Maryline Damour '90 describes her foray into the culinary world as almost accidental. "I started doing catering in a very informal way about 15 years ago. Friends who knew I could cook would ask me to come early to dinner parties and help them," she says. "Then one day, someone I didn't know who was at a dinner party I had helped with asked if I'd be willing to cater his dinner party if he paid me. My name started getting passed around, and before I knew it, I had regular clients."
Damour actually has two jobs, one in the food world and one in the "real world." Her "day" job is in crisis communications at Accenture, a global management, consulting, technology services and outsourcing company. She is also chef/partner at Bomba Cucina, a fine-dining catering company that specializes in traditional and creative Italian cuisine. Bomba Cucina, addition to traditional catering services, also offers cooking classes for its clients.
"On days when we have jobs, a private cooking class for example, there is usually a day of prep before the event," Damour says. "Once the dishes we'll be demonstrating have been decided with the client, we shop for the ingredients. Then my executive chef and I will develop a script for the class so we know who is doing and saying what. Then we do a few rehearsals and time the class so we set a lively pace."
Days with no catering or teaching job are typically spent "developing new dishes or reinterpreting classic Italian dishes, or developing and executing plans to market our services and increase our client base," she says. "In true Italian fashion, we cook with locally grown, seasonal produce. We also use imported specialty ingredients because sometimes there just is no substitute."
Damour has no formal culinary training, but educated herself by reading cookbooks. And she has focused on Italian food: "I've done yearly food pilgrimages to Italy for the past seven years and have made friends with many Italian who have taught me to cook proper Italian food."
Success has built on itself, she says. "Last year a friend suggested that I should at least have some business cards or a brochure. Before I knew it, we had a Web site, expanded our services into cooking classes and wine tastings, and, most recently, formed a company and started functioning as a proper business. The whole thing really had a life of its own."
The best parts of the job for Damour are the cooking classes: "I would never have thought that I would enjoy teaching. But it's really great to be able to entertain people through food, introduce new ways of doing things that someone may have been doing for years or share with them entirely new foods." The worst part of the job may be surprising to most gourmands, food-lovers and amateur or professional cooks: "I have to admit that I really hate food shopping."
"A typical day in my life is not food-related unless you consider feeding three boys under the age of 6 – breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, when I do work, which is usually one weekend a month, my job is being a caterer," says Amy Welles Hodge '86. As a caterer and the owner of her own business, The Tasteful Palette in San Francisco, Hodge caters parties for between 20 and 150 guests – which, she says, "vary in difficulty, creativity and level of stress."
Preparation begins several days before a typical Saturday night event, with all the planning having been done weeks in advance. On Wednesday, she revisits her shopping and prep lists and collects the necessary equipment for the party. Thursday is shopping day for all nonperishable food, and Friday is when she does as much cooking and preparation as possible to be stored overnight. Finally, on Saturday, she shops for the final items, finishes the preparation, loads the car, drives to the party, sets up, finishes all of the food, serves, then breaks everything down, cleans up, drives home and has a beer to celebrate the success.
Hodge's career in the culinary industry began while she worked for an advertising agency in New York City after graduation. During that time, she took nighttime culinary classes before she quit the advertising job, worked with a catering company for a summer, and then enrolled in Peter Kump's New York Cooking School.
In 1991, Hodge graduated from culinary school and spent the next seven years working in the restaurant industry, experiencing every station in the kitchen, menu writing and recipe testing. She then worked at Williams-Sonoma for two years before beginning work with an online grocery store start-up, one of the first to become popular in the United States. Later she became marketing director for a produce company, then a culinary instructor in San Francisco, and finally settled where she is now: running her own catering company.
For Hodge, the benefits of a career in the food industry include the creativity, passion, enjoying food and wine and the task of educating the public about food, which is not always easy: "The worst part of my job is dealing with people who don't understand how food works, where it comes from and how it arrives on their table. It is part of my job to educate them. Sometimes that gets hard." The benefits, however, are that she can pick and choose the parties to work that she knows she will enjoy, and she can set her own schedule.
"The food industry has had a tough year, just like everyone," Hodge explains. "The first thing people eliminate from their budget is extracurricular expenses: dining out, throwing parties. We are starting to see a rebound, but it is a slow process. Fortunately for me, my family is my first priority and my culinary business is my second."
Stephen Conley '87, the owner and operator of Conley's Pub and Grille in Watertown, Mass., has his hand in every aspect of the business of running a restaurant, from managing the ordering and receiving of food and liquor to keeping track of the finances and supervising the whole operation. Fortunately, having a busy pub allows him to have managers to handle some of the tasks that would otherwise have him going nonstop.
Starting in 1989, just two years after graduating from Hamilton, where he played rugby, Conley went to work in the kitchen of the Continental Café, now known as Conley's Pub and Grille. Two years later, Conley bought a pizzeria with fellow Class of 1987 Hamiltonian Jack O'Brien, which he owned until 2000. From making and delivering pizzas, Conley bought McFly's Pub in 2001, gutted the interior and put his name on the front.
In 2006, Conley "seriously thought about getting out of the food business." But he reconsidered, realized that the restaurant world was something he enjoyed "in a sick way," and he put money into expanding the restaurant – "no turning back." The worst parts of the job are dealing with the financial concerns that are seemingly ubiquitous in the food industry: "If things are slow and the bills are high, it can be very scary. You think you'll never dig yourself out of the financial pit. But in eight years, I always seem to."
With a contemplative "hmmm," Conley also recognizes that there are benefits to his job: "I am my own boss and my name is out front, and that makes me proud. I am a local joint, and I live in the community that I serve. For the most part, people love to go out of their way to tell me how much they love the place. It's flattering and fulfilling.… Nothing is better than when the Sox are on, food is getting pumped out and people are having a great time."
Additionally, Conley adds that one of the benefits of the restaurant world in general is "knowing that everyone needs and wants to eat. That allows me a huge potential customer pool." He considers himself fortunate to be doing well in a difficult economy, but the type of place he owns seems to be the answer: "I would not open a high-end steakhouse in this economy. What I own is a local pub. and I think the economy has not affected me much."
"The best time at the Old Town and probably any bar is in the late afternoon. Believe it or not, I learned that at Hamilton reading Ulysses for Professor [Austin] Briggs' class on James Joyce. There is something about the filtered light at that time of day."
That is how Matt Meagher '76 describes prime time at his Old Town Bar near Union Square in New York City. Meagher's father worked at the Old Town before he assumed ownership from its previous owner, and the Meaghers have been there ever since – Matt himself for 27 years.
"When my father took over, the area around Union Square was a supermarket for the drug industry," Meagher recalls. "He developed the kitchen, which was originally German style, along simple lines: hamburgers, hot dogs, wings and chicken fingers. Now that the area around Union Square has turned around, our menu and 155-year-old bar, 18-foot ceilings and mahogany booths are a popular destination for local residents, urban professionals and tourists."
The Hamilton banner hanging over the bar provides the impetus for many visiting Hamiltonians to introduce themselves when the visit the Old Town. And if they do say hello, they will most likely be doing so to a member of Matt's family: "You can walk in the Old Town at any time and see a Meagher.… We really are a family operation."
The Old Town recently won an NBC award for the best old bar in New York, and the Old Town hot dog has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show. The bar also has been in David Letterman's Late Show, State of Grace and The Devil's Own. But Meagher doesn't let the publicity give him a reason to take it easy. "We will not remain successful unless we remain true to our name," he says. "Meagher means 'hospitable' in Gaelic."
"Cooking doesn't mean making the kind of money that lawyers might make, but you get to live in resorts and have the lifestyle of celebrities," Jon Hale '87 says about his jobs in resort restaurants in Hawaii and Maui. Hale now lives and works in San Diego, and explains with an interesting story: On the plane back from Hawaii at the end of that sojourn, he and his wife, Kathy Hale '88, were trying to decide where to go next. "Kathy hates the cold, so we couldn't go to northern California, and we didn't want to go to San Francisco, so we tried something new and tried the other end of California."
Hale is currently the executive chef of Blue Point Coastal Cuisine, an upscale seafood restaurant, where he has been for nine years. Before Blue Point, there was Hawaii – first Kauai and then Maui – for seven years. It was "like a different country" with all of the different food to work with, including the freshest fish and produce in the world. Before that was Aspen, Colo., for three years; and a bistro in Tribeca, New York City. There was culinary school, too, at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, a 22-month-long standard culinary arts curriculum.
Hale developed his interest in food during summers away from Hamilton, spent with Dave Goldstone '89 on Cape Cod, when he worked as a waiter. Waiting tables then was, according to Hale, a "rock and roll business" with "a lot less structure than there is now." For three years Hale waited tables, and then he, Goldstone and another friend decided that they would each pick an area of expertise in the restaurant world and open their own restaurant. Hale chose the kitchen. And the restaurant? "I'm long over that."
For Hale, it's something new in the kitchen every day, which makes his 12-hour days, five days a week worth the commitment. And, he added, "Cooking is actually therapeutic in some ways. It's a love-hate thing doing it all the time with all the pressure, but when you think back on what you do every day, it's kind of relaxing."
That said, there are times when it's not so therapeutic: "You think you'll cook forever, and then you have a rough night and say you're over it." But Hale is still in it, and says it's all about the passion. And his favorite thing to cook? "French toast for my kids."
Making ice cream for six years during the summer is what first got Frank Sally '97 interested in food and cooking. After graduating, he got involved the restaurant world and discovered an interest in baking, which led him to the California Culinary Academy for baking and pastry instruction. "That's not really where you get your training in the food world," however, said Sally. Now he's a baking instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
Sally always liked working in the food industry but never thought of making a career of it. But after college, which he admittedly didn't like very much, he got a job in business and hated it. He tried other jobs, too, but eventually went back to the food industry because he knew he liked that. He hasn't left. "If you have no other, then you have no other option; if you have something else that you could do, it's hard to stay in it. But if you like it, you stay in it."
Now Sally teaches bread classes and some pastry classes. "I have a life, and I do something that I like to do," he says. "Now that I'm teaching, I can have both." And teaching seems to be the right fit for him: "I like seeing the students learn. I like seeing their stuff on the first day and then a few weeks later – seeing how much better they get along the way." And he is learning, too: "Every day I learn something new. We're all on the same path and the same progression together."
The difficulty with teaching students how to make bread is that bread is "not many ingredients, but a lot of it is based on the feel of it, and that's not something that you can teach." And the worst part? "Washing the oven doors."
R.B. Quinn '83 has a way with words as well as with a rack of ribs. The journalist and self-described "balding Eagle Scout" is the co-author, with partner and fellow Nashville resident Mindy Merrell, of Cheater BBQ: Barbecue Any Time, Anywhere, in Any Weather (New York: Broadway Books, 2008; reviewed in the Fall-Winter 2008 Alumni Review). The couple call themselves "dedicated champions of barbecue diversity, from the open pit to the closed oven and slow cooker," and their output and interests prove it – columns and blogs (CheaterChef.com, CheaterBBQ.com and BaldingEagleScout.com) as well as books. While old-fashioned barbecue purism has its honored place, they say, its techniques need to be adapted to modern kitchens and schedules. That means ovens, crock pots, and an eye on the clock. "With Cheater BBQ," they promise, "you won't miss a play, a lap, a million-dollar 30-second commercial, and you get to enjoy your own party with plenty of energy."