By Laura Houston
One evening each month, the lower level of the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor comes alive with tasty food, great wine, beautiful decorations and top rated chefs as part of the Great Chefs Series, an interactive food tasting and cooking class in which community members are invited to come learn a few insider secrets they can take back to their own kitchens.
The series was developed by local caterer and all around foodie, Lillian Woudsma as a fundraiser for the Community House Fund at the Old Whalers’ Church, and money raised at the dinners is used to improve and maintain the church’s facilities which are used by a wide range of community groups that collectively serve several hundred people each week. But once a month, what is served is fine food and scintillating conversation and with the holidays fast approaching, Woudsma decided that the next Great Chefs event, which takes place on Wednesday, December 15 at 6:30 p.m., should have a decadent holiday theme.
The jammed packed evening will cover everything from making table arrangements — offered by florist Maureen Kinney— to preparing desserts including a flourless chocolate cake and citrus lemon and lime bars on a cake crust by pastry chef Gerri Tomitz. The evening will also feature a demonstration on creating holiday drinks — including egg nog — and a champagne, cranberry juice and sliced strawberry punch. Then there’s the full dinner menu of homemade corn bread muffins with duck and homemade cranberry chutney, brined and hickory grilled turkey breast, boneless ham wrapped in puff pastry and wild rice pilaf with walnut and cranberries all presented by Woudsma.
Like every Great Chefs event, Woudsma notes that guests will have the opportunity to get a good tasting of all the food as well as learn how to make everything presented over the course of the evening and ask questions. For Woudsma, the Great Chef Series is all about great food, great presentation and creating an opportunity for the talented area chefs to be accessible to the community.
“It’s more than a cooking class,” she says. “It’s a special evening out, there is nothing like this done out here.”
“When you think about it, where else can you spend a lovely evening eating fantastic food, drinking as much great wine as you like and learning and interacting with first class chefs for $30 a person?” she asks.
And, unlike other cooking classes, guests won’t have to worry about eating off flimsy paper plates and cups at this event. Servers bring around trays of food served on china plates, a bartender serves wine in real glasses and there are always seasonal decorations adorning the tables.
During the off season, Woudsma notes the series attracts around 30 people on most nights and in the summer, closer to 60 and she hopes the numbers will continue to grow. And when it comes to defining the crowd, Woudsma notes that it’s a very mixed group with older folks, mothers and daughters, groups of girlfriends and couples of all ages opting to take part.
“There are even single men,” notes Woudsma.
Woudsma and Rev. Mark Phillips, pastor at the Old Whalers’ Church, both agree that the main feedback they receive from participants as they are leaving is “When will the next one will be?”
“People come as strangers and leave as friends,” Rev. Phillips reflects.
Since the program began in April, many of the area’s chefs have been featured including Jim Renner from Il Cappuccino Restaurant in Sag Harbor and Cynthia Battaglia of Cynthia Battaglia Distinctive Catering. There have been various themes for the evening as well, including a menu made from all local ingredients, Italian, French and seafood among others.
In addition to choosing the menu, preparing the foods and teaching the class, so far, all the chefs have donated the food, recipes and their time so all the proceeds can go towards the Community House Fund.
Woudsma, a close friend with many of the chefs, describes the chef community as a “supportive group that have rallied around each other for years. They know I wouldn’t ask them for a favor unless it was important.”
When Woudsma was first approached to help fundraise for the Community House Fund, since she is a caterer herself, it was natural for food to be her inspiration. “It’s my passion and I always believe that if you have a passion you do it for money or free, you just do it,” she says.
As a former director of the Sag Harbor Food Pantry, which operates out of the same space as the Great Chefs events, she believes strongly that the space plays a “vital and cherished” role in the Sag Harbor community. The Community House Fund at the Old Whalers’ Church goes toward supporting the building’s community spaces which, in addition to the food pantry, currently host Alcoholic Anonymous, Weight Watchers, the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, the Sag Harbor Youth Group and the Sag Harbor LVIS. Though community house functions operate separately from the church itself, Rev. Phillips notes the Old Whalers’ Church acts as steward of the property.
“We work as hard as we can to keep the money coming in to make repairs and maintain the space, but it’s a community space, not a church space,” he says.
The Great Chefs “A Holiday Tabletop Spectacular” begins at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 15 in the lower level of the Old Whalers’ Church, 44 Union Street, Sag Harbor. Admission is $30. Call Lillian Woudsma at 553-6515 to reserve.