“What powerful lives we live when we do so out of a sense of abundance rather than scarcity. The impossible becomes possible. There is always more rather than less. There is always room in our lives for others to come and be fed.”
Chef Julia Kendrick Conway literally grew up in the food business. During high school, she worked in her parents’ drive-in diner, starting at the counter and moving to the grill and prep chores. Evenings were spent helping her father with the bookkeeping. When she expressed an interest in cooking, her mother told her “…get a real degree, and a real job. You don’t want to spend your entire life serving other people.” Twenty-five years later, she was signing up for classes at the Culinary Institute of America’s California campus, and returning to the kitchen.
After twenty years in the world of high tech, she decided to return to her roots. With a desire to start her own catering company, she went to work for a large corporate caterer in Silicon Valley and spent two years learning the inside out of the catering business, working in all departments of the $2M operation. In 1999, she founded what was to become Assaggiare Mendocino, and two years later was in the midst of moving herself, her family and her business to the Northern California coast.
After observing the interactions and operations of the larger company, Chef Julia decided that Assaggiare Mendocino would be different. It would be first and foremost, small by design. She also wanted to create an environment where the employees felt they could take ownership of their responsibilities, and where learning from each other was a part of the culture. She wanted the company to be a vital part of the greater community. After having suffered the numbing isolation of living in an urban environment where people spent hours commuting to and from work, she wanted to give her employees an opportunity to have a quality of life with their families. “Family first” became one of the early values when it came to scheduling. She also wanted to build a network of purveyors on a local level, supporting other businesses in the community.
The first six years were very challenging, breaking into a new market, building relationships with both potential customers and suppliers. Originally, Chef Julia envisioned working with local wineries, teaching food and wine pairing to their staff, and broadening the experience for their clients. Then the economy went off the rails. The stock and housing markets crashed, and the resulting recession all but killed the tourism in the region. Wineries, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts cut back, some closing altogether. But as the economy slowly inched back, a new market developed in the area; destination weddings. Urban and suburban couples, yearning for some sort of connection to the land and the rural lifestyles began booking weddings in barns, on blufftops and beaches, in vineyards and in the redwood forests. Chef Julia’s farm-to-table menus were a natural fit for these refugees from the cities.
Fast forward to 2017, and Assaggiare Mendocino has grown into the kind of organization that Chef Julia only imagined 18 years earlier. She still caters only one wedding celebration or major event per weekend, but the “season” now stretches from April through November. Sometimes she misses the quiet of the winter seasons past, but her employees appreciate the extra work during the slow months. Many of Assaggiare Mendocino’s team members have been with the company over a period of years. While most other caterers in the area hire labor by the event, paying cash wages, Assaggiare Mendocino hires people on as employees, with pay rates well above the minimum wage. The company has managed to offer paid personal time off, access to a group health insurance plan, educational reimbursement and ongoing training. On-call service staff receive a master schedule and can request specific events and dates, based on their own schedules and preferences. Unlike many of her competitors, Chef Julia has insisted that the company be fully licensed and insured and pay all relevant taxes and fees. She is more than happy to explain to a customer that the sales tax helps pay for the roads, fire protection, hospitals and schools that serve her employees and their families.
Giving back is also a core tenet of Assaggiare Mendocino’s values. Chef Julia is always in the front row at local fundraisers, serving everything from her award-winning Dungeness crab cakes to Baja style fish tacos at local food and wine tastings. Gift certificates for private dining or cooking classes turn up at many of the local auctions and raffles. While networking was something to be practiced and cultivated in her days in Silicon Valley, Chef Julia takes a more holistic approach. “Every connection, every conversation, be it with a customer, a supplier, a colleague is an opportunity for partnership,” she states. “When you take this approach, it becomes a win-win for everyone. It’s not about what can you do for me, but what we can make better if we work together.” Chef Julia serves of the Board of Directors for the Leadership Mendocino program, on the Advisory Board for the local Mendocino-Lake Food Hub, and has been a member and leader in Slow Food USA for almost twenty years. Her passion for economic development, especially through farming, food and wine is evident in everything she does. When she approaches a menu for a customer, it’s not about what can be produced at the greatest profit or the lowest cost, it’s all about best serving the customers’ ideals while still making enough money to sustain the company over time. “It’s not about getting your name up in lights” she notes, “it’s about being there for your team and your community for the long haul.”
One of the star team members is a young woman who was recommended to Chef Julia while she was still in high school. The culinary instructor at a local continuation school pulled Chef Julia aside one day at an event, and mentioned one of her students who showed an extraordinary bent for cooking. She was hired several weeks later, and after a season working front-of-the house on a work-study program, she was promoted to the kitchen. A quick learner, she now regularly works events in the kitchen, and has also secured a job at a local wood-fired pizza restaurant, working the oven, all before her 21st birthday. Chef Julia sees many of her team members as “her kids” and mentors them in both the kitchen and in the complexities of real life. Many of the local young people are forced to leave their hometowns, as jobs are scarce. Chef Julia hopes to be able to give some of these young people an opportunity to grow and learn new skills that set them up to earn a better wage wherever they choose to live.
Assaggiare Mendocino’s menus are based on seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients wherever possible. All components are prepared from scratch, including sauces and salad dressings. You will often find Chef Julia at a local Farmer’s Market, chatting with farmers about upcoming events and working with them to integrate their produce into regular menu items. Instead of being just a marketing tag line, farm-to-table means something. Pork, beef, lamb and chickens are sourced from local farms. Wild King salmon and black cod are ordered from a local boat. For ingredients that require going farther afield, Chef Julia uses a regional organic produce broker, and a broad-line distributor that is willing to carry sustainable products. But keeping it local is far from boring. Assaggiare Mendocino’s menus encompass the best of the culinary traditions that make California unique and diverse; Mediterranean, Latin, Middle Eastern and Pacific Rim influences abound. Signature appetizers for a wedding celebration often include melding the culinary traditions and cultures of the couple into a single bite. And the dishes are a visually striking as they are flavorful. Chef Julia’s view is to “take the best ingredients and don’t mess it up.” Letting the ingredients shine is a hallmark of her cooking style.
Another side to Assaggiare Mendocino’s business, especially during the slow season, is coaching other micro-entrepreneurs. Chef Julia’s background in sales and marketing in the technology field is especially helpful for new business owners trying to navigate the complexities on online marketing in the age of social media. She is a founding member of the Mendocino Coast Women in Business Network, and teaches regular workshops in marketing, social media, and time management. She also works closely with the Women’s Business Center at the local Small Business Development Center. “Lots of people were willing to mentor me, to advise and to counsel. It’s the least I can do to pay it forward to others. What I give away, I get back more than ten-fold.”
People often ask Chef Julia if you can really do well by doing good. In today’s world, with its focus on uber-capitalism and the culture of “bigger is better”, can you really make a living putting the community and people before profit? The proof is in the pudding, or the soufflé, or the sandwiches. Assaggiare Mendocino’s reputation is well known, both locally and in the greater industry. Chef Julia never misses an opportunity to offer helpful advice, be it to a new caterer in the area or an established competitor. “There is enough business for all of us, if we all agree to play nice in the sandbox,” she often states. “A high tide floats all boats. If we raise the bar on food and service in our region and in our industry, everyone benefits. In a small town, money circulates two or three times before it makes it way out of the area. Destination weddings can bring in over $200K per event to the local economy. Between all the direct expenses, plus the lodging, fuel, and the monies spent by the guests while they are in town, it helps the entire community. Taking into account that there can be 3-5 of these events every weekend during the season, that is a healthy boost to an economy based on tourism. Many guests become regular visitors, bringing in even more tourism dollars over time.”
So, what does the future hold for Chef Julia and her company? Well, for at least the next ten years, it will be business as usual. Weddings and events will be booked, staff will be hired and scheduled, food will be ordered and prepared and served. Chef Julia hopes that one or more of her team members might consider carrying on in her stead at some point, but can’t see herself resting on her laurels any time soon. As noted in the quotation at the start of this piece, “there will always be room for in our lives for others to come and be fed.” And at Assaggiare Mendocino, they will be truly fed well!
For more information on Chef Julia Kendrick, find her on social media:
Follow the link to read the article in Style Me Pretty.
Story by: Chef Julia Kendrick Conway, with Barb Stanley of Culination Magazine.
LoBue Photo AND Tammi Gilchrist Photography AND Thomas Rosencrantz.