Anthony Capua, Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills Golf Club, transformed the culinary program in his first year, focusing on higher-quality ingredients and improved culinary techniques.
In my last blog post, I wrote about my journey to becoming Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I touched on finding the right fit for my first Executive Chef role and on how this transition happened right at the onset of COVID-19.
When I flew up to Fort Wayne for my interview, the General Manager, Clubhouse Manager, and I were out to lunch when they announced that as of 3 pm that day, all non-essential businesses were ordered to close in the Hoosier state. It would have been easy at that point to stay under the comfortable umbrella at Fiddlesticks Country Club in Fort Myers working as Executive Sous Chef to my friend and mentor, Ryan Daniels. But something inside of me kept saying, “This is the right club and the right fit. Don’t pass this opportunity up.”
I connected with both the General Manager and Clubhouse Manager. We all had the same goals. They were:
- Create a culture of culinary and service excellence in a relaxed and fun atmosphere.
- Implement and live by a “scratch” kitchen philosophy.
- Implement modern cooking and plating techniques.
- Put Sycamore Hills on the map as a private club culinary destination.
The club wanted to fly my wife, Deanna, and me back up to Fort Wayne for a chance for her to see the area. Needless to say, that trip was canceled as the pandemic flared. Deanna was supportive and could easily see that this was something that I was excited about and wanted. So, sight unseen, she agreed to move our family from Fort to Fort, a journey of over 1230 miles.
On May 1st, 2020, I walked through the back kitchen doors as the new Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills Golf Club. I had achieved my dream of becoming a premier Executive Club Chef.
The journey started with a simple item: pizza. I had asked the General Manager what he wanted me to tackle first. Without hesitation, he said, “We need a homemade pizza.”
Almost nine months prior, the General Manager had procured and installed a double-deck Blodgett oven with the goal of beautiful pies flowing out to the dining room and carryout. Previous regimes had struggled to put together a pizza that he thought was worthy of adding full-time to our club menus. Within a week, I had multiple different scratch doughs and sauces for the team to sample. As a team, we came up with the combination we thought would work best, and we launched the new club pizza program. To say it was a hit is a severe understatement. At one point, we worried the double-deck Blodgett might not have the space to keep up with the demand for the pies that we were selling. It was an early win and the beginning of what would be an excellent first season.
My Executive Sous Chef, Mike Trabel, and I examined every kitchen area. The next step was getting the club kitchen back to the basics. We transitioned things traditionally brought in from distributors to being housemade, including stocks, sauces, dressings, and meat fabrication.
I quickly realized that Trabel was one of the most talented pastry chefs and bakers I have had the chance to work alongside. I put him in charge of our bread and pastry programs. He created cookies, ice creams, rolls, fresh loaves of bread, and mind-blowing desserts, such as our Sycamore temptation. Our members embraced this change (and started to find extra room for dessert at the end of each meal).
As the first month went by, what began as the basics quickly snowballed with more refinement and creativity. Our team was hooked and wanted to keep pushing the envelope.
We experimented with new plating techniques, and we were fortunate that our club had the resources to bring in some premier plateware. Most clubs have a hard time getting out of the white plate mindset. When looking at hot and trendy culinary experiences, they all have one thing in common: unique plateware. The combination of our new plating techniques and our new plates had our members saying that they thought they were eating downtown in a big city like Chicago, Indy, or Detroit.
The next program we instituted is near and dear to me and my Italian roots: homemade pasta. What started as a lobster ravioli special as a weekly feature, turned into what would be multiple kinds of pasta on our dinner menu. I taught the team to make fettuccini, ravioli, tortellini, and gnocchi. Watching members enjoy the fruits of our labor meant so much to our kitchen and service teams. I even learned a new pasta technique when our General Manager told me that I would win the hearts, minds, and bellies of all the Midwesterners if I could execute a from-scratch pierogi. I can now say that this Florida boy can make a pretty good Midwest pierogi!
One of the most significant impacts to our program turned out to be our approach to whole fish fabrication. I honestly thought that by moving to the Midwest I would be cooking meat and potato dishes for the foreseeable future. As it turned out, our membership was yearning for high-quality seafood. It took identifying and utilizing five different vendors, giving every whole fish that comes through our back door a 5 point inspection to ensure we are bringing the best seafood possible in for our members. This program has also taught our young culinarians a valuable lesson about breaking down whole fish and utilizing more of it, not just the filets. Now, when we run sales reports for our different menu items, it is easy to see that fish is king in Fort Wayne.
This has not stopped us from embracing the meat-eaters that we do have. We were already serving Prime beef before my arrival. However, we were throwing that beautiful prime beef on the broiler and then finishing it in the oven. To kick that program up a notch this offseason, we purchased a Montague Double Fired Infrared Broiler, which is utilized in premier steakhouses across the country. The response so far has been tremendous. The sear that we can achieve on our beef takes an already strong beef program to a whole different level. We will be very interested to see if beef can take over the top spot from fish this summer!
If I were honest, there were times this first year when I asked myself if we were doing too much. Those thoughts would quickly fade away when we saw our new culinary program’s impact on our membership. We quickly turned from a “Friday Night Club” to a consistently busy club every night of the week.
For everything that we had been able to execute this first year, the feather in our cap was entering our culinary program in the Club & Resort Business Top Ranked Culinary Experience of 2020. When the clubhouse manager and I first brought the idea of entering to our General Manager, he asked us if we thought our culinary program could compete with all the big dogs that would be entering. We didn’t hesitate to respond with, yes, absolutely!
When I received the email that the new issue had gone live I was nervous to see where we were ranked (or even if we ranked at all). I started at the bottom of the list and worked my way up. By the time I got to the ’40s, and then the 30’s I began to get a little nervous. I could hardly believe what I saw when I saw that we were ranked 20th in the nation!
The best part was seeing the reaction from our team. You would have thought we all chipped in and bought a winning Powerball ticket. It was proof that our staff has embraced the culture we have instituted here at Sycamore Hills. We are beyond proud of what we have accomplished, but we are not at all satisfied. There is plenty more to come in year two. Stay tuned!