Work cramps my style

June 23, 2007 on 7:10 pm | By | In Recipes, Work Musings | 7 Comments

Ovens to Betsy license plateMy poor blog has been woefully ignored of late. On one hand I feel guilty, but my darling keeps reminding me it’s not quantity that’s important, it’s quality. I’ve had a lot of ideas for posts (some of which will eventually make it here), but my schedule has put writing on the back burner. Besides, I can’t say I’ve cooked anything of note lately (although I’ve tried several recipes from Heidi’s new book and hope to do a few more before posting). We’ve either gone out or I’ve thrown together the most simplest of meals: pizza (natch), baked tortillas with refried beans and salsa and whatever green veggie we have on hand, stir-fried veggies and chicken over pasta — you get the idea.

It all started a few weeks ago when the ServSafe book arrived in the mail. Although I have my Washington state food handler’s card (for which you need to sit through an hour-long class before taking the test), ServSafe — a much more comprehensive food safety training course — is required to re-certify through the U.S. Personal Chef Association. So instead of cooking and blogging I got to read about such nasties as clostridium perfringens, staphylococcus aureus, vibrio vulnificus and other food bacterium and toxins. We’re havin’ some fun now!

I’d be lying if I said I diligently studied. Basically it consisted of skimming the first seven or so chapters in the weeks leading up to the test, then cramming in the last 6 chapters in the 45 minutes I waited for the class to begin (to my credit, I took meticulous notes during the class portion). But it’s all common sense stuff: 1) Wash your hands, 2) Cook food to appropriate temperatures, 3) Wash your hands, 4) Make sure food spends minimal time in the temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees), and 5) Wash your hands. Because I had a client later that day I sped through the test (I’ve always been a speedy test taker). I’m happy to report I passed with flying colors (91% — woo hoo!).

Then, in addition to my regular client schedule, I had parties on June 9 and 16. The former was a buffet dinner for 25 (the hostess had been to another party I catered) and the latter was a 40-person graduation buffet for the son of one of my weekly clients. I now have the luxury of picking and choosing what parties I do. My regular schedule keeps the mortgage paid, so I don’t HAVE to give up my nights and weekends if I don’t want to (believe me, that hasn’t always been the case). But I knew both of these would be rather casual, and besides, we have a trip to France to pay for.

The final big project of the past two weeks was a presentation on “A Day in the Life” for the USPCA’s Philly conference in August. It didn’t need to be the final final (in fact, my actual presentation will look drastically different than what I sent in), but the organizers wanted some semblance to put into the conference notebooks for those who were attending other classes (I know what you’re thinking: who WOULDN’T want to partake in the wit and wisdom that is Ovens to Betsy?)

Anyhoo, this has all been a long and rambling way of saying I’ve been crazy-ass busy. (Oh, and did I happen to mention I’m also training for a marathon?)

All of these events have forced me to think about my business: how I’m doing, and more importantly, how I’ve gotten to where I am. The audience for my presentation will most likely be newbie chefs: those who have one year or less of experience. So as I was developing it I had to harken back to the days when I had barely a clue. Granted, most of their questions will be about marketing and landing that first customer, but I’m going to focus more on the nitty-gritty of what I do: how I organize my day and what steps I take to ensure I’m not still cooking in the client’s kitchen at midnight.

That said, I intend to weave my overall business philosophy into my presentation as it guides most of what I do, from first attaining a client to keeping them happy for years. It boils down to figuring out who you are and then being true to yourself. When potential clients go to my website, they get a VERY good idea of who I am . If they don’t like what they see, they won’t like me.

I’ve seen too many chefs crash and burn when they try to be everything to everyone. Of course, I made the same mistakes when I was starting out. When I landed a vegan client, I toyed with specializing in that cuisine. Problem is, I love meat! For this client I was using such foreign (to me) ingredients as seitan and TVP; they tasted awful to me, and I’m sure my lack of passion came through in the food.

Mind you, when starting a business SOME compromises are necessary. That’s why I cooked for the vegans (as well as others with drastically differing tastes than mine), I traveled more than 40 miles one-way for a client, I cooked for people who weren’t willing to commit to a regular schedule. However, I always knew these would be temporary compromises; that eventually I’d attract my ideal clients. It took a couple of years, but was well worth the effort.

The catering side of my business has also evolved. In the beginning there was hardly a function I’d turn down. Christmas party for 50? I’ll be there with bells on. Open house for 75? You betcha. Barbecue for 125? Fire up the grill! I eventually realized parties of this size are a logistical nightmare to pull off in a home kitchen (since I’m not a traditional caterer, I don’t operate out of a commercial kitchen; ALL food prep must be handled at the client’s house). So about three years into the business I scaled down events I’d bid on: buffet dinners for no more than 25, sit-down dinners for 12 or fewer.

I actually intended to focus my energies on high-end sit-down dinner parties — the fancy/schmancy kind featuring course after course of exquisitely prepared and presented food. And while I’ve done a few of these, there hasn’t been a lot of demand. Not sure if it’s because Seattle is much more casual (most of the catering requests I get are for buffet dinners or heavy hors d’oeuvres), or if people go to my web site and decide I’m not a caviar and foie gras type of chef. But after my two recent parties, it dawned on me: I don’t WANT to be a caviar and foie gras type of chef!

Sure, I love to eat both, and given the right setting, I’d even prepare them for a gig. But I’m a laid-back gal, and I prefer catering parties without a lot of pomp and circumstance. While I certainly ensure the food looks its yum-scrumptious best, I don’t want to spend a lot of time creating coulis spirals on a plate or forming culinary versions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In fact, one of my favorite parties was the recent graduation celebration. It not only featured food I LOVE: (a fajita bar with all the fixings), it was as casual as they come. The serveware and flatware were plastic, the plates were paper, most of the food was served in disposable chafing dishes, and the whole black beans were served directly out of the stock pot. No one cared; they just relished the food.

I’m sure my business will continue to evolve, but that’s what I love about being self-employed: you get to choose the path you take. As long as I stay true to myself, I know I’ll be happy.

(As an added bonus, I’m including a recipe I made up for a Southwestern fruit salad that I served at the fajita-bar graduation party. It was a real crowd pleaser!):

Watermelon, cubed or cut with a melon baller
Honeydew melon, cubed or cut with a melon baller
Pineapple, peeled and cubed
Papaya, peeled, seeded and cubed
Lime juice (fresh or Nellie & Joe’s Key Lime)
Chili simple syrup (steep a hot chili of choice in a mixture of 1 part water to 1 part sugar; cook until sugar is dissolved. Cool to room temperature)
Fresh mint, minced
Toasted coconut

Mix the lime juice with the chili simple syrup to taste. Toss the mixture with the fresh fruit and mint (you can even throw in some minced chili, if desired). Top with toasted coconut.


  1. Betsy – you forgot to mention that when we drained the juice before serving the salad, it gave us a perfect mixer for post-party cocktails!!! We used banana rum to kick it up and it was AWESOME!

    Comment by Karen — June 27, 2007 #

  2. Fortunately I have you to cover me though! Thank you again for helping out.

    Comment by ovens2betsy — June 27, 2007 #

  3. Oh, I hear ya…why do we work when there is so much else to do?!

    Love the Southwestern Fruit Salad recipe…am having a Mexican dinner for some British friends next week and I think this will be the dessert!

    Comment by Caffienated Cowgirl — July 8, 2007 #

  4. You definitely have to drain off the juice for cocktails as Karen points out. It’s delicious with tequila too!

    Comment by ovens2betsy — July 8, 2007 #

  5. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I made the fruit salad for our guests the other evening and it was FABULOUS! My husband has absolutely fallen in love with it…so much so, that I had to make a small batch just for us last night :o)

    (Just fyi…I served it with Mexican Wedding Cookies…basically their version of shortbread…)

    Comment by Caffienated Cowgirl — July 23, 2007 #

  6. So glad to hear it! And I absolutely LOVE Mexican Wedding Cookies. We always make them at Christmas, although for some reason my mom called them Peppercorns. I use the recipe in Joy of Cooking for Pecan Puffs.

    Comment by ovens2betsy — July 23, 2007 #

  7. Hahaha…mine comes from a Mexican cookbook I found in Costco!

    Comment by Caffienated Cowgirl — July 24, 2007 #

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