Long before Emeril Lagasse bellowed, “Kick it up a notch!” on the Food Network, Great Chefs took TV by storm in the early 1980s by bringing cameras into the kitchens of the world’s top restaurants. One enthralled fan of the show was Evansville native Blake Kollker. “I loved the creativity,” recalls Kollker, a Mater Dei High School graduate, “and how they could put that stuff together.”
As the executive chef at Evansville Country Club, Kollker uses his own creativity to feed members, banquet attendees, wedding guests, and other diners at the private club on the North Side. After graduating from culinary school at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Ky., in 2006, he worked in the five-star Oakroom restaurant at Louisville’s Seelbach Hilton Hotel. There, the chefs taught Kollker “each dish should tell a story,” he says. “We are the entertainment. We can have a whole show with the food on the plate.”
With fellow Oakroom chefs Todd Richards and Duane Nutter, Kollker appeared on a 2007 episode of Iron Chef America. Their secret ingredient: carrots. Although the trio lost by two points to Iron Chef Cat Cora, “it was an adrenaline rush,” Kollker recalls, “from the second they said, ‘Go.’”
Kollker’s next stop was Nashville, Tenn., where he helped start Flyte World Dining and Wine, a restaurant featured in Nashville Lifestyles magazine’s 2010 list of the best restaurants in Music City. There, he met Sheryl Crow’s personal chef, who connected him to a new gig: cooking for musicians on tour. Kollker spent two years traveling with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Chesney, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Buffett’s favorite post-concert sandwich — layers of ham and Gruyère cheese pan-fried in butter — now graces the menu at ECC as “The Jimmy.” It’s one of many additions Kollker made when he joined the staff in 2010. He also plans to increase the influence of seasonal, local food on the menu. Once the weather warms, Kollker will plant an acre and a half of heirloom-variety vegetables, including more than a dozen types of tomatoes.
Kollker aims to change at least half of the menu four times a year. To dream up new dishes, he takes suggestions from his staff of 17: “We run a democratic kitchen here,” he says. Two of the latest innovations are “surf and turf” (fish atop braised beef cheek pasta) and “turf and surf” (a New York strip atop lobster macaroni and cheese). The dishes have earned rave reviews, and “that feeling of making people happy and giving them a great experience,” Kollker says, “that’s what we’re here for.”