When Paul Sauerteig, a member of Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind., invited his friend Chef Charlie Trotter to visit in 2008, it began the club’s long relationship with Blessings in a Backpack, a charity that provides book bags of food to underprivileged children every Friday during the school year, so they will have meals on weekends.
To show their appreciation for their hosts’ hospitality, gracious guests never show up empty-handed.
Some, however, make an extra effort to express their gratitude, like the late Charlie Trotter, the pioneering Chicago chef, did when his friend, Paul Sauerteig, a member of Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind., invited him to visit the club in 2008. “He said he would come to Fort Wayne, but he wanted to do a fundraiser when he came,” Sauerteig recalls.
Trotter prepared a five-course, gourmet meal for the Sycamore Hills members, to raise money for Blessings in a Backpack, a charity that provides book bags of food to underprivileged children every Friday during the school year, so they will have meals on weekends.
With that initial gesture of generosity, Trotter helped to launch a new tradition that has become a highly anticipated, $800-a-plate annual event at Sycamore Hills.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for our members to have an over-the-top culinary experience with a five-course wine dinner,” says Christopher Hampton, General Manager and Chief Operating Officer. “The event itself isn’t over the top, because we want to put as much money toward the charity as possible.”
For the inaugural event, Sauerteig joined forces with fellow Sycamore Hills members Gretchen and Mike Gouloff, a founding member of Blessings in a Backpack who serves on its local and national boards and wanted to start a chapter of the organization in Fort Wayne. An event committee was also formed to help organize the dinner.
“With Charlie’s reputation, we’ve been able to get other famous chefs for the fundraiser,” says Sauerteig, who now lines up a celebrity chef when the event is held each year in September. “The event sells itself, and it sells out every year. The chefs come here and reproduce what they do in their restaurants. It’s strictly a charitable fundraiser, and we get a lot of support from corporations in the community.” Community support includes food and wine donations from local vendors, monetary contributions, and even complimentary use of a private plane to bring the celebrity chef to Fort Wayne.
“I enjoy the fact that we’re supporting a charity and sharing a big city chef’s experience with local supporters of the event,” Sauerteig adds. “We’re making new friends when new people and new corporations come to the event. Some corporations just send money and don’t ask for tickets to the event.”
The biggest beneficiaries of the event are the children of Fort Wayne. According to Sauerteig, 33 schools in the Fort Wayne Community Schools system are eligible for services from Blessings in a Backpack.
“We have enough funds for four schools, and we’re adding a fifth school this year,” says Sauerteig. “We’re raising more each year, and we’re trying to add a school every other year.”
School district personnel recommend the schools that have the greatest need for the program, and each year Sycamore Hills tries to raise more than $100,000.
This year’s fundraiser featured Executive Chef Paul Kahan, who owns multiple dining dining establishments in Chicago, including his most famous restaurant, Blackbird, and was the winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 2013 and Best Chef of the Midwest in 2004.
While Sycamore Hills often brings in chefs from the Chicago market for the event, famous chefs from coast to coast have shared their talents for the fundraiser over the years. Previous year’s celebrity chefs have included Cat Cora, Rick Bayless, Michael Symon, Marcus Samuelsson, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael White, Graham Elliot, Stephanie Izard, and Jose Garces.
Accommodating 140 to 160 people, the five-course dinner with wine pairings also includes a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres and an introduction of the guest chef by the charity organization. Some of the chefs also talk about the menu for the evening or speak between the dinner courses.
“It’s an interactive experience for the attendees,” says Hampton. “We usually do it on a Tuesday night or another slow night because we shut down the club for the membership. It’s an opportunity to taste the culinary creations of some of the top chefs in the world.
“We’re a golf-centric club in a small city, but this event helps us expand the culinary side of our club for those who are not hard-core golfers,” Hampton adds.
Each guest also receives a gift bag containing items such as chocolates and a list of the wines being served and where they’re available. If the chef has published a book, Sycamore Hills might include it in the gift bag as well.
Planning for the fundraiser begins about two months in advance, and Sycamore Hills’ Executive Chef, Adam House, meets with the celebrity chef to discuss specialty vendors in the region. “There are a lot of great places in the Midwest to source food,” Hampton notes.
About 30 days ahead of time, the guest chef submits the menu and recipes to Sycamore Hills. The event committee defers to the culinary experts when it comes to planning the menu, Sauerteig notes. “We’ve learned to keep our mouths shut,” he says. “These are busy, famous chefs. We go with their judgment.”
In August, House did a stage at Blackbird in Chicago to assist Kahan and to gain a greater understanding of his food philosophy and culinary techniques. The celebrity chef always brings one or two members of his or her culinary team to the fundraiser. However, local executive chefs also have the opportunity to interact with the guest chef by helping with food preparation for the event.
“A club is actually a small community within a larger community,” says Hampton. “We need to go the extra mile and give back to the community as a whole.”