteous lobsters and clams), Robert was ready to take on the warm climate, beach weather, and all the edible bounty Millsboro, DE, had to offer. His first full season watching the fields grow was 2017, so I decided to check in and see how he’s grown into his role at The Peninsula Golf & Country Club in Millsboro, DE. From the innovative American regional cuisine he serves daily at the club to his poolside Cabana Bar dishing out oysters and garden fresh mint mojitos to smoking a whole pig in La Caja China (an enormous roasting box that results in crispy skin), there’s nothing this imaginative chef won’t do to keep his guests happy.
How has your culinary skillset grown over the last year?
We’re growing all of our own herbs—exotic varieties like pineapple sage and opal basil—and doing containers around the club house. We’re running out quickly and harvesting them every day on the porch and patio. We also have a huge bin of mint that we’re using in cocktails like mojitos, as well as for desserts. We’re really having fun trying to involve our team in the dining room with members.
Did this past year bring about any new food trends that you’ve incorporated into your style?
I’m still very passionate about New England cuisine and, of course, fish. I’m a fanatic about fish and that’s continued to evolve. I sent my executive sous chef up to Foley Fish School (the oldest fish house in Boston). She did a three-and-a-half-day intensive training on the fishing boats, went to the fish auctions, and got to see what really fresh fish is. I also found a way to bring a truck down here once a week, so on Thursdays we get a truck full of oysters and fish from Georges Bank where the Labrador current meets the gulf. The water current is so rough, the fish actually have the most developed muscle structure. The halibut, cod, and scallops that come from there are amazing.
Over the warmer months, what did your kitchen team do to keep things interesting?
The pool area is new for our chefs. We didn’t pay much attention to it last year, but this year we built an outdoor lower cooking area. This “Cabana Bar” is part of our raw bar and poolside burger bar which we do on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. We’re bringing in Wellfleet oysters and local ones from Moonstone Bay and Rhode Island. We share them with members (along with specialties like my New England clam chowder). We also do Angus burgers right off the grill and when people smell that charcoal, they start to crave it. We do portobellos and chicken on the grill, but the burgers are the hit. We served over 220 burgers around July 4th.
Speaking of July 4th, what other special events did your team put on for the members this past year?
For July 4th, the club was filled with extended family and friends and we had everything from bouncy houses to live music to the poolside burger bar. Everybody enjoyed themselves! Another special event is the sunset celebration we do every Thursday. We do a special raw bar by the Cabana Bar and folks get to enjoy the sunset on the horizon with a complimentary champagne toast. It’s our salute to the sunset and we also have a yachting cannon we fire off. This sunset celebration has grown to about 80 to 90 people.
People also still love our Wednesday night Iron Chef Battles where two of our chefs go head-to-head with one ingredient and everyone in the dining rooms gets to taste the dishes. Recently, one chef made salmon cakes over quinoa salad with a roasted red pepper coulis, and the other did a 28-hour brined and marinated roasted chicken with a cider vinegar reduction. It’s our way of developing the younger culinary talent, and it’s proven to be a busy night.
Are you still preparing wine and beer dinners, and how do you put your own spin on them?
We have a fantastic wine room (pictured in the photo) and we just finished an event for homeowners there. The room seats 34 people and it’s where we do our Chef’s Table events among other special celebrations. We recently hosted one themed as “foods from Greece” and the menu was filled with items like grilled octopus, a “Mezze Table” with stuffed grape leaves, falafel, spanakopita, etc. We have a lot of fun beer dinners, and we’re gearing up to do one with Heady Seas Brewing soon. They’re bringing their beer master in and instead of just one meal, we’re having an entire festival with tastings. It will be an outdoor event and we’ll definitely roast a whole pig there too and get a pirate to fire the cannon!
We also feature great themed wine dinners. We have 190 members who are part of a wine club and there is an event every month for them. Last month, our executive chef helped put together the “Rosé by the Pool” menu that was three courses all paired with rosé. This month is BBQ and wine by the pool.
I know you’re focused on healthier cooking techniques for members who are more conscious of their nutrition. I’m sure that’s easier to do in the summer. How do you incorporate that into the winter months when folks want hearty comfort food but still want to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle?
I have to get very creative. We have a strong following of a low carb club who dines with us every two months. It’s about 30 to 35 people and they challenge our staff to come up with a carb-free menu. The last challenge was an Italian dinner, and we prepared items like Carpaccio, roasted vegetables, aiolis, and different appetizers. We actually made risotto out of cauliflower rice and did a brunoise (fine dice) of root vegetables—similar to how you would prepare risotto with whine wine, cheese, and onions. It was a hit. We also made zucchini noodles and squash and carrot bundles that resembled pasta. There was veal braised with prosciutto, sage, and mozzarella in a pan sauce. They thought they were in Italy! Our next one is a luau and we’ll be preparing Kalua pig and a number of different things from Hawaii. I have a great chef from Spain who worked for seven years on The Big Island. For this event, we just bought a La Caja China box and plan to go whole hog.
What aromatics do you suggest folks to use at home to incorporate flavors, sauces, etc.?
I’m a big fan of toasted seeds like cardamom and coriander and I love to crush them to make rubs and marinades. I also enjoy using fruitier oils (like grapeseed) that bring out the flavors in proteins. For lighter proteins like fish, I go light and mild with ingredients like dill, lemon zest, or other types of citrus rubs. For meats or heavier items, I like robust herbs and flavors like rosemary, thyme, and garlic.
When we spoke a year ago, you mentioned this was your first country club experience and was all new to you. What have been your biggest learning curves that have helped you to grow in this position?
It’s all about continuing to learn what our members want and what style of cuisine they’re enjoying. I want to feel like I’m taking them on my path of my experience with cooking. I want to introduce them to things from my past and my history of food. Learning our membership and getting them to trust us and have confidence in us and our events is important to me. It’s certainly blossomed because many of our events now sell out regularly!
The personal preferences of members is also very important to us. There are quite a number of people who are gluten-free and conscious of what they’re eating so for us—yes is always the answer. If they want something off of the menu, we never say no. That’s our attitude. Our biggest learning curve right now is managing reservations and the dining room. We need to make sure we’re maximizing our numbers, but also making sure that the flow into the kitchen is executed properly. It’s all about restaurant 101 and making sure the dining room floor is managed effectively. If you’re doing 220 to 230 covers on a weekend night, you gotta be on point!
How do you get feedback from your members on what’s working for them and what they’d like to see improve?
We have a notes section called 4 Ts (which is the Open Table of the club house world) and customers can comment on what they like or want. We’re doing an in-house baking program now because we’ve had so many requests for celebration cakes. Folks also put down their dietary needs and table requests, so all of this helps us customize members’ experiences in the dining room.
You were in a New England setting for three decades and used to lobsters, clams, and a Portuguese influence on the food. Last year was your first full season watching the fields grow. What regional ingredients have you really grown to love?
Crab season is coming around so I’m definitely enjoying working with the local crabs. I also have a guy working with us whose dad has a farm, and this year we’re buying his tomatoes and corn. We’ve developed this menu item called “3-hour Corn” where the idea is that the corn is picked and on your table in just three hours. Its will be in the form of a fresh corn salad, street corn, etc. The tomatoes are also coming in and they’re just simple, beautiful, vine-ripened tomatoes that are sweet and deep red in color. Nothing compares to them!