When the members of one of Wichita’s longest-running gourmet groups started meeting for monthly dinners in 1994, they only sort of knew each other.
They were a thrown-together collection of couples with loose business or social ties who had only one thing for sure in common – a love of wine, food and cooking.
Twenty years and hundreds of racks of lamb, reduction sauces, salads and Sauvignon blancs later, the group – made up of Scott and Betsy Redler, Barry and Cindy Schwan, Guy and Beth Bower and Frank and Cathy DeSocio – is still meeting on an almost monthly basis. But much has changed during their years of shared dinners.
For one, they’ve all become close friends. They’ve spent every New Year’s Eve together for the past two decades and have watched each other’s children grow from toddlers to college graduates.
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They’ve also grown from young professionals on the rise into positions as some of Wichita’s most successful business people and fixtures in the foodie community. Scott Redler is a co-founder of the Freddy’s Frozen Custard chain, and Betsy is a past Junior League president who serves on a number of boards. Barry Schwan is president and owner of House of Schwan, and Cindy serves on several local boards. Cathy DoSocio is the CEO of Joma Bowling and owns the Alley and Northrock Lanes, and her husband, Frank, is the executive director of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America. Guy Bower is one of the founders of the Wichita chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, and Beth is the AIWF programs chairwoman and coordinates The Eagle’s popular holiday cookbook each year.
The members of the gourmet group, which first met in 1994, recently got together to celebrate their 20th anniversary and marked the occasion by preparing the same menu they did when they were featured in an 1996 Wichita Eagle story about the growing trend of gourmet clubs. The dinner took place at the Schwans’ east-side home, where the group gathered the last time they prepared that meal: mixed antipasto, empanadas, a fresh salad with Alouette croquettes and heirloom tomatoes, and a hearty paella chock-full of mussels, squid, shrimp, mussels and sole.
Though the menu was the same, nothing much else was. The cooks laughed as they looked at a framed copy of the newspaper from 1996, which included photos of them preparing the dinner. Cindy had lost her floral curtains and 1990s-esque counter tops, she noted with relief. The men had lost hair, and along with it, hair color, they noted with less relief.
The membership of the club also is slightly different. Founding members Betsy Redler and Sherri Pledger met in Junior League and realized they shared a love of cooking. They persuaded their husbands Scott Redler, who at the time was working as director of operations for Latour, and Clayton Pledger to start the gourmet group.
Betsy Redler had worked with Guy Bower at Evers Wine and Spirits at Piccadilly Market, knew he was an avid foodie, and invited him and Beth Bower to join. The Pledgers were friends with the Schwans and asked them if they were interested. After the Pledgers moved to Alabama in 1997, the Schwans asked the DeSocios to take their place.
“We’re still not sure they’re the right ones for our group,” Barry Schwan joked.
The group has followed the same basic rules since it started: the couples take turns hosting, and the host is responsible for the main course. The other three couples rotate bringing appetizer, salad and bread, and dessert. All couples bring wine, and at the beginning of the group, they adopted a rule that bottles must cost $10 or less.
That rule has long since been abandoned.
“What’s amazing is that our menus have really evolved. Today, we all put more effort into going different and exotic. We put more into the flavors,” said Scott Redler, who expertly fried the breaded Alouette croquettes, the highlight of the salad. “There’s a different budget, too.”
When the Schwans first joined the club, they said, they were fairly intimidated. Though both were avid home cooks, they felt pressure to bring dishes that would wow their new friends.
“When we first came in, we were so nervous,” Barry said. “Cindy and I would spend hours cooking the entrees the day before because we had to test them.”
As they’ve all gotten to know each other, those fears have faded a bit, the Schwans said. The group has suffered through several bad recipes, overcooked tenderloins and general disasters. But memories of the bad dishes are muted by two decades of memorably wonderful ones – fresh gnocchi, fried lobster tail in tempura batter, mushroom potato pancake topped with beef tenderloin and Gorgonzola cheese sauce.
“Even if there’s a bad course, there are plenty more good ones to make up for it,” Cathy DeSocio said.
“The Schwans are always relieved when they eat what we make,” Barry added with a laugh.
When they first started meeting, the couples all had young children, so fancy New Year’s Eve plans were out. They started a tradition of getting together with all the kids on New Year’s Eve, cooking a big meal and launching fireworks. Even today, all the members try very hard to never miss a New Year’s Eve together.
The group works, the members said, because both members of all four couples are interested in food and cooking. At the anniversary dinner at the Schwans’, the men were in the kitchen alone finishing up the paella while the women chatted and sipped wine in the dining room.
The group advises those interested in starting a similar gourmet group to choose members who are interested in cooking and food, even if those people aren’t members of your closest social group. Twenty years down the road, they very well could be.
“The most important thing is getting together and sharing dinner with friends or with family,” Guy Bower said. “And that’s what we get to do with this group.”