Trying to plan the perfect party? New Orleans’ creative coterie of caterers is ready to help.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
The New Orleans catering landscape is uniquely influenced by the city’s culture. The romantic and relaxed Crescent City attitude offers one of the world’s best choices for local and destination weddings. Throw in a booming convention business, and local catering opportunities seem boundless.
Our “Carnival economy” comes with “only in New Orleans”-style parties ranging from debutante soirees to late night queen’s suppers where food and drink flows into the wee hours of the morning. All of this adds considerable income to many local caterers’ annual bottom line, as do corporate parties that are especially popular at the end of the year.
Dondis Does It All
As a young sous-chef working alongside Emeril Lagasse at his flagship restaurant, Emeril’s, Joel Dondis saw a need for local catering focused on special event fine dining. In 1993, with just $5,000 and a Honda Civic, he began Joel Catering, which today has grown to include 30 full-time employees and a hot, new event space on Magazine Street, Il Mercato.
Although Dondis’ business includes corporate clients and convention groups, local and destination weddings now make up more than 50% of his business.
Il Mercato, a historic, Spanish Colonial space, was built as a city market in 1931 and can accommodate over 200 at seated dinners and more than 600 guests comfortably for cocktails.
Palate’s International Flair
Glenn Vatshell’s life story mirrors the motto of Palate, his catering business: “Seasoned from around the world and spiced in New Orleans.” As a young man working in New York’s go-go 1980s, Vatshell discovered his ultimate creative outlet in luxe catering work. From seated dinners for 1,600 at Bloomingdale’s on Broadway to corporate gigs as Conde Nast’s in-house caterer, Vatshell reveled in the scene.
During a brief stop in New Orleans in the early 1990s, Vatshell worked for Emma Freeman of Partysist. Returning years later, he discovered Partysist’s former Willow Street location was available, and in 2005, Vatshell opened Palate there. Beautiful gardens flourish around the kitchens and design studio located just off Carrollton Avenue, providing many of the flowers and herbs Vatshell uses for culinary and floral design. Everything bears his personal touch, from centerpieces to bouquets, and now, with the addition of a ceramics studio, the serving and accent pieces he creates are also one of a kind. If a client can dream it — from whoopie pie wedding cakes to a voodoo-themed wedding utilizing a cow’s skull as a sign-in book — Vatshell can make it happen.
My House Events Offers an All for One Approach
Barrie Schwartz, self-proclaimed “chief experience officer” at My House Events (formerly My House Social) describes herself as an “accidental caterer,” although neither she nor her business partner cook.
Schwartz moved to New Orleans following college, where she found herself waiting tables at Coquette Restaurant. It turned out the pastry chef there, Danielle Lee, was Vitnamese like Schwartz’s grandmother and knew how to prepare all of the authentic dishes Schwartz grew up on. The two eventually decided to throw a ticketed dinner party at Schwartz’s house and My House Social was born.
At the same time, Schwartz became an early organizer of food truck rallies, but recognized how economically unreliable that was for vendors, many of whom were talented, aspiring chefs who knew how to cook great food but had no idea of how to market themselves. That inspired Schwartz’s culinary curation concept, which combines many individual chefs and small food businesses to create events that feel as seamless as if they were executed by a single catering entity.
Today, Schwartz and Lee work with convention and party planners, as well as individual brides, to produce unique events while driving income into the pockets of local chefs that adds up to an average of $35,000 per year per chef.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.