Hosting an Iron Chef CompetitionAt Kettle Moraine High School in Wales, Wisc., the grass on our football field would usually get beaten up by the second or third game of the year. The surface was so fragile we couldn't use it for soccer, lacrosse, or physical education. So we started a half-million dollar fundraising drive called Share the Field to pay for artificial turf, and last spring, we reached the $300,000 mark. To keep making progress, we wanted to create an entertaining, upscale event that included an auction, and we came up with the idea of hosting an Iron Chef competition, like the television show.
By Larry Laux
From the outset, we planned to charge $50 per person and invite about 300 people, with the expectation that 150 to 200 would say yes. First, we needed to find a suitable venue, and we quickly chose the Delafield Hotel, which has a main ballroom with an adjacent kitchen. They gave us a good price on the wine, hors d'oeuvres, dessert, and coffee, and waived the fee for renting the hall.
Next, we needed to enlist two local chefs to be our contestants. We found Chef Jessie Souza, who owns Fishbone's and Zin, and Chef John Mollet, who's been cooking at The Union House for the last 16 years. I explained how the event would work, what we wanted from them, and how we hoped they would interact with the audience. I said, "We're going to do this high profile event, and even though I can't pay you, it would be a great way to help the community. And I promise you'll have fun doing it."
Once we secured the venue and the chefs, we sat down to talk about the rules. The two chefs would have 60 minutes to prepare three dishes, plating one dish every 20 minutes. There would be three surprise ingredients, one for each course, and the three judges would score the meal for flavor, presentation, and use of the surprise ingredients. A little preparation would be allowed in advance, and each chef could bring their knives and two helpers.
Scheduling was hard, because we had to pick a date that didn't conflict with Kettle Moraine athletics or with the restaurants' busiest times. We settled on Thursday April 2, and at that point, we started building the list of invitees, printing and mailing formal invitations, and gathering donations for the auctions.
We had nine items for the live auction and 70 for the silent auction, including a weeklong stay at a lake cottage, a cruise on a deckboat, tickets to a Milwaukee Brewers game, a fitness club membership, and 50 hours of work with a personal trainer. There were some unusual ideas, like a steak dinner for 10 cooked by Athletic Director Mike Fink, prime parking for football games, babysitting by the field hockey team, and an opportunity to play school superintendent for a day. We even auctioned off a chance to judge the Iron Chef competition, which went for $400.
Attendance was great. We sold 180 advance tickets, which was as many people as the fire marshal would allow into the room with the two stoves and the prep tables. The chefs knew exactly what they were getting into, because they'd met with the hotel's head chef, who took them on a tour of the kitchen and made a list of everything available in the pantry
After 45 minutes of appetizers, which included a mashed potato bar with all the toppings, we held the live auction. Then, we announced the three surprise ingredients--asparagus, abalone, and mango. The two chefs counted down the clock, grabbed their stuff, and started cooking right in front of us. They got creative, that's for sure. Most of the time, they were only a few feet from the front row seats, and whenever they ran back to the kitchen, we had a video crew of Kettle Moraine students following them on closed circuit TV. Everybody had a great time, and in the end, Chef John won by a single point. He still has the trophy displayed prominently in his restaurant.
As it played out, we made $35,000 from the event, with $4,000 coming from ticket sales, $13,000 from the live auction, and another $18,000 from the silent auction. We had to pay for a few things, but we did a good job keeping the cost per attendee under $30.
It took a lot of help to put this together, especially on the day of the event. We had about 35 volunteers to set up the event, keep it running smoothly, and tear it down. The hotel's head chef agreed to be our first judge, and the school superintendent volunteered to be our second. The County Executive was our auctioneer, and an alum who's also a talk radio host served as emcee, providing commentary for the competition. Kettle Moraine student-athletes carried auction items into the hotel, greeted people at the door, and helped with coats.
If someone wanted to try to host an event like this, my best advice is to build your team wisely. Make sure you have enough time to devote to it, especially in the last four weeks, because it's a big project. Set your goals appropriately and be as transparent as possible.
After the Iron Chef competition, we had a great write-up in the newspaper, which really energized all of us. We completed fundraising in time for the groundbreaking in June and finished installing the field in time for 2009 fall athletics. It was hard work, but there was a lot of satisfaction in achieving our goal. As one of the team captains of the football team, my son was the first person to step onto the new field on opening night. That's something he's going to remember for a long time.
Larry Laux is a member of the Kettle Moraine High School Booster Club.