“What’s for dinner?” is not an easy question for Executive Chef Eric Delano of St. Matthew’s House to answer.
Delano is responsible for preparing continental breakfast, lunch and dinner for up to 400 people daily at St. Matthew’s facilities, including Justin’s Place Recovery Center and the organization’s halfway houses around town.
Yet the only food he can use is what is donated to the nonprofit organization. One day, he had an abundance of rack of lamb, something many of the residents had never tried before. Other days, he stares at his dwindling supplies and wills himself to be creative.
Delano decided he shouldn’t be the only chef faced with such a dilemma. So he challenged other chefs to step into his shoes.
He went on Facebook and invited three friends — Lisa Resch, of Carolina Catering Co.; Brian Roland, of Crave Culinaire; and Ron Casterline, of Bernwood Grille & Catering Co. — to a friendly competition. Soon, other chefs asked to participate: Andrew Hunter, of Bay House Restaurant; Chad O’Connor, of Real Fit Foods; private chef Kevin Takei; and Lt. Craig Weinbaum, of East Naples Fire Control and Rescue.
St. Matthew’s Executive Sous Chef James Charles also joined in.
“They all embraced the idea and were excited to work for this cause and change the lives of the residents,” Delano said. He already has chefs lined up to participate next year in what he hopes will become an annual event.
The challenge: Prepare that evening’s dinner with whatever proteins, fruits and vegetables are donated that day. Throughout January, each chef would take a turn in the kitchen. The residents would rate each meal on taste, originality and presentation. The top scorer would go head-to-head with Delano in an Iron Chef-style cook-off.
Roland was announced the top scorer on Jan. 31, although Delano said it was a close race with Resch just a few points behind.
“Overall, the residents thought Brian’s presentation was better. He worked the crowd a little bit more. He was like the mayor, shaking hands,” Delano said, laughing.
Some chefs decorated the dining room and had servers on hand to make the evening special.
Still, it was the luck of the draw for which ingredients they received.
“It wasn’t balanced,” Delano said. “When Craig came, there wasn’t much food, but he made a great menu.”
Weinbaum pounded pork shoulders, filled them with spinach and feta, and roasted them to stretch the protein to serve 140 residents.
Delano’s personal favorite was Resch’s sweet potato French toast with wild berries topped with a bacon whipped cream that he calls “crazy good.” The dish was like a bread pudding, he said.
Roland made Delano’s second favorite, a brownie-cookie-waffle sundae with white chocolate whipped cream, coconut sorbet, sweet blueberry sauce and chopped nuts.
While St. Matthews always has enough food to service its clientele, Delano admits he is a bit concerned about three local Sweetbay Supermarkets that are closing, as they provide most of the organization’s proteins.
“We’ll be reaching out to the community for a little more assistance,” he said.
Sometimes, someone will drop off a single can of green beans. Other times, a good Samaritan might pull up with a palette of steak.
Publix, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Panera Bread are regular contributors, and Delano sometimes finds himself with extravagances such as black truffle butter and even caviar. Donations also are sent from St. Matthews to its Immokalee Friendship House; chefs there prepare separate meals.
It’s not the way Delano, a lifelong chef originally from New England, is accustomed to working. He was a regional corporate chef for a hotel chain and worked for Capital Grille and Trilogy, among other local restaurants.
But he’s happy for the opportunity to serve St. Matthews, where he was a resident for six months almost two years ago. His executive sous chef and the sous chef are also former residents.
“I stayed in Naples because of the mission, the food ministry,” he said. “I saw how that place changed lives, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Delano also started SMH Catering as a way to generate revenue and give back to St. Matthew’s. The catering division is hired for events throughout town by organizations including the David Lawrence Center, GreenLinks Golf Villas at Lely Resort and Opera Naples.
Supporting the residents at St. Matthew’s is important to Delano.
“Having chefs of this caliber cook for them blew them away. It was about motivating them and helping them realize that they are important, that we want them to succeed, and that we’ll go to any length to help them,” he said.
“When they go on and better their lives, they’ll remember this experience; that in their darkest time, when they were living in a homeless shelter, there was a glimmer of light for them. That there are people in this community who love them and believe in them.”
Delano and Roland will meet Tuesday to use what’s in the kitchen and a secret ingredient that must be incorporated in every dish. Scores from a panel of guest judges will make up 50 percent of the score, while residents’ voting will comprise the other half.
Not being able to prepare in advance for such a big event is not daunting to Delano.
“That’s absolutely the fun part,” he enthuses. “It’s like a game. Sometimes you have of enough of something and other times you have to stretch to make it.”
He encourages home cooks to feel the same way in their kitchen.
“When you open the cabinets and it doesn’t look like you have anything, you need to look outside the box. Use your imagination. Take a chance and try it. Almost anything goes now.”