Caterer Nancy DeAngelo has spent 28 years in the food business. Between her first job in the hospitality business in Boston, followed by a period spent in Dallas, Nancy has crossed paths with future food stars such as Wolfgang Puck, Dean Fearing, Lydia Shire and Jasper White – meeting them while they were still forging their own careers.
Today she runs the Boston-area catering companhy, Short Order Gourmet. We talked to Nancy about managing a food business with her two partners, Mary Landolfi and Philip Dirego. Partner Mary Landolfi joined us for the conversation. Here is what they told Stir the Pots.
Q: How long have you all been together as partners?
Nancy. Along with our chef, Philip, it’s been ten years.
Q. From talking with you a bit before, it's been a satisfying partnership.
Nancy. There’s a lot of turnover in food, in general, and especially in catering. It doesn’t pay very well and it’s hard. The hours, you can’t determine them and people in the kitchen can get on each other’s nerves. There’s crazy people involved. We’re equally crazy but there’s no screaming or yelling. We just know each other so well. After all, it's just food. I mean, it’s not world events. So when things go wrong it’s more like “how can we fix it?”
Mary. There are no real big egos here. That has been key for us.
Nancy. We’re all pretty opinionated but it just works. It is a small business and we’re not making a lot of money so there’s nothing to have a big ego about and we all want to succeed. And we’re all rather capable people. Mary has an MBA and Philip is a very dedicated talented chef. And he’s a wonderful teacher. If he were in New York City and had connections he would be right up there. He has the talent to get flavor out of every component of the meal.
Q. And you, Mary, are you the baker?
Mary. (with laughter) I’m definitely not the baker.
Nancy. We keep Mary as far away from the baking as possible. No, Mary keeps us all together and can predict what is needed five minutes before we need it. I change Mary’s title frequently. She’s wonderful with the customers. If someone’s irritating me she will immediately pick up the slack. Everyone loves Mary. She just holds everything together.
Q. How did you two come together?
Mary. I was laid off by Mitt Romney in 2000 when the state government changed from Democrat to Republican. My friend had just opened a coffee shop where Nancy came in. I had taken a job there serving coffee and enjoyed it.
Nancy. I had been approached by the Heritage Museum in Lexington to run their café. I was too busy to run it. I was introduced to Mary by the owner of the coffee shop. I liked Mary immediately and offered her the job as manager of the museum cafe so I could focus on running the catering company.
In the beginning I came in to the museum cafe a few days a week. Then I realized it would be better if Mary handled it. Everyone loves Mary.
Q. And then?
Nancy. Then the Masons changed general managers and changed the café and then Mary and I worked together to build up our weekly business.
Q: Briefly describe the business.
Our company has three components. The first part involves delivering dinners to local families. The second part involves catering all types of parties and receptions. And lastly, we have a corporate catering business where go into offices and provide breakfast, lunches, receptions, bar-b-ques, etc.
Q. How did you get into cooking, Nancy?
Nancy. There was a lot of cooking in my family but not on my mother’s part. We used to say that, for my mother, making a meatball or a meat loaf or a hamburger, that the only difference was the shape. But my dad and I were always in the kitchen. He liked to cook. And my uncle was a caterer for the University of Alabama. I cooked at the house I lived in at college in Colorado. And later I moved to Vermont and helped start a restaurant called the Phoenix in Sugarbush.
After Vermont I got a job at the Copley Plaza in Boston as a convention coordinator. That was when Lydia Shire and Jasper White were working in the Copley kitchen. They were my introduction to what food could really taste like.
Then my husband got a job with the Rosewood five star hotels in Texas so we moved there. Wolfgang and Dean Faring were executive chefs for Rosewood. I’d travel with them and was the recipient of their wonderful cooking.
Q. You mention Lydia Shire and Jasper White introducing you to what “food could really taste like.” Can you elaborate?
Nancy. Well, I remember when I started tasting the food – not by the main chef – but by Lydia and Jasper – my eyes popped out. It was tastier. It was more evolved. It was fattier. Lydia, at the time, was the baker and Jasper, at the time, was a sous chef. At that time in Boston, the Copley Plaza had the best restaurant in town. Food was nowhere in Boston. They were the ones who started the whole food scene in this city.
Q. What else do you remember about the kitchen at the Copley?
Nancy. Well, the main chef wasn’t very good. And there was lots of yelling. My experience with kitchens was they had these little micro worlds where the head guys thought they were kings. The chef was not anyone who wanted to be a mentor. It was just war in the kitchen.
Q. Sounds like you didn’t much like that.
Nancy. For me, whatever I do has to be fun or it’s not worth my doing it. The first time Mary and I worked together, we were opening up the museum café. Well, everything went off top notch. But after we left, we realized that we had left the money box back at the counter.We were horrified. We had worked non stop for hous, done everything according to plan and then forgot the money! It was all about the job and working together.
Q. What has most changed in your catering business since you started?
Mary. We’re more clear on the end result so we can come in with a sense of how things can move forward. We’re more exact. We know what we need to do to get the job now.
Nancy. We’ve learned how to shop more efficiently and more economically without diminishing the quality. We’ve established relationships with farmers, butchers and produce people and they have been so supportative. We have also learned from Philip. He stresses getting something from every component of the meal. We’re very much aware of every part of the menu. Including presentation. That's very important. That’s the first experience that the client has – what it looks like.
It all comes down to bringing out the best of food – not by adding heavy sauces but taking the main component and doing the most you can without wrecking the naturalness of the ingredient. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cooking breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are always ways of improving on it without overdoing it.
Q. What are the most interesting changes that you’ve seen recently in the food world?
Nancy. What comes to mind is what the chef [Tony Maws] did here in Cambridge at Craigie on Main. Roasting a whole pig and serving it. Then he went to the next step and just served the roasted head cut in half. It’s not for everyone but he got me with it. It was delicious.
Q. You really like innovation in food. I hear it in your voice.
Nancy. Definitely. Food changes like clothes. I no more want to look like I was dressed from the 1960s than serve food that isn’t fresh and interesting. So many times you go to a restaurant and every menu looks the same. I don’t want anyone thinking that their meal could be from a hotel menu served at a conference. I want them to look at a roasted chicken we prepare and say "I can’t imagine what they’ve done to it."
Mary came up with a recipe for mac and cheese that’s sensational. Trends and fads in food are fascinating. It’s taking food that our parents cooked in the 1950s and reinventing it. Reinventing grits. Look what everyone is doing with grits and polenta. And getting away from – not mashed potatoes – but doing everything a bit different. In my lifetime it seems we made a circle. We started out with mac and cheese and thought it was children’s food and then it was Kraft and now we’re back to making it the star of the meal.
Also, right now I’m seeing a lot of restaurants working with different kinds of fish. I just read an article in New York Times about a guy who went fishing for the largest octopus he could get. He was interested in the various ways you can cook octopus to get all the flavor.
Nancy. I can’t think of tips but I can think of the best tool. Those hand held blenders. Oh, yes, on tips, Philip told me “just don’t throw cucumbers in the salad. It’s fresh and green and white. What is it you can do to make it the best cucumber you can be?” His idea is you take various components and do more with them. The only other thing I can think of is the first time I learned how to stabilize whip cream. That helped a lot in using whipped cream on top of pies without worrying about it melting.
Q. Best tip you ever had as a business person around food?
Nancy. Weigh everything. It’s the best way to control cost and keep recipes constant.
Q. Most fun you have in catering?
Nancy. Last year Mary and I were asked to cater a memorial for 300 people. We got everything over there and there were two other people who were supposed to meet us at the church to help. But they never showed up. So Mary and I served 300 people alone. I remember after we realized that we had done it with just two of us, our response was that next time, maybe we’ll try 400 people.
Q. That sounds tough. What made it fun?
Mary. It was just the two of us. There was no time to talk. No time for any communication except we had to do it. We were laughing the whole time.
Nancy. Again, how bad could it be? It’s just food. And the tension is exhilarating.
Q. Coolest catering gig you did?
Mary. There was a Buddhist wedding.
Nancy. And another time, we catered for a man who asked us to take 100 lobsters and cut them up live and cook them in huge wok. The menus we put together with his wife were really interesting. Stir fried lobster. And they had us put together a very interesting salad of hard green mango that we shredded.
Mary. The most exciting thing is when you land the job. You’ve competed against other people and you know you've won.
Nancy. Also, when you’re planning the menu with the client. There’s a lot of back and forth between all of us. We don’t do just the cooking. We help with the entire event. We do the rentals and the flowers and the linens. Everything.
Q. Nightmare from hell catering gig you’ve had?
Nancy. No nightmares from hell, but we catered a dinner for the British consulate and the first course was quenelles. I was poaching them and they came apart. They looked like scrambled eggs. That could have been a disaster. I drained them and used a spoon and put them back together with an egg sauce. After dinner, the guest of honor came up and said that they were the best quenelles he had ever had.
There were 20 important people there and the owners had put their reputation on the line working with us. If it had looked like scrambled eggs rather than quenelles, well, you can turn almost anything around if you work together.
Q. Biggest surprise you've faced as a caterer?
Nancy. Mary brought in a corporate client for us years ago and I never expected much out of it. They had a very sophisticated clientele when it came to food. After that one time, we’ve been their only caterer. That was a nice surprise.
Q. How does the catering business differ in organization to restaurants?
Mary. Catering is different every time. There’s a starting point and ending point. I just think that’s what makes it fun and interesting. You can see something from the beginning, where the client asks for a specific event and you help them through it to the end. You become part of their celebration.
Nancy. Also, unlike a restaurant, we don’t have a lot of overhead. We don’t have to pay rent all the time. We don’t have all our staff on payroll. We don’t have the worries of a restaurant.
Mary. It’s easier to be a star in the catering business.
Nancy. The customer wants so much for you to succeed. You work so hard to make them look good in the eyes of the guest. And it’s easier because you’ve worked for them. They want your success as much as you do.
Q. It sounds like a good catering job is a partnership.
Mary. Definitely. Compared to restaurants, you become a partner with the customer much more so.
Q. What limits do you have in controlling the customer's decision over menus?
Nancy. A lot, but I’ve made mistakes. A few years ago a client suggested a menu that I thought was all wrong. His wife agreed to change it with me. He found out and he was furious. That didn’t turn out well. So now, when I make a suggestion, I make it clear that I’m laying out variables. I’m much more careful with that part of the sale.
Q. You call that part of the process “a sale.” That’s interesting.
Mary. It is a sale. There’s a lot of working with the client before the contract is even signed. You work before the contract without the promise of a financial result.
Nancy. Mary and I decided that we would not ask for deposits. I trust you. You trust me. But it is a sale.
Q. It sounds like a delicate process, before the sale.
Nancy. Because I love food so much, if someone is suggesting that I cook something that I feel is so wrong for the occasion, I can’t become too emotionally involved in the decision. I have to guide them through to it gently and try to get them to the point where they’re excited by the changes.
Q. Who has the last word on the menu?
Nancy. The customer makes the final decision. It’s all about relationships. That’s the thing that’s different from a restaurant. You’re in these people’s homes.
Q. Is the customer always right?
Nancy. No, but he has to think that he has. You can’t work against the customer.
Q. You’ve kept your business to three people – have you ever wanted to grow bigger than that?
Nancy. I would like to make more money, which would mean a major change in the way we operate. It would be rewarding, but it would be different. I have a son who has decided to take food to a whole new level. He’s a partner in a toddler food company in Brooklyn. But Mary and I are happy just doing what we’re doing. I do get nervous when we’re not busy. But say it's winter, Mary will point out that we’re never busy in January.
Mary. We’ve had ideas of things that we might do like a company kitchen in a business park.
Q. What are challenges you can see around growth?
Nancy. You can’t rely on your past laurels. Every event has to be the best you can manage.
Mary. The economy. People do not understand how expensive food and food prep is.
Nancy. The cost of fish and meat can be prohibitive. The most important thing is adjusting to the cost of food without watering down the menu.
Q. How do you adjust?
Nancy. One of our clients – they want meat all the time. But the best meat that’s available, they can’t afford it. We realized that if we bought the best meat and cut it on the bias like flank steak, we could extend it by 30 percent. Initially we thought we had to give a whole steak to each person.
Q. Is onsite catering difficult when using clients kitchen?
Mary. The only hard part is that cooking is messy. So there’s a constant challenge to make everything look nice and clean when it’s done.
Q. What food businesses most intrigue you these days?
Mary. Food trucks. I’m intrigued by them. The compactness of the truck and all that they can do. And that's good food they're making.
Q. Has Short Order Gourmet ever considered doing a food truck?
Mary. We thought of it but it’s an entirely different business. All of the things that are so delightful about catering, the truck is more like a restaurant.
Nancy. I agree. They have to pass all sorts of qualifications before they can take their trucks and start serving. Mary and I and Philip, what we're doing now, it all works.
Q. Last area. Trends that intrigue you.
Nancy. Right now I'm working with a lot of fish. Fish I never tasted before and preparations of fish. It's interesting because all the fish that was available is no longer available. Chefs are trying fish we haven’t used like octopus.
Q. Most over-rated trend.
Nancy. Foam. I can barely taste it and can barely understand it. It frequently looks like bubbly salty dish water.
Q. Last question. Most under-rated trend or just something you see that’s emerging that interests you.
Nancy. Pea pod sprouts and garlic scapes. Mini-bok choy. I love all the mini-vegetables. I think vegetables have become a more significant part of menus.