Anthony Capua, Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills GC, says collaborating with other chefs has improved the club’s culinary program and the strength of the team.
In the movie, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” there’s a pivotal moment when one of the main characters named Caesar looks at his fellow ape warriors and says, “Apes together strong.”
The sentiment behind this quote couldn’t be more accurate for club chefs working together to achieve our operation’s goals.
Throughout my culinary career, including the last 20 months in my first Executive Chef role, I have established strong connections with fellow chefs in my area. This naturally has led to some dynamic collaborations which end up being mutually beneficial for both parties.
I want to take this opportunity to share with everyone how some of these interactions have helped promote a united front among my fellow club and non-club chefs.
My best and most recent example is the “Battle of the Chefs” event we hosted at Sycamore Hills, pitting our culinary team against my old culinary team at Fiddlesticks Country Club in Fort Myers, Florida. Although the concept of “battling” is not new, we had a unique opportunity to pit club vs. club, mentor vs. mentee, brother vs. brother, and even Fort vs. Fort.
Both club teams designed and executed a five-course wine dinner, with the event attendees playing the role of the judges. We tallied the votes by course and declared a winner at the end of the event. It came down to the wire, but team Fiddlesticks edged us 3-2 to take the win. Even though I will always be super competitive and, of course, wanted to pull out the win, the chance to collaborate with some of the chefs in the industry that I love and respect was an unbelievable opportunity for everyone involved.
The chance to put two strong club culinary programs together from South Florida and the Midwest was nothing short of amazing. As my General Manager said, “the amount of culinary firepower in our kitchen was truly an abundance of riches.” It allowed our members to take part in a groundbreaking event for the club. Months later, while doing table touches, I continue to hear the same remarks from members, “When can we do that event again?”
It was a chance for my team to work with chefs who have different styles and use different techniques. It was fun to watch both teams embrace each other and learn from one another.
One of the most significant collaborations I have put in place since moving to Indiana has been the relationship we have developed with the local culinary program at Ivy-Tech. This was high on my priority list even though I was a newly minted Executive Chef with plenty on my plate. This has been a benefit to Sycamore Hills in two ways.
The first is that we have had a total of nine interns over my first two summers here. We all know how tight our labor market is right now, so having the ability to bring in quality students looking to complete their practicum for their degree is a win for all involved. This also lets us test run some of the best and brightest coming out of that culinary program, to the point that we were able to cherry-pick a few former interns for full-time positions in our kitchen post-graduation.
The second benefit of having a solid relationship with our local culinary program is that several instructors, all former Executive Chefs, are looking for ways to keep busy in the summer and around the holidays. Some of those instructors have found homes in our kitchen during their summer and holiday breaks, working anywhere from 10-25 hours a week to help supplement their income and stay active in a busy kitchen. When it comes to seasonal workers, it can be tough to find great help when you’re only able to offer someone work for a few months at a time. The collaboration with the chef instructors helps provide quality labor when we need it, and that labor naturally goes away at the same time we need to start downsizing our team for the offseason.
Some of the best advice I’ve received was that you could live ten lifetimes and never scratch the surface of all there is to know about food. My goal is to put as many quality chefs in our kitchen as possible for our team to continue to learn their craft.
The last thing I want to touch on was born from one of the most significant events we put on at the club each year—our annual “Blessings in a Backpack” fundraiser. This 800/plate multi-course wine dinner raises money for the local chapter of Blessings in a Backpack, which provides underprivileged children backpacks full of food on Fridays to take home with them to eat on the weekends.
The initial fundraiser brought in Charlie Trotter as the celebrity guest chef. Every subsequent year, a new celebrity chef was brought on to headline the event. The list of chefs is both intimidating and inspiring. Some of these chefs include Michael Symon, Graham Elliott, Stephanie Izard, Cat Cora, Marcus Samuelson, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, to name a few. This was an event that I was very excited about during my first year at the club, but unfortunately, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year we had Matthias Merges, Charlie Trotter’s Executive Sous Chef for many years, lined up to host as our Celebrity Chef. That was until the Delta Variant started rearing its ugly head.
I can remember vividly the day our GM came to find me to tell me that the charity had decided to hold off with Chef Matthias until 2023. I remember my initial disappointment that we had to cancel the event my first two years at the Club. However, my GM then explained that due to the success of our culinary program during my time here, the charity decided to reduce the number of attendees from 170 down to 70, to ensure social distancing, and have myself and our team of culinarians as the celebrity guest chefs that evening.
To say I was both floored and honored is an understatement.
Then my GM threw me a curveball. Typically we shut the club down for the event each year due to the number of attendees in a wine dinner setting. With the reduction in the number of attendees, he told me he couldn’t justify shutting down the rest of the club in the middle of the week.
As a chef, we always want to roll with the punches, but at the same time, we always want to try to execute at the highest level. My mind started to race about how we were going to accomplish this event plus a busy night of a la carte orders from the Club Grill Room and Overlook with limited staff due to the charity event being held during the period right after we lose our summer help.
After finding out that my local chefs at Ivy Tech had a big school-based event the same night as the charity event, I shared my labor concerns about that evening with our Clubhouse Manager, Alfredo Hildebrandt. He casually told me not to worry; he could line up some old friends to help that night. Within a day, we had received a commitment from Alfredo’s Executive Chef from his last Club, Geoff Sowl, Executive Chef of Lakewood Country Club (Westlake, Ohio), and his long-term roundsman, Jack Wagner, to come over and help the night of the event (a three-hour car ride each way).
Once again, this turned into a fantastic collaboration of chefs coming together from different organizations working toward the same goal. It was also a chance for my team to again work with chefs outside their club to see and learn about their different techniques and styles. The efforts of every chef in the kitchen that evening resulted in an unbelievable experience for our members and the charity.
I’ll end with this thought. I’ve always been super competitive and have strived to be the best at everything I do. It is easy to have the mindset of looking at every fellow chef in our industry as a competitor or the competition. I have come to realize that fellow chefs—past, current, and future—can be a tremendous asset.
I’d rather lose twenty battles or fall short on an event than ever limit myself or our team’s growth because I was afraid to reach out to fellow chefs in the industry and ask for help. I am not afraid to admit that I want to and love to work with as many club chefs, educators, mentors, interns, and anyone willing to work towards a goal beyond one kitchen for the better benefit of our industry.
To riff on that iconic line from War for the Planet of the Apes, our philosophy here at Sycamore Hills GC is Chefs Together Strong.