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Volunteers put in the work to make SWFL Chef Invitational top notch

By Staff | Jan 17, 2018

Jeff Samson, one of the many volunteers at The Community House, assists in the kitchen on Jan. 11 with one of the adult cooking classes put on by resident Chef Jarred Harris. TIFFANY REPECKI

The Community House is preparing to hold its first-ever SWFL Chef Invitational, and the volunteers for the organization are putting in the time and effort to ensure that it is a big success.

Scheduled for Jan. 27 at 6 p.m., the event will feature seven Sanibel youth working alongside professional Southwest Florida chefs to create small plate tastings from a six-course menu. All of the children are participants in the Young Chef’s Cooking Classes held at The Community House.

Admission is $150 per person, with the event proceeds to benefit the culinary program.

Volunteer Jeff Samson is one of the behind-the-scene faces who will be helping to make sure the fundraiser goes smoothly. A recent full-time transplant to Sanibel with his wife, Kathy, Samson has been assisting resident Chef Jarred Harris in the kitchen on the program’s youth and adult classes.

“My role here is whatever he needs,” he said of Harris and the event. “I’ll be his gopher.”

The volunteer committee at The Community House has put in time and effort to ensure the first-ever SWFL Chef Invitational is a success. It is made up of Susan Bellevue, Nancy Black, Salli Kirkland, Babs Maughan, Marge Meek, Kathy Samson and Carol Townsley, along with Executive Director Teresa Riska-Hall and resident Chef Jarred Harris. TIFFANY REPECKI

“I just love being back here,” Samson added.

Volunteering his time at The Community House for about four months, he explained that he and his wife have owned a restaurant in Battle Creek, Michigan, since 1992. Called the Malia Mediterranean Bistro, Samson was a chef and permanent fixture in the kitchen before he and his wife moved south.

“I love volunteering and this was just perfect,” he said of the opportunity.

Samson noted that his restaurant has held children’s cooking classes.

“We did a lot of that back in Michigan,” he said.

Noting that the culinary program is new, Samson called Harris is a one-man show.

“It’s just tough for one man to do it all,” he said of planning and preparing in the kitchen for the big fundraiser. “My role is to help these guys so everything goes smoothly – whatever they need.”

Asked about whether he wants to open an island restaurant, Samson said he is interested.

“I just love food, period,” he said. “And I just love the community.”

While her husband is putting his efforts into the kitchen, Kathy Samson has been tapping into her marketing and public relations background to help get the word out about the SWFL Chef Invitational. Samson explained that she was an owner of an ad agency in Michigan since 1995, until she sold it.

“I’ve always loved the events they held here. I love the history,” she said of why she decided to volunteer her time at The Community House. “It’s always just really drawn me.”

A culinary committee member, Samson helps with organizing and promoting events.

“And trying to market them without a huge budget,” she said of trying to maximize the funding.

She was involved with the poster design and formal invitations for the upcoming fundraiser and has been coordinating with the six participating chefs to make sure the event goes off without a hitch.

“They’ve given me a chance to be involved,” Samson said of the organization.

And it did not hurt that she is a foodie who appreciates the health benefits of good nutrition.

As for the future, Samson is excited to help The Community House thrive.

“I think the community is learning a lot,” she said. “I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Samson added that she hopes it will encourage others in the community to volunteer.

The Community House itself has been around for 90 years. Volunteer Marge Meek, chair of the kitchen’s steering committee, explained that she got involved after seeing the venue struggle.

“A small town deserves a small-town gathering place,” Meek said.

“It’s a beautiful place,” she added. “It respects the past.”

Asked about the SWFL Chef Invitational, Meek called it a reflection of the culinary program.

“We’re really touting what we’ve done,” she said.

“Basically, what we’re trying to do is develop the next generation of chefs,” Meek added, noting that the fundraiser will also highlight the changes and renovations at The Community House.

She said preparations for the event began nine months ago, with the plans formalized in the fall.

“It was totally dependent on the Southwest Florida chefs who wanted to be involved,” Meek said. “We are absolutely delighted that six chefs said yes.”

They are: Werner Dietrich, of Olde Hickory Golf and Country Club; Wilhelm Gahabka, of Bay Colony Golf Club; Steve Joynt, of Spring Run Golf Club; Craig Panneton, of Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina; Melissa Talmage, of Sweet Melissa’s Cafe; and John Wolff, of Casa Ybel Resort.

Meek also credited the volunteers and the skills they have brought to the table.

“Without them, we couldn’t put this on,” she said. “We upped our game. It’s a top-notch event.”

Along with Meek, Samson and Harris, the volunteer committee is made up of Susan Bellevue, Nancy Black, Salli Kirkland, Babs Maughan, Carol Townsley and Executive Director Teresa Riska-Hall.

Harris noted that The Community House began the culinary program in November 2016.

He called the SWFL Chef Invitational his “brainchild.”

“We wanted to showcase what we’re doing here at the facility,” Harris said, adding that his goal is improve children’s health and nutrition. “The way kids eat and the way they look at food.”

Harris is leaving the dishes to the youth and visiting chefs, who are friends volunteering their time.

“I’m looking to the future,” he said. “The next chefs.”

Harris expressed excitement about the event and gratitude for the volunteers.

“We have an outstanding volunteer staff,” he said.

Chef Loretta Paganini will serve as the master of ceremony. The “young chefs” are Molly Dunn, Kennedy and Preston Hanni, Kyler Kouril, Ronan Maughan, Kayce Nette and Colton Sullivan.

Hors d’oeuvres, champagne and wine will be served before the event.

The Sanctuary Golf Club is donating dessert boxes.

For more information, call 239-472-2155 or visit sanibelcommunityhouse.net.

The Community House is at 2173 Periwinkle Way.