When beloved local chef Basil Hadjis died unexpectedly last December, his family knew immediately how they wanted him honored: Gifts “in lieu of flowers” were to go toward a new scholarship fund in his name at the Kirkwood Community College Culinary Arts Program.
But as donations began to pour in for the 62-year-old Cedar Rapids chef who opened Vernon Inn — or “The Greek Place” — at age 21, the concept snowballed into a full-fledged fundraiser with a bigger scope and impact.
“They had never done an event like the one we did this past Thursday,” said Hadjis’ daughter Katie Gorman, 39, of Marion.
“Chef Basil’s Scholarship Celebration Dinner” brought together 400 guests — including those personally connected to Hadjis and others who were not. When combined with silent auction proceeds, memorial gifts, and other donations, it generated upward of $65,000. That far surpassed an initial goal of $25,000 and has pushed up the goal to $100,000 -- potentially supporting a scholarship for years to come.
The scholarship is meant to cover the second year for student recipients already in the program, according to Gorman. And the dinner, which was a hit with its Greek theme in honor of the Hadjis legacy, could become an annual occurrence — thus supporting many more with kitchen ambitions.
“We wanted to see how the first one would go,” Gorman said.
It went well, she reported, highlighting the $12,300 alone the silent auction alone generated. The 400 tickets at $50 a piece sold out, tacking on another $20,000 — although some of the revenue will go back into covering costs of the event, which was held from 6 to 9 p.m. at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center.
But the hotel space was donated, as was the time and skills of the five chefs who prepared food for the soiree — mentoring Kirkwood students along the way. One of the five featured chefs was Hadjis’ brother Alex Hadjis, 60, who spent years in the kitchen with Basil. The others were Kirkwood graduates now cooking in the community.
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The event opened with a cocktail hour and live demonstrations, followed by an entree portion of the night — backdropped by live music — allowing guests to visit five chef stations. The plated meals highlighted Greek cuisine, with a pastitsio, or baked pasta dish with ground meat; spanakopita, or spinach pie in a savory pastry; and Ouzo salmon with vegetable pasta, among other options.
Diners could pick from array of seating and also grab wine and desserts.
“My dad would have been absolutely amazed at the number of people who came to an event in his honor,” Gorman said. “He loved to talk and mingle and work the room, in a sense. And seeing all those people from all different walks of life come to support him … it was very very heartwarming.”
Basil was born in 1955 in Cedar Rapids to Greek immigrants and went to Washington High School before pursuing his passion in culinary arts. He was invited to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York but opted to return to Eastern Iowa, where he started a family and opened Vernon Inn with his brothers Demetrios and Alex Hadjis.
Basil went on to open Sweet Basil’s Pizza Pie and Basil’s Food, according to his obituary, before working as a retail chef at Hy-Vee most recently. He died unexpectedly Dec. 26, 2017, of complications from acute myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle.
Alex Hadjis — who was in charge of the fundraiser’s pastitsio, spanakopita and flaming cheeses — said the Kirkwood scholarship seems an ideal vehicle to honor his brother’s legacy.
“I know Basil had a lot of involvement with the community, and Kirkwood was a big part of that — with a lot of students coming from the program,” he said. “They ended up working for Basil at one point in time.”
That the event also served as a classroom for culinary coeds is fitting, said Kirkwood Hospitality Arts Department Chair David Horsfield, calling it “exactly the kind of educational interaction the Hadjis family is hoping to further inspire.”
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