Local caterers go creative

NURTURING NETWORK: Asheville caterer Corey Frost Marino applauds the strong support network she finds among her peers. She shares kitchen space — and occasionally collaborates — with other caterers at Blue Ridge Food Ventures. Photo courtesy of Catering by Corey

What’s that you say? You want us to create something no one’s ever seen before? Sure; no problem.

That attitude seems to be the consensus among local caterers. When faced with a challenge, they rise to the occasion — and they love doing it.

Friends first

Tara Letts and Ragan Lewis began sharing recipes when they were in the first grade. Today, they share a business, the Colorful Palate. And while catering to different tastes at multiple venues is no picnic, the two say it’s also what keeps them on their toes and makes it fun.

“Over the years, we’ve had many memorable experiences,” says Lewis, “from brides being run over by golf carts to gun-brandishing guests and accidental profane outbursts during the vows.”

Still, they wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

“Managing these details successfully has pushed us to create some pretty amazing systems and to purposefully train our crew to work each event as its own entity, not just a repeat of the same thing they did last weekend,” says Letts .

Their talented service staff, affectionately referred to as “ninjas,” have mostly come to them by way of referrals from current crew members. Many have serious industry experience, and most do this for extra income to supplement full-time jobs.

Working out of rented space in a business park in Arden, they knew from the start that they wanted to focus on catering rather than making it an add-on to a walk-in, counter-service restaurant.

And while they’ve catered events for up to 500 people, it was a surprise engagement for just two that really stands out in their memories. The groom-to-be popped the question in the woods near a one-room cabin, while the server hid in the woods taking photos. After the woman accepted, dinner and Champagne were served in the cabin.

“That was pretty cool,” remembers Letts.

Custom cocktails

According to a recently released report by Thumbtack, an online service that connects consumers with professionals, requests for bartenders for 2016 weddings are up 42 percent so far. That comes as no surprise to Heidi Walker and Lexie Harvey of Cordial & Craft, who are thinking of expanding their professional bar catering company.

“At the start, our overhead was minimal,” notes Walker. “Once business started taking off, we had to make larger investments in equipment and had additional expenses for insurance and licensing.” Up until now, both women have worked out of their homes and/or in coffee shops, but with business booming, they’re considering opening an actual office.

Their substantial staffing pool includes about 40 event planners, craft bartenders and servers, and even a few chefs. A recent 1920s-themed party featured vintage cocktails, a masquerade murder theme and a giant stilt walker who mingled with the guests.

Another client wanted a cartoon-themed wedding called “Adventure Time.”

“We got to watch, or maybe re-watch, some of our favorite episodes and create cocktails from them,” Walker explains. “We got to combine two of our favorite things — cartoons and cocktails!”

Walker’s beverage of choice is a ginger Old-Fashioned; Harvey is partial to their own Strawberry Fields — a Champagne cocktail with a secret recipe that includes St-Germain elderflower liqueur. What’s no secret, though, is that a lot of the ingredients the two use come from their own backyards, including blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, tomatoes, beets and assorted herbs and roots. All this and more goes into the bitters, shrubs, tonics and tinctures they concoct throughout the year. And with things they don’t have, they try to keep it local by seeing what’s available through Mountain Food Products on Brevard Road or in the garden at The Farm: A Gathering Place, in Candler.

“We get the most requests for ‘something with whiskey’ or ‘something no one’s ever seen before,’” Harvey reports.

Making it work

Corey Frost Marino runs Catering by Corey. And while she concedes that balancing family and work can be a challenge, she’s been amazed that there’s “such a supportive network of caterers in this town.”

Caroline Allured has shared a kitchen with Marino at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, which rents commercial kitchen space for about $30 per hour. Allured remembers getting a call from Marino, who was in the emergency room and worried about an imminent event she had scheduled.

“I was so happy to help,” Allured reports, adding, “The event went off without a hitch.”

The atmosphere at Blue Ridge Food Ventures is a “cross-pollination of people and products: We’re a sisterhood,” says the veteran, who’s owned Caroline Allured Catering for more than 30 years.

Marino agrees. And this supportive network, coupled with her culinary skills, has gotten 2016 off to a roaring start, with 33 weddings currently on the books.

Both women say they enjoy shopping at local farmers markets, though keeping up with it all is a challenge. “Getting to all the different places to get these amazing ingredients is time-consuming,” notes Marino. “It would be great if there was a business that would do this for you.”

In the end, however, it’s not about saving time.

“It’s all about bringing people together,” says Allured. “And what I really like is when a client wants to blend something of mine with something of theirs. For instance, I love it when someone says, ‘Hey, I’d like to use my grandma’s recipe somewhere on the menu: What can you do?’ Now, that gets me excited.”

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