When I arrived at my interview for the Executive Chef position at Sycamore Hills Golf Club (Fort Wayne, Ind.), I walked down a long hallway to the General Manager’s office for a quick meet and greet. Typically, someone wouldn’t comment on something as nondescript as a hallway, but this hallway was filled with chef coats hanging on the walls with names emblazoned on them including Charlie Trotter, Jean George, Michael White, Stephanie Izzard, Rick Bayless, Michael Symon, and Marcus Samuelson. (FWIW, those names represent only about half the coats hanging, but I think everyone gets the picture.) To say that moment was intimidating would be an understatement—but it was also intriguing and exciting.
I quickly discovered why those coats are so proudly displayed at the club. Although Fort Wayne is the second biggest city in Indiana, it is small compared to some of the larger city centers within a couple-hour drive of the club. One of our members was doing a lot of business in Chicago and would travel to the city a few times a month, staying in and around downtown. He loved dining at Charlie Trotter’s namesake restaurant and was there so often that he ended up striking up a friendship with the legendary chef.
This member, who loves great food and wine, asked Chef Trotter if he would be willing to come to Sycamore Hills in Fort Wayne and host a wine dinner for the membership. Chef Trotter was non-commital initially, but the Sycamore Hills member was persistent. Chef Trotter finally agreed to come, but there was a catch – there had to be a charity component to the dinner.
A committee was formed and began finding a charity component to make this wine dinner with Chef Trotter a reality. Eventually, they found a charity they felt would hugely impact the Fort Wayne Community—Blessings in a Backpack (BiB). BiB is a national organization with local chapters all across the country. Their mission is to provide underprivileged students with backpacks filled with food on Fridays so that they have food on weekends. Most of these children rely upon the school system for their meals, and many don’t eat on the weekends.
To say the first dinner was a success would be a severe understatement. Chef Trotter and the Sycamore Hills culinary team hosted 160 people at 800/plate for the inaugural Blessings in a Backpack Celebrity Wine Dinner at Sycamore Hills. Chef Trotter composed the menu and worked with the team at the Club over the course of two days to execute the event. The dinner fully funded the new local chapter of BiB for its first year operating in Fort Wane. Each subsequent year, a new celebrity chef was invited to host this incredible annual event, which fully funded the charity for the year (hence all those legendary names I mentioned earlier).
Now that you know more about BiB, let’s bring it back to my story/experience at Sycamore Hills. Yes, passing all those chef coats on the day of my interview was intimidating, but it was exhilarating. Like many of you, I have worked on many charity golf events. No matter what, it always feels great to be helping a great cause. However, most of those events are golf based, and the culinary component was usually some sort of buffet or food station to feed the many. This event fully revolved around the culinary world and has been the sole driver of this impactful charity.
When I learned about it, I remember instantly thinking, “I want to be a part of this!”
I took the position of Executive Chef at Sycamore Hills in the spring of 2020—at the beginning of COVID. Before a celebrity chef could be named for the 2020 Blessings in a Backpack event, the event was canceled. I remember how disappointed the team at the club was because everyone looked forward to hosting this impactful event.
In my second year, a celebrity chef was named for the event—Mathias Merges. If you are unfamiliar with Chef Merges, he was the long-time Executive Chef of Charlie Trotter’s namesake restaurant in Chicago. Chef Merges was Chef Trotter’s right-hand for most of his legendary run. Having my first BiB event at Sycamore Hills with Chef Trotter’s protégé felt like something out of a book. I couldn’t believe I would get to work side by side putting on an incredible event with a Chef the caliber of Merges.
Unfortunately, COVID wasn’t over. The committee was nervous about investing resources into the event, with the general public still weary about attending large-scale events. So for the first time in the event’s history, they decided to downsize it from 165 people to around 90 people, reduce the cost by about 40%, and push Chef Merges to the following year when we could hopefully bring the event size back to its former glory. Oh, and I forgot to add, they asked me, the Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills, to be their “celebrity guest chef” that evening. I couldn’t have been more honored, and we knocked that event out of the park with dishes highlighting all the incredible ingredients in the Midwest.
Being the celebrity guest chef at the BiB event was an honor, but it wasn’t the experience I yearned for. Word came early in 2022 from the committee that the event was back on for the fall with Chef Merges.
We started to get into the nuts and bolts of the event early in the summer season. Chef Merges and I spent much time on the phone talking through menu ideas, sourcing ingredients, course layouts, and timelines. This event was one of the hundreds he was a part of that year, but he made me feel like this was the most important event on his agenda. Chefs love wine dinners. It’s our time to show off. But a wine dinner for over 160 guests at a level fitting of Chef of Merges’s stature was intimidating. Chef Merges put together an excellent menu that featured some of his and Chef Trotter’s creations, but he gave me some input to give it a little Sycamore Hills spin. There was no ego with Chef Merges; I felt like I was going into a battle with a brother, not a legend.
Chef Merges and one of his Executive Chefs arrived at the club early the day before the event. It was easy to tell how humble the chef was from our first meeting, but also serious about the task. He was eager to get their luggage stored in one of our cottages so he and his Executive Chef could get into the kitchen working with our team. After a brief kitchen tour, he introduced himself and his executive chef to our team, and we all went right into cleaning artichokes for the second course. Although we had every component of every course assigned to one of our culinarians, Chef Merges and his EC spent time with each person in the kitchen, passing along knowledge and getting to know our culinarians. It was awesome to stand back and watch our team receive a Master Class from one of the best.
My culinary leadership team and I got in early on the day of the event. Would you believe that Chef Merges and his EC were already working in our club kitchen, putting some finishing touches on a few components? Because that is exactly what we walked into that morning. That morning, anything we could get ahead, whether that was portioning the microgreens or polishing the plates. It was easy to see why Chef Merges is at the top of his field. Every piece, component, and plate was mapped out and planned in advance. Nothing was left to the last minute, short of actually cooking the proteins.
Part of the magic of this event was the interactions between the Celebrity Guest Chef and the attendees. That meant Chef Merges put much faith in his EC and me and our team as he had to be out front, greeting and taking pictures with all the attendees as they worked their way into the event. Throughout the evening, Chef Merges blended perfectly between the back and the front of the house, being out front when needed and in the back to supervise the execution of the courses. It was amazing to see such balance; it’s something I strive for every day.
As I’ve written in blogs, chefs cannot hide behind doors and walls and prepare great food. We need to create a connection or bond with the people that come to enjoy our art. That evening, the attendees not only experienced the cuisine. They also experienced the chef’s personality. Chef Merges proved the importance of connection with the diner.
Each course went out with the attention to detail you would give for an intimate wine dinner of 40 people to over 165 attendees. From the wagyu short rib to the brioche-wrapped pear, each course felt intimate due to the level of detail and finesse we achieved through collaboration, teamwork and planning.
As the night ended, Chef Merges insisted that our culinary team accompany him to the room for the thunderous round of applause everyone knew was coming. When he spoke to the attendees about the incredible culinary team in place at the club, I couldn’t have had more pride in where I work and who I work with. Chef Merges then showed his class by breaking out an apron from the big man himself, Charlie Trotter, and auctioned it off right then and there to support the charity. Not only did the charity raise over one hundred thousand dollars from the event, but they also raised an additional ten thousand dollars from Chef Trotter’s apron – it is and will probably forever be one of the most extraordinary culinary experiences I have seen with my own two eyes. We were hoping to take Chef Merges and his EC out for a drink after the event to celebrate, but he had to quickly say goodbye as he had to return to Chicago for another charity event the next day.
I was finally able to be a part of the official Sycamore Hills Blessings in a Backpack Celebrity Wine Dinner fundraiser, and it was worth the wait. These types of events will always be my favorite. Not only does our club and team make an incredible impact on the city of Fort Wayne, but it also facilitates incredible chefs coming to our club that help educate our culinarians. Everyone in our kitchen, me included, walked away as stronger because of the time we spent with Chef Merges.
We are already looking forward to next year. I also hope that our experiences here at Sycamore Hills help inspire other clubs to look into their community to see how you can make a difference. Sometimes what we do here at Sycamore Hills is large, loud, and massively impactful. Sometimes what we do is smaller, quieter, and more targeted. But both are equally important.