Kathleen Hoffman, Executive Chef
Which came first, the winery or the gourmet food? Whatever the answer, you can bet that wherever grapes are stomped, there will be a market for high-end catering. This is the case for Livermore, California, where Denise Slavitt started Checkers Catering & Special Events 25 years ago. Located east of San Francisco, the area is gaining notoriety as a wine region. Today, over 40 wineries have laid down roots there and more importantly, so have major Fortune corporate headquarters and high-tech companies filled with the people who love good food and good wine.
For Checkers, it's an area ripe with possibility. At first, the company focused more on corporate catering but as soon as it began to focus on the high-end social market and the event planning end of the industry, business immediately increased. In the past six years, the company's special event division has grown to include four planners and comprise almost half of the business. The company now has 25 full-time employees and 10,000 square feet of kitchen, offices and warehouse. And it was about six years ago when the company also began to pay close attention to its food, promoting Kathleen Hoffman to Executive Chef.
Trained in catering on the East Coast, Hoffman is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. She started first as a hotel chef for Marriott, and as she worked her way west, she also worked her way more to the front of the house. In Houston, she took on the position of General Manager for Brinker International, owner of the restaurant chain, Chili's. That company relocated her to Livermore where she started a new Chilli's on its way and also started a family. After time off to raise her children, Hoffman started to get back into the workforce as a personal chef but missed the bustle of a professional kitchen.
She read that Checkers was looking for a driver and thought that if the company needed drivers, it probably would need chefs as well. Her assumption was correct and soon was helping with menu development. In a short time she was named Executive Chef.
The CommuniCater caught up with her as the company received the distinction as the first-ever Bay Area Green Caterer from the Alameda County Green Business Program.
Here's a brief Q & A with Kathleen from a recent artilcle by ComunniCater:
And what about ingredients? Have you also gone organic?
Organics are highly visible in this area, but sometimes people think that because we have a green business we are 100 percent organic. This is not the case although I do all the purchasing and pay attention from whom I buy and try to get most items locally. I'm lucky because I have a huge organic selection available to me at the drop of a hat. Organic is definitely more expensive but when we state an item is strictly organic we get a few dollars more from the people who are willing to pay that.
Caterers are certainly now faced with more challenges like this. What type of challenges have you faced in the course of day-to-day business?
For me, the challenge is always to develop items that hold up well from prep to presentation. We do everything off-site so creating a menu is always a challenge. I do three menus a year (holiday, special events and corporate), and everything on them is addressed with the same criteria - the quality of the product originally, how it hold up in travel and then in the presentation.
What was the most complicated meal you've ever had to prepare for an event?
Really, it wasn't an exact item or meal, but the most complicated cuisine we do is for our Indian, Peruvian and Asian clientele. What's complicated about it is achieving the right nuances in flavor and keeping it authentic while presenting it in a catering style. We've just introduced four items that are Indian - tandoori chicken, chicken masala and a couple side dishes - cous cous and rice, potatoes and peas. They require a lot of exotic ingredients which we research by going to the source for information and feedback - the markets and the people who grew up with it.
What are your basic criteria for creating hors d'oeuvre?
That is really simple - tasty, not too large, visually appealing, travels well and it has to be scrumptious!
How much importance do you give the dessert menu?
I like to look at it as a sweet finish to our menu. We like to do small bites, so trios work well. Plus, we are starting to pass more desserts which customers really like; no one wants to be hostage at their seat.
What's your favorite kitchen gadget and why?
I have two. My little garnishing knives; they are paper thin and from Thailand. And my microplaner; I can add zest of anything to anything. I'm always asking, "Who has my microplaner?" And usually it's Beatrice, my chef garde manager!
What do you find is the difference between restaurants and catering?
I've been a chef at both and I think our challenge as catering chefs is to keep food as fresh and appealing as if you just got it from the kitchen. I feel the industry is very focused and food quality is key. And, the look is moving from chafers to platters which are replenished all the time. No one wants to go to a buffet that looks as though it's been sitting. Catering and restaurant chefs have different challenges. Restaurant cooking is ala minute yet caterers are incorporating more of that through cooking live and creating an interactive experience. It's about striking a balance between being able to sit and being able to walk around.