I recently had the pleasure of interviewing premier Bay Area caterer and events specialist, Barbara Llewellyn. Llewellyn stays at the forefront of her field by remaining dynamic and taking a fearless approach to business. Her company is known for consistency, fabulous food, impeccable service and some of the most innovative displays around, thank you art degree.
A stranger to no job in the industry she has worked as a pastry chef, bartender, host, waitress and a resort hotel manager. For a spell, she worked as the room service manager for a large hotel chain, a job she assures me as the ‘worst job in the hospitality industry’. A job offer brought her to San Francisco and after taking a few years off to raise her children, a friends request to cater a dinner party led to more and more work. Eventually ending up in an uninvited visit from the health inspector which she casually recounts as a blessing in disguise. “I knew it was time to get serious.”
In addition to running her company Barbara does consulting work, speaking engagements and career counseling. In her current incarnation, she is known and respected for precision engineered events. However, make no mistake that Barbara has been through the trenches of catering. When plied for juicy horror stories, she recounts wedding-cake eating dogs, last-minute time and date changes, nightmare clients and all manners of past disasters that would bring her to her current echelon.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background in hospitality? My exposure began early when my mother started a roadside stand selling products from my father’s duck farm in Cape Cod. This endevour quickly grew into a full-service catering company as the area surged in popularity during the Kennedy era.
What are some of the more recent trends you have witnessed? Organic and sustainable foods are huge in this area, people want to support local farmers and be healthy while still having treats. When we serve beef tenderloin, it’s hugely popular. Miniatures and small bites are huge with desserts, burgers etc.
Can you tell us about the unique characteristics of working in the Bay Area? We are blessed with a bounty of exceptional ingredients and varied cultural influences. Business is competitive and it’s a challenge to keep up with trends. People love to see new exciting things on the menu but tend to choose the same items again and again. There is comfort in standards.
What are some of the most overdone trends of late? The chocolate fountain appears to be today’s champagne fountain. I have looked on horrified as children literally chug down glasses of liquid chocolate.
How about trends that you still find enjoyable? People really love the coffee and espresso bars. With the popularity of coffee culture these day, it can lend a really nice touch.
What would you like to see more often at parties and special events? An amuse bouche is wonderful in a world where people are charged for absolutely everything. It is a delight to be offered one didn’t order
What are some frustrations you encounter with your line of work? Some clients have difficulty letting go and giving us creative license. Sometimes this is due to social concern, lack of adventure or fear of costs.
Any particular celebrity chefs or culinary figures that you enjoy? I adore Julia Childs. I really respect her for building a business based on passion. Martha Stewart is also huge in hospitality and entertaining.
What are some indispensable items in your home? I agree with Julia in that I believe salt, cream and butter are essential to fabulous food. Fresh herbs,light olive oil, red wine and balsamic vinegar and flavored sea salts such as lavender and rosemary can also provide an unexpected gourmand touch.
What are some of your favorite comfort foods: All comfort foods…chicken soup, chicken pot pie, beef stew and brisket, leg of lamb, scalloped potatoes, strawberry shortcake and grilled cheese of course.
Barbara’s Words of Wisdom: People in the same industry often work hard not to cross paths, which is unfortunate because when people come together they can often create something bigger. The learning and relationship equals any benefit. We are the no greater than the sum of our parts.
Last but not least, do you have any guilty pleasures we should know about? Though normally very disciplined, Barbara (like the rest of us) has the occasional slip up. There is the issue of quality-control, for one. After the rare but inevitable half pound chocolate binge she rationalizes by saying “it’s got to be the best, we’re not talking m&m’s here” That’s right, Barbara, your Nestle days are behind you.
Tips for the home host/ess
Rule #1 Have fun and relax!
Rule #2 Have an interesting guest list-variety is the spice of life baby! If you have everyone from the book club, then it’s a book club meeting. Put interesting groups together think …Sergio the rocket scientist, Greta the organic farmer, Mel the drag-queen butcher and Jules the artist.
Rule #3 Be engaging. When invited to a party thank your host by being part of the entertainment. Be mindful to be engaging, interested/interesting. Interaction, learning about others and life enjoyment.
Rule #4 Outsource. It’s not just for evil corporations anymore. Do what you’re good at and enjoy. Enlist friends or pay for a service for things you’d rather not deal with. It’s your special event and it’s meant to be fun.
For more info, visit Barbara online at http://www.barbarallewellyn.com