We start brainstorming changes to our culinary program for the following season immediately after finishing our busy season here at Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind. During our brainstorming session last year, Chris Hampton, SHGC’s General Manager/COO, asked us, “What are we going to do next year to stand out from the rest of the crowd?” He pressed us to think outside the typical club culinary box.
We kept going back to the best ideas we’ve had so far: our Battle of the Chefs event during my first year with the club and our annual Blessings in a Backpack fundraiser, held annually in September. I won’t get into the details of these events, but a significant element in each of these events was inviting other chefs into our kitchen to work with and collaborate with our team.
What I experienced after our Battle of the Chefs event got me thinking about expanding upon the idea of bringing in guest chefs. For weeks after the battle, I observed our culinarians in the kitchen utilizing techniques that I knew weren’t in their culinary repertoire before the battle. When asked where they learned that, they quickly said, “Your brother, Vinnie, taught me that,” or “Chef Ryan showed me how to do that when we were prepping for the battle.”
I realized that having other chefs in our kitchen working with our culinarians was not only good for our members, but also good for our team. It helped them experience cuisine and techniques that we don’t always highlight here in the Midwest.
We put the proverbial pen to paper and sketched out how a series of chef-collaborative wine dinners would work. We decided we would fly in a chef for a three-day stay at the club. The guest chef would meet with our team on the first day, tour the facilities, and share a meal with us. On the second day, the guest chef would work with me and our team in our kitchen, prepping for the next day’s wine dinner-style event. I would write half the courses and the guest chef would write the other half. The most critical part was that we prep and execute the whole menu as a team. This is where the magic happens for our culinarians. They turn into sponges, hungry to absorb as much knowledge as possible from our guests during their limited time on the property.
On the last day, we would execute the event. Our guest chef would be with me in front of our membership, and we would talk about their background, club, culinary offerings, and most importantly, what they prepared for the event that evening.
We wanted to do a test run of the Chef’s Collaboration Dinner before announcing a full slate of dates for 2022.
The first chef who came to mind was someone I had gotten to know through social media. He is a fellow C+RC blogger, Jeremy Leinen, and I respect his style and cuisine deeply. Chef Leinen had recently accepted the position of Executive Chef of Park Ridge (Ill.) Country Club in Chicago after a long tenure in the same role at Dunwoody Country Club (Atlanta, Ga.). I reached out to him and asked if he wanted to come to Sycamore Hills to cook with me and my team for a small upcoming wine dinner. Without hesitation, he said he would be there. Although scheduling only permitted Chef Leinen to come for two days, our culinarians made the most of that time, peppering him with questions about sous vide and sausage-making techniques, which are two things Chef Leinen is known for. His visit also allowed me the unique opportunity for me to pick the brain of a chef who has found success in two vastly different culinary environments: Atlanta and Chicago.
Needless to say, the response from those in attendance was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone—members and my team—asked immediately when we would have another Chef’s Collaboration Dinner.
Although Chef Leinen was technically the first chef to work with us, I knew who I wanted to invite to cook with me and our team for our official Chef’s Collaboration Dinner in 2022: my partner in the 2022 Chef to Chef Conference Chef of the Year Competition, Wes Tyler, Exectuive Chef of The Club at Carlton Woods outside of Houston, Texas. (See Anthony Capua and Wes Tyler Share Their Experience Competing for Chef of the Year.)
Chef Tyler brought Texas-style flare using classical and modern cooking techniques. His half of the menu (see photo below) highlighted those three points beautifully. Chef Tyler taught our team about spherification and Texas game and proteins during his time here. For me, it was fascinating to sit down with Chef Tyler and hear about what it takes to be the Executive Chef of a club with multiple clubhouses.
This October, we finished our Chef’s Collaboration Dinner Series with Chef Shawn Olah, Executive Chef of Highland Falls Country Club in Highland, N.C. Chef Olah and I had followed each other for years on LinkedIn and attended some of the same conferences and awards banquets. We also discovered we had worked together in the Southwest Florida market but had never crossed paths. Chef Olah brought his modern approach to dinner with tastes from Carolina and the various markets he has worked in. Chef Olah also had great teaching moments with the staff, including tips and instructions on best practices for fortifying stocks as well as new pastry techniques. I had great conversations with Shawn about his seasonal market and how he deals with many of the same challenges we experience in our kitchens.
Looking back at 2022, I’m proud to say we achieved our mission of bringing top-level club chefs into our kitchen to help expand our culinarians’ skill set and knowledge base while also exposing our members to some of the top club chefs in our industry.
Selfishly, I enjoyed watching my team learn something new about their craft while also satisfying members in a new and fun way.
I’m always quick with the cliché, “You can live twenty lifetimes and never scratch the surface of all there is to learn about food.” However, at Sycamore Hills, we aren’t afraid to speed up that timeline by bringing in outstanding club chefs to help our culinarians learn and grow, while also offering our members a glimpse at the breadth of talent within the club industry.