Growing up, John Cafarelli faithfully tuned in to PBS for Chef Martin Yan’s cooking program. The star of the show, for John, was Chef Yan’s cleaver. And when he was 12, the aspiring young chef finally got himself a “Yan Can Cook” knife, a reminder of his journey that he still has to this day. Cafarelli is now the general manager at Finkbine Golf Course, an 18-hole layout named after the man who donated the land to the University of Iowa. Ranked as a top public golf course by Golfweek, the course is the practice facility and competition site for the Hawkeyes men’s and women’s collegiate golf teams. Finkbine is also home to Bump’s, the clubhouse restaurant named for Chalmers “Bump” Elliott, director of athletics at the University of Iowa during one of the winningest eras in the school’s history. Cafarelli shares his philosophy that has carried him through his career, his advice for young chefs, and a little bit about the magic of Finkbine.
TROON: If you had to distill your hospitality philosophy into one word, what would it be? Cafarelli: Sincerity. I don’t think it matters whether you own a lunch counter or the finest haute cuisine establishment in the world, sincerity shines through.
Has this philosophy changed as you’ve moved from the kitchen to the GM’s office? I’ve taken it beyond the kitchen, into the dining room, and onto the course. People return time and time again because they feel recognized and welcome. Restaurant or tee box, that’s our number one job. If we make sure everyone has a good time and that their perceived value is high, we have a good chance at success.
You’ve worked at many different types of hospitality venues. What, if anything, changes from property to property? Everything changes. The basic rule I try to remember is: We’re cooking for the people, the guests. I used to cook for myself, my ego. Now, the first thing I want to learn as a restaurant operator is: What do people want? In Lake Erie, for example, no one wants seafood unless it comes out of the lake. At a resort I worked at, desires change based on occupancy; the off-season was much different than the tourist high season.
What advice would you give to an aspiring chef? Don’t have any regrets. Cook for the opportunities, not the status or the money, especially when you’re starting out. Say yes to experiences inside of kitchens and at places where you’ll learn. Be willing to travel somewhere new and take a few jumps. The sky’s the limit if you prove yourself competent and are willing to work hard.
What’s the best part about the dining experience at Finkbine? There’s a spectacular view from the patio, overlooking the first tee. But really one of the main reasons people visit us is because eating at Bump’s is part of the Iowa Hawkeyes experience. It’s a place that represents the university and allows our guests to reconnect with their alma mater.
Cafarelli spent much of his career in the kitchen before he moved into a club management role. He has worked at several Troon properties across the United States, including Valley of the Eagles in Elyria, Ohio; Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo.; and Westhaven Golf Club in Franklin, Tenn. A highly respected food and beverage professional, Cafarelli is an inaugural committee member of the Troon Food & Beverage Council, a group recently formed to leverage talent, cultivate positive and inclusive culture, and develop innovative approaches to solving the industry’s needs.
What’s something we can look forward to from your culinary team? Our chef, Dan Naso, and our team are in the midst of reimagining our food identity. It’s time for something new. We’ll keep the favorites, but we’re percolating on the idea of BBQ, burgers, and beer. Borrowing the best parts of all of the regional barbecue styles, seasoning, smoking, and saucing across the U.S., we’re planning to add pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken lollipops, sausage, and homemade bacon to the menu along with traditional BBQ sides.
What’s a local favorite dish at Finkbine? If you haven’t tried the signature pork tenderloin sandwich, then you haven’t been to Finkbine. It’s eight ounces of fried Iowa-raised Beeler’s Pork with Boetje’s wholegrain mustard aioli, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It’s our number one seller! ▪