Catering the valley
Catering has been around as long as people have wanted to eat somewhere that wasn’t either a restaurant or their own home. The Yamhill Valley has seen an increase in new catering companies recently as the wine industry grows exponentially.
“There’s always the need for food to go with wine,” explains Janet Bleck of The Rogue Gourmet Catering in Newberg. “Every day, I read about a new winery that’s opened. There’s a lot of calls for catering at the wineries.”
And just as the quality of local wine is recognized more every day, the superiority of the food they serve is a calling card for so much of the rapidly growing catering industry in the area. The Yamhill Valley’s best chefs are increasingly becoming the valley’s best caterers.
“What we’re getting to now is showing that chefs are caterers. For us, it’s much more of a chef-driven world,” explains Jesse Kincheloe of Valley Commissary in McMinnville. “I’m stoked for it. As amazing as the wine is, the food should be amazing.”
The transition from cooking in a successful brick-and-mortar to cooking for a successful catering operation is not necessarily seamless. Bleck explains that, other than the basic technical and culinary skills, the two worlds are quite different.
“It’s apples and oranges. Quantity cooking is a very specialized field. You’ve got to know your stuff. In a restaurant, you have the ability to cook something to order and then it’s immediately consumed,” she said. “In catering, it's completely different. You can’t go on site and cook everything from scratch. You have to know the chemistry of food. There’s so much more involved in catering chefing than regular chefing.”
The key is organization, because the logistics of cooking food and serving it on unfamiliar terrain — metaphorically or literally — can easily be overwhelming.
“Logistically, you have to know everything,” explains Dustin Joseph of Biscuit & Pickles Catering in McMinnville. “If you’re not an organized person, you’re going to get lost.”
The preparation is also immense. For a recent 20-person dinner, scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, Joseph started at 10 a.m. Biscuit and Pickles is based in the kitchen at Pura Vida in McMinnville, where Joseph had previously stocked all the ingredients for four courses, plus appetizers.
“If there’s pureed parsnips on there, if there’s braised meat, if there’s salmon or halibut, there’s cleaning and portioning; I’ll get all those things set, wrapped up and ready to go into coolers,” he explained.
After four hours of work, the process shifts to loading all the dishes — some nearly finished, some still as raw ingredients — for the ride to the event site; in this case, Hazelfern Cellars outside Newberg. The loading is a crucial step: If Joseph happened to forget something that isn’t available on site, he’d be stuck without it all night. “I know what they have there, I need to bring a couple pans just because, I need to make sure I have my knife kit, make sure we have towels,” he said of his mental checklist. “All the little, random things.”
That’s merely for a 20-person dinner; prep work for a 600-person event can stretch to a week or more.
“You look at your menu items, and you prioritize. Does something need to be cured for three days? Does something need to be smoked? We don’t order in an already-cooked pork tenderloin we’re going to be slicing; we need to get an animal in, then we need to butcher the animal,” Kincheloe said. “It’s prioritizing those tasks. Most likely, the little garnishes, the sauces, the little things that make it have more eye appeal are usually the last things or the on-site things.”
“It’s done in stages,” Bleck noted. “If you’re doing a protein, you might be marinating it for a couple of days, you might be braising it the next day and saucing it the last day.” Once the planning and preparation is done, a caterer still must execute the menu. And while there’s not the unpredictability of waiting for the orders like in a restaurant, there are still some unknowns — the parts Joseph enjoys most.
“The fun part is the unknown, because you know so much already. ‘Oh, the birthday girl isn’t here yet, so let’s not serve anything.’ It’s when to fire food and when not too,” he said.
The other unknown involves the location of those final steps — catering takes a chef out of his typical environment and throws him into a variety of kitchen spaces that may or may not be well equipped to handle the task at hand.
“There’s a winery we’re cooking for in a few weeks where I’m going to write the menu based on the equipment they have and/or what I’m bringing with me,” Kincheloe said.
Some places will tell you they have a fully equipped kitchen and you’ll show up and it's a 1970s stovetop range with no hood system and it hasn’t been cleaned in a while.” Joseph recalls cooking a dinner for an event in a log cabin with no running water and no electricity.
“We had 12 really high-rolling, well-to-do people, and they wanted six courses, and we had a woodstove,” he said of the event, which he prepared by candlelight. “It went great.”
That final part is the focus of what makes catering so rewarding for those who do it — it’s a new challenge each time out, and when it’s done well, a lot of people end up very happy.
"It’s different all the time. I love that you’re challenged to keep current and come up with new ideas,” Bleck said. “You’re interacting with a breadth of different types of people.”
And for the chefs, there’s a great degree of culinary freedom inherent in catering. “I have the luxury of not doing the same thing every day. It’s scary at some points, but it's wonderfully creative on other levels. In a restaurant, you can’t change a menu that fast. I get a broader canvas,” Joseph said.
That freedom is delicious.