With a big boost from a sponsor that has helped to attract wide-ranging support, the Chicago Club Chefs Association continues to grow as a valuable educational, charitable and collegial organization.
Volunteering can often bring back that feeling we all got as a kid after seeing an inviting pond or lake and eagerly running down to its edge, only to screech to a halt to wonder worriedly, “Uh-oh—just how deep am I going to get into this?”
That’s certainly the feeling that many in the club business often get, after they let their natural inclination to serve convince them they’ll have plenty of time and energy to participate in professional organizations, no matter how demanding their own jobs may be. And it’s been no different for those who have helped to build and sustain the club industry’s most successful regional organization for private-club chefs, the Chicago Club Chefs Association (CCCA).
The CCCA depends on the volunteer efforts of culinary professionals who have vital roles in some of the busiest and most prestigious food-and-beverage operations in the business—and as Tom Birmingham, Executive Chef of Ruth Lake Country Club in Hinsdale, Ill., chuckles about his “day job,” as well as those held by others who have joined Birmingham to become officers of the CCCA, “We all still do have to pick up a knife every now and then.” Nonetheless, the CCCA is now approaching its 30th year of existence, after being founded in 1989 by a small group of Chicago-area club chefs who sought to promote and represent their professional niche in what was then a much more specialized private-club industry.
While the organization has seen some lulls in activity over the years, its most recent group of volunteer officers—nine Executive Chefs from leading area clubs—now have the CCCA humming at its greatest level of participation ever for the series of lively and well-organized educational, networking, and idea-exchange events that it holds throughout the year. These include two highly popular spring events, the Culinary Exchange and the Annual Charity Golf Outing, as well as field trips to dairies and cattle farms, organic vegetable farms, wineries, breweries and distilleries in the fall.
The CCCA Culinary Exchange started as a friendly competition among the group’s members, with several executive chefs cooking for their peers and then having their plates judged by those in attendance. It has since evolved into a event that gives sous chefs and lead cooks from the area clubs a chance to showcase their skills and talents by creating entries that are judged by a blind panel of industry chefs and professionals, as well as regular diners who determine the “people’s choice” award.
All contestants are eligible, and encouraged, to apply for the Chicago Club Chef Scholarship that gives funds from the CCCA to one deserving sous/pastry chef each year, to further their professional education as they see fit. Past winners have used the scholarship to travel to Paris, Italy, and Spain to learn from some of the finest chefs in the world.
The site for CCCA’s Annual Charity Golf Outing rotates among area clubs each year; this spring it was hosted by Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club and its Executive Chef, John Beck. The event has raised funds for local charities in the past and is now the primary source of funding for the newly formed Club Chef Foundation, which the CCCA has established as its official fundraising arm. The Foundation is dedicated to helping culinary professionals from member clubs of the CCCA who have fallen on hard times due to life-changing events.
Knowing Their Limits
A key to how the CCCA has been able to not only remain viable for nearly 30 years, but also to build up its events and start ambitious new initiatives like the Foundation, has been how its volunteer directors have been quick to recognize the need for additional help, and then find the right partners to provide it. Before 2014, the Association was fully run by its volunteer Board—and while it still relies upon individuals from its membership and committees for strategic direction, it now contracts with professional administrative help to handle many of the day-to-day responsibilities and spearhead more effective marketing and promotion, through a more robust website and other means. And with that help, the CCCA has been able to actively develop partnerships with industry vendors, to bring in more sponsorship support that has provided funds essential to sustaining the growth of the group’s events and the creation of the Foundation.
Chief among these partnerships has been the CCCA’s relationship with VGM Club, the Waterloo, Iowa-based company that has specialized since 1994 (when it was founded as VGM Golf) in providing clubs with discounted purchasing opportunities, through memberships that allow participation in collective-bargaining agreements negotiated with companies serving the golf and club markets.
VGM has now grown to serve over 3,500 clubs in the U.S., offering pricing and service assistance for the full range of club operations. The volunteers behind the CCCA give VGM Club full credit for helping to take the group to a level they could never reach on their own. “
“We can capture local support, but they bring national programs to the table,” says Birmingham. “They really get involved in the golf outing [for which VGM is a Premier Sponsor] and help to bring a lot more money from it to the bottom line, which can then go right to the Foundation.” Birmingham and Matt Hinkle, Executive Chef of Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, Ill., who has also taken an active officer’s role in recent years to help the CCCA gain its renewed momentum, both say they are often contacted by chefs from other parts of the country who are interested in forming similar groups and want insights into the Chicago group’s success. And both express some surprise that no other area group has yet grown to the CCCA’s level.
But that’s not to say it can’t be done elsewhere, Hinkle says, as long as those involved recognize their own limitations. “Keep it simple and make sure events are fun,” he advises, and get professional help for areas that are beyond chefs’ expertise, along with the industry support that the CCCA’s experience has proved to be readily available.
And while it will still certainly amount to additional work beyond their regular jobs for the chefs who do get involved, Hinkle adds, it can definitely be worth the effort. “Beyond the value of practical things like being able to find and share cooks when we need them, there’s also the constant source of inspiration you get from an association like this,” Hinkle says. “I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the network I’ve developed [through the CCCA].”