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Holiday at home

The catered home party business is on the rise as more Londoners opt for an intimate holiday celebration.
Deb Nalywaiko, Special to The Free Press   2003-12-08 03:00:00  

Decorated trees, reindeer, gifts and food -- lots and lots of food.

At this time of year, putting on a spread is about as Christmasy as the jolly old elf himself and catering and food businesses in London are enjoying a holiday season as busy and bountiful as a toy retailer.

"Christmas, it is one of our best times of the year," says J.P. Baillargeon of Custom Cuisine Catering, adding it is second only to wedding season.

But this holiday season has been busier than any other as Londoners have embraced the home party, paying someone else to saute and sizzle. He estimates business is up about 10 per cent over last year for home parties and corporations hiring caterers is up about 25 per cent.

Custom Cuisine executive chef Jacqui Shantz puts the final touch on a tray of tropical fruit. Photo by Dave Chidley, LFP
"It is definitely busier now than last year, people are feeling more economically secure and having that big party," he said.

Baillargeon has, in fact, turned down about 50 parties this season because he was booked solid weeks ago. He has about 200 events over the holiday season and next weekend has 45 parties.

"We are overbooked as it is," he said.

Chris Squire, former owner of Auberge du Petit Prince, runs his own catering and cooking class business out of Kiss the Cook on King Street and he is seeing the same surge.

"Volume is up, business is up. It is very busy for us right now," says Squire.

He agrees that it is simply a case of more people realizing the catered home party is a reasonably priced option to entertaining in a restaurant, says Squire.

"It is about intimacy and comfort. Having a chef in the kitchen, having a good meal at home, is an alternative to going out," he said. "There has been steady growth the last three or four years in the home party."

Appetizer: Catering options over the holidays range from the casual to elegant, including colourful appetizer plates. Photo by Morris Lamont, LFP
Five years ago, home parties were 10 per cent of his business but demand has been so strong he now specializes in that and it is 90 per cent of what he does.

Not only are catering businesses busier, but the style of entertaining has changed. Rather than a hall or restaurant, the trend toward home and hearth -- blame or credit Martha Stewart -- is dominating.

"People are referring to it as comfortable holiday entertaining. They are not spending a lot on wine or liquor, but on food. The home makes it all more personal," said Baillargeon.

As for how pricey a catered holiday party can be, a cocktail party is about $15 a person and sit down dinners are about $40 a person, says Baillargeon.

But the increase in catering, and the London food business in general, isn't limited just to the holidays. Those who work in the local food trade believe Londoners are becoming more passionate about food, with a quest to hone culinary skills and tastes and support businesses that can help them.

In business for the last 16 years, Baillargeon says the catering business is flourishing in London. Custom Cuisine quadrupled its size three years ago, moving to a 15,000 square-foot building, to include a floral department, private dining room, more office space and more storage.

Teamwork: Mohamed Hassan, left, and Chris Squire remove a tray of oven roasted potatoes and vegetables for a small, private party. Photo by Morris Lamont, LFP
"We simply outgrew our previous location of 10 years," says Baillargeon. "People are spending a lot more on their homes and they want to enjoy them."

Catering can often cost less than entertaining at a restaurant because people can buy their own wine and alcohol and not pay "cork fees." Baillargeon notes that corporate events are still a big revenue maker.

"People are having company Christmas parties and staff appreciation dinners, opting for catering," he says.

However there is also a market for more casual fare, says Mike Wilkins. He and Steve Graham have been running Big Daddy's Big BBQ for the last six months.

"We started off by doing event catering such as the Home County Folk Festival and the Western Fair," says Wilkins. "From that our success exceeded our expectations."

Wilkins agrees there is a substantial market in the city for catering and saw a niche for more standard cuisine, such as burgers, ribs and chili.

"With a high-end party, you have to have a specific palate for the food items being offered," he says. "The average person might not like what is being served."

Variety: Yam Gurung puts the final touches on a seafood platter. Photo by Dave Chidley, LFP
Big Daddy's features a mobile unit, which allows the equipment to be brought directly on location.

"We can bring the barbecue to the site if the company has sufficient facilities," he says, adding that pig roasts are also offered. "You can make the menu what you want, plus you have the service and cleanup," he says. "You can bring the restaurant to your home.

Another growth area has been cooking classes. From grocery stores to specialty food shops and even your own kitchen, the venues offering cooking classes are all over town.

"Cooking classes are getting more popular," says Rebecca McIntosh, co-ordinator of Upstairs at Loblaws, Fanshawe Market. "We have increased the number of classes by about 150 per cent since they were first offered five years ago." There are currently more than 40 classes offered per season, ranging from $7 to $40 each. She notes that hands-on classes have become a popular method of learning.

"Pastry, sushi, appetizers and holiday baking classes all provide the perfect scenario for hands on learning," she says. "People are becoming more interested in different types of food."

Jill Wilcox, London food writer and owner of the food retail store Jill's Table on King Street, agrees. Her store specializes in hard to find foods sich as fois gras, truffle products and exotic sea salts and the city's palate has evolved, offering her a solid customer base, she says.

"London has become more creative and more diverse in their culinary tastes," she says crediting the Food Channel for part of this phenomenon.

Appeal: An appetizer plate is carefully designed at Custom Cuisine. Photo by Dave Chidley, LFP
"It has opened up the door for so many people and they're being exposed to so many new ingredients," she says.

Wilcox prides herself on being one of the first to offer cooking classes in the city and some classes sell out within a day or two of the store's newsletter being sent out.

"We've had a very loyal following over the last eight years," she says, adding there has been a noticeable increase in the demand for classes over the last three to five years.

"We've increased the number of classes we offer, but they sell out even quicker every time we offer them."

Currently, Jill's Table offers between 22 and 24 classes per season, averaging $50 per class, per person with two seasons each year -- fall/winter and spring/summer.

"This is up from 12 to 18 classes per season previously offered," she notes. Wilcox says there has been a huge increase in the number of men participating; as well, more couples are taking them together, with younger people showing an interest.

"Some people will bring their children, usually teenagers, which is really nice to see," says Wilcox.

Squire agrees there is a big demand in London for cooking classes. He teaches at various locations, including Upstairs at Loblaws, Jill's Table and Kiss the Cook.

He also offers private lessons in response to the demand. "Often after teaching a public class I was approached by people asking if I would consider teaching in someone's house," says Squire.

Demand for his classes has increased. Five years ago he taught about 12 classes a year and he now teaches about 50 annually.

Squire says people have become more knowledgeable and more sophisticated about food, and that many enjoy being a discerning diner. He adds that the natural next step is their desire to learn how to prepare the food themselves.

"People are solidly interested in improving their technique and overall knowledge," he says.

In the pursuit to learn more about food, Squire says there is a lot of interest in ethnic cuisine and the desire to increase awareness about various ingredients. He offers week-long trips to Tuscany during the summer, where he teaches about cooking using local ingredients.

"It's about going to a different country as cooks, with a whole new range of ingredients and a whole new bed of flavours."

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