Anthony Capua, Executive Chef at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Image right: Baby Spanish Octopus Ceviche with Pickled Mustard Seeds, Our Garden Pico, Compressed Watermelon, Crispy Plantain and Citrus Lace
Anthony Capua is one of those rare culinarians who embrace the food and beverage operations at his club and understands that it is only as an industry as an entirety can we create a highly-skilled workforce nationally in this industry. His continued efforts to bring club chefs nationally to Indiana for collaborative dining events impressed me. We need to see more reciprocal collaborations like this. ~ Diana DeLucia.
GK: Remarkably, you are an Executive Chef at such a prestigious property at such a young age; tell us about that.
I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. My parents moved to Northeast Florida when I was about six years old. When I was 14 and attending Flagler Palm Coast High School, I started working at a seafood restaurant as a dishwasher. I stayed there until 18 and fell in love with the kitchen atmosphere. At that time, I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted to do, but I loved being around the hustle and bustle of the line, the camaraderie, and everything that went along with it.
Ten days after graduating high school, I left for the Marine Corps and spent six years between Southern California and Jacksonville, Florida.
After being honorably discharged from the Marines, I needed a job, so naturally, I returned to the restaurant business. I took a position as a line cook at Hammock Beach Resort on Florida’s Palm Coast, and before I knew it, I was the lead line cook; within three years, I was appointed as sous chef and then chef de cuisine.
There were 13 outlets at Hammock Beach Resort; each was different and unique. In my role, I could float between the various outlets, a large banquet operation, a seaside restaurant, fine dining, Italian, and a massive pool complex, to name a few. I embraced the early grind in my career and thrived on the 60 to 70-hour work weeks. I genuinely feel the knowledge I gained from having to master radically different food and beverage outlets helped make me the well-rounded Chef I am today.
It was also at the resort where I met Executive Chef Ryan Daniels, who helped spearhead the resort’s food and beverage push to the five-star level. In total, Ryan was responsible for one executive sous chef, five chef de cuisines, five sous chefs, 60 line cooks, ten prep cooks, and 20 dishwashers. I naturally gravitated toward Ryan, and he quickly became one of my mentors. After about two years working with him, he left the property and took a job at the Greenbrier Sporting Club in West Virginia.
In my fifth year at Hammock Beach Resort, Ryan called me and said, “Anthony, I’m going down to Fiddlesticks Country Club, a Top 100 Platinum Club in Fort Myers, Florida. They want to push the envelope on the food side.” I remember talking to him and saying, “I’m not sure about clubs. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews that that’s where worn-out chefs go to live out their careers.” He responded, “well, I think if you knew more about the top 10% of clubs and what they want to do, you would understand and share my excitement.”
Ryan had a modern touch; he didn’t want to be the best club chef. He wanted to be like Thomas Keller. He wanted to change the perception of club culinary like Thomas Keller changed the perception of fine dining. That was indeed a vision I wanted to embrace. Within three weeks, I began my position as the executive sous chef at Fiddlesticks Country Club. Instantly, I knew the club industry was where I wanted to be.
Fiddlesticks wanted to push the envelope, and finances didn’t seem to get in the way of anything. If we needed equipment, we got it. If we wanted new plates, we got them. We couldn’t have been more well supported. Like any change in a private club, it took a little time for the members to get over the shock of their club menus taking on a more modern feel, but by year two, the membership had fully embraced our plan and loved the changes we implemented. We modernized the plating, created incredible action stations, began making in-house pasta, broke whole fish down, and worked with local fisheries and purveyors to source the best product from the ocean.
After spending four years at Fiddlesticks as the executive sous chef, that voice we all have inside started telling me it was time to lead my own kitchen. However, I didn’t want to be just a private club executive chef; I wanted to lead a kitchen that could impact the future of club culinary operations. Around the end of my third year at Fiddlesticks, I told Ryan and the club leadership that I was going to start the hunt for my first executive chef role. I interviewed for executive chef positions in some major markets like South Naples, Washington DC, and Seattle, Washington. Although all the properties were beautiful and seemed like great opportunities, that inner voice never came out and said, “this is the one.”
The front entrance to Sycamore Hills Golf Club, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Image courtesy Sycamore Hills Golf Club.
GK: How did you go from Florida to Indiana?
On March 1st, 2020, I got a message on LinkedIn from a General Manager and COO, Mr. Christopher Hampton, from a club in NE Indiana. He said, “Anthony, I’ve seen your work and know all about your club. We just started a search for our next Executive Chef at Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I have a strong background in food and beverage, and I am a hands-on General Manager that can help you succeed in your goal of becoming an executive chef of an incredible club. We want to embrace everything you are doing at Fiddlesticks here at Sycamore Hills. If something like this intrigues you, we should get on a Zoom call asap.”
Throughout my life, I have always been advised not to let potential opportunities pass you because you never know where a journey might take you.
Within a week, I had a zoom call with Mr. Hampton and Mr. (Alfredo) Hildebrandt, the assistant general manager. I told them my vision, and they said, “we’re looking for somebody to push the culinary envelope and make an impact. We have a beautiful recently renovated golf course and clubhouse, and we need a culinary program to match. We have an ownership group that has invested significantly in the club. If you are interested, you should let us fly you up to see the property – it will blow you away.”
COVID started to ramp up; it was mid-March, just before the shutdowns. I told my wife about the opportunity in Indiana, and we discussed what a potential move would be like for us and our seven-month-old daughter, Deanna. My wife has always been my biggest supporter, and she could tell I was intrigued about the opportunity, so she insisted I go check it out. I remember we laughed at the idea of living in Fort Wayne, Indiana because we have always lived near the coasts and knew little about the Midwest, let alone the Hoosier state.
I went to Ryan and said, “I’m going to take an interview in a club in Fort Wayne, Indiana.” He said, “you know, we have an Invitational at the end of the week, so if you could make it quick, fly in and out, I completely understand and think you should go.”
I caught a flight to Atlanta at 5 AM one March morning and arrived at Fort Wayne at 9 AM.
When I landed, it was 22 degrees and snowing. I wore a nice suit but immediately regretted not bringing a winter coat, which I don’t own! Mr. Hildebrandt, the assistant general manager, picked me up, and we instantly clicked. I knew he was my kind of partner in the front of the house. He immediately started talking about building culture, something I love to talk about and can quickly get behind. We discussed the need for great food and impeccable service from a knowledgeable team, all hallmarks of what you need to make everything run like a beautiful Rolex.
The 7th hole. Image by Jim Mandeville
When we arrived at the Sycamore Hills Golf Club, I was greeted at the front door by a very tall Mr. Hampton. He was 100% correct in predicting I would be blown away by the property. After a quick introduction, we immediately went on a property tour as we had to fit a lot into the day because I had to be back at the airport by seven.
The club wanted to take a new direction and needed exemplary leadership for our culinary program. I met with all the department heads, and they couldn’t say enough positive things about the ownership group and the leadership team already in place. During my last hour, I talked about my vision, and Mr. Hampton said,” we want to help you achieve that vision, and we’re not afraid of some bumps along the way.”
Because it was a Monday, and the club was closed, they took me to a sushi spot for lunch around 3 PM before we headed to the airport. As we were ordering, the server came up to us and said, “I just want to let you know, um..., after your meal’s done, we’ll be shutting down the restaurant as the Governor of Indiana has ordered a complete lockdown.”
I called my wife and told her, “I have no idea what’s going on right now; it feels apocalyptic. She calmly said, “let’s talk when you get home.”
The following day I woke up, and every news outlet was reporting about the shutdowns. Ryan informed me that the Invitational was canceled, and we would shut down our food service in about three days. “Wow,” I thought to myself.
GK: Did you accept the position?
Not immediately, and it wasn’t because I didn’t want the position, but I wanted to give my wife Deanna an opportunity to see the area where we would potentially be living. Mr. Hampton purchased flights for Deanna and me to return to Fort Wayne, but when it got closer to our travel date, the airlines were in complete chaos, so I told Mr. Hampton we didn’t feel comfortable getting on an airplane. He completely understood.
This is where I need to give my wife Deanna a lot of credit. After lengthy discussions about the opportunity, in which she said it was easy to tell how excited I was to work at Sycamore Hills, she agreed to move sight unseen over 1200 miles to NE Indiana. I couldn’t be more blessed to have that support.
When I called Mr. Hampton to tell him I was going to sign and return the offer letter, I asked him one last question, “what was the impact of the pandemic on the team at the Club.” Hearing his reply was an enormous relief because many of the clubs in southwest Florida were already laying off whole departments due to the pandemic. Mr. Hampton quickly explained that the ownership group realized that even though the club was currently shut down, everything would open back at some point, and they didn’t want to rehire and train a new team. They committed to the team at the club that everyone would keep working, and they would make at least what they made the year prior.
On April 21st, my family and I took off from southwest Florida in a U-Haul. It was a tough week to settle into a new area because all non-essential businesses were still closed. We traveled to a home we rented just up the street from the club, where Mr. Hampton and Mr. Hildebrandt toured my wife and me through a Zoom call one afternoon. We ended up settling on a May 1st start date, roughly two months to the day of Mr. Hampton reaching out to me on LinkedIn messenger.
GK: Once you settled in, how did you tackle the task ahead?
I knew what I wanted to accomplish here in the first year, and it would be a challenge, but it wasn’t for lack of support. I had to look at the staff and change their way of thinking. We weren’t going to be competing in Fort Wayne; we would compete nationally, and it would take time. I sat down with sous chefs Mike Trabel and Aaron Ruble and said, “I don’t want to do this from a small-town perspective,” They both embraced it. We were on this mission together, building it from scratch with a team philosophy and a modernized concept that would challenge some of the more significant markets. When I met with the rest of the staff and explained what I wanted to do here, none of them left; they all stayed.
It wasn’t an easy transition as they went from a lot of pre-bought goods to embracing the scratch lifestyle. This included making stocks, sauces, desserts, and ice creams from scratch, breaking down whole fish, and making fresh pasta. They understood that we were teaching them the right ways of doing things, but at the same time, they also saw me, Chef Mike, and Chef Aaron working right next to them every day. I needed our team to know they were
The Club Grill room. Image by Jim Mandeville
supported by a team of professionals that wanted to see both the club AND them succeed. By the second season, we started to hit a good stride. Mike and Aaron’s plates were as good, if not better than mine, which let me catch a little bit more time with my wife and daughter, as one of my goals with this move was to be a better husband and father. My wife and daughter sacrificed a lot for me that first year, but with the restrictions easing, life started to turn back to a new kind of normal.
After the second year, we started running wine dinners, and we did about twelve that season, including multiple dinners with Master Level Wine Sommeliers. We applied for Club and Resort’s Private Club Culinary Programs Rankings and were ranked 20th in the nation. We know at the time, the other clubs were most likely thinking, “who is this guy, and where is this club? Our teams embraced the competition. It was never about being first; we wanted to make a statement. The team, both front and back of the house, thought it was the coolest thing in the world because they could say they were among the best.
GK: Tell us what you are doing in 2022?
Oh boy, where do I start? We’ve begun to integrate hydroponics in our kitchen with Fork Farms. They make these incredible, portable units that you can grow a ton of quality greens in a short amount of time. There is nothing like wheeling the unit out and making it a part of an action station. We want guests from other local Clubs in town to return to their club and say, “can you believe they grew the lettuce that they used to make my lunch salad at their Invitational!”
Another area we identified, which we feel is the next step for our industry, is collaboration dinners. This idea initially came to us when we invited my mentor Ryan Daniels and my younger brother, Vincent Capua (now executive sous chef at Fiddlesticks CC), to Fort Wayne for a Battle of the Club Chefs wine dinner last year. The event’s success showed us there was interest from our membership to come to collaborative dinners.
To further test the collaborative waters, we invited Chef Jeremy Leinen from Park Ridge Country Club outside of Chicago to make the two-hour drive to Fort Wayne to cook with our team at the club. The members who attended the dinner with Chef Leinen loved the experience and immediately asked when the next collaborative dinner would occur. We didn’t wait long to schedule a date in August with Executive Chef Wes Tyler from The Club at Carlton Woods outside of Houston, and then we have Chef Shawn Olah from Highland Falls Country Club in North Carolina coming later in the fall. We are working on a date for early 2023 with Jacob Adamonis, the Executive Chef of Oakmont Country Club, with whom our General Manager, Mr. Hampton, worked alongside for several years.
Not only do these dinners give our members a chance to taste some of the incredible cuisine going on at clubs across the country, but it also gives our team a chance to learn from chefs with different backgrounds.
These are just a few examples of our culinary program constantly trying to redefine what a dynamic club culinary program could be. I’m also sure that by the time this article goes to print, we have already discovered a few new culinary avenues to explore. We are constantly brainstorming ways to keep pushing that proverbial envelope.
A couple of years ago, I knew many people would have thought what we wanted to accomplish was crazy and that a small club in NE Indiana couldn’t make the noise that we have made in our industry. Now when people in touch with the Club culinary world hear the name Sycamore Hills, they don’t say, “where is that club?” They say, “keep an eye on that club in NE Indiana; something special is happening there.”
It all boils down to our incredible ownership group, a dynamic team at the club, and enthusiastic membership that is supportive of whatever we throw at them.
That’s our story, well, maybe the first couple of chapters. Although the story is still being written, we couldn’t be more proud of what our team and club have accomplished thus far.
GK: Tell us where you got this energy at a young age to be one of the best in your field? Many people take a long time to get to the executive chef position in the private club industry.
I grew up in a blue-collar family. My mom and dad instilled in us early on that it would take effort if we wanted more in life. If you want more, take it, don’t wait for it..., and that’s exactly what I did.
The Cottages. Image by Jim Mandeville