My love affair with food started at an early age. My father grew up in Thailand, and my mother grew up in upstate New York. My grandmother on her side was first generation English, with pastries running in the family. My grandfather on her side was in the World War 2, and so he did not allow any rice or beans in the household, having what he felt was a lifetime’s worth in the army. So the first time my mom had rice was on a date with my dad.
After getting married, my parents traveled to Thailand and my mom got a really good feel for what true Asian flavors consisted of. An accomplished home chef, she would try recipes out while back in the states, and adjust according to my father’s palate. I would often be at her side in the kitchen when I was young, attracted by the enticing aromas.
By the age of 8, I was planning out some Sunday meals with my mom. On Fridays, we would plan the meal and make a grocery list. On Saturdays, we would go shopping and modify the menu based on availability. And on Sundays, we would cook.
It started out with simple things like homemade creamed spinach and frozen fish sticks, then evolved into braised ribs with potatoes, and eventually to some of the dishes my mom had created throughout the years.
When I got to college, my thought was that I wanted to make a bunch of money, so I studied business. During that time, I cooked for my roommates and at a pizza shop, where they started a corporate catering business. After working there for a couple of years, I realized that I wanted to be in the kitchen full-time. The plan was to graduate, take a year off to come to St. John, and then go back to the States for culinary school.
The History of St. John Catering
I moved down on September 14th, 1995. If you were here at the time, you know this was one day before Hurricane Marilyn made landfall in the USVI. Marilyn absolutely devastated the area. We had no power at our house for months, and we were lucky to get it back by Thanksgiving. Needless to say, that first year on island wasn’t very lucrative. Lots of rum, very little money. So I stayed another year. And another and another until the seasons kept passing and I decided that St. John was home.
The history of our company dates back to the early 2000’s when I was still in the restaurants. I was running several kitchens, and would go out on the floor to get feedback from guests during the turn and after service. On occasion, I got asked if I would come out to their villas on my day off and cook for them for extra income. Naturally, I obliged, and from there began building a small client base.
In 2004, I quit the restaurants and took the leap full-time into catering. My original intention was to keep it to smaller events at villas, but the market called for us to take on weddings and other large events.
I opened the business up from my home kitchen. I had a 24″ four-burner stove and metro racks with dry goods on my deck, covered with tarps. From there, it grew little by little. Every time I got any decent chunk of change for an event, I would invest it directly back into the business. For a time, we had our office in the Marketplace, and it was dubbed the “Ivory Tower”. We moved the office back to the house in 2013.
The Windy Level
Now we have our own Private Event Space and garden at the old Windy Level building in Grunwald, just a mile and a half on Centerline outside of Cruz Bay.
I had my eye on the Windy Level location for years, thinking it would be a good fit because it was out of downtown Cruz Bay, but not too far to be accessible. So, I approached the owner and came to an agreement about a lease. When we signed it, the space was four walls, a sub-floor, an old hood fan, and some bathroom pipes.
I feel that we have made significant improvements to the venue, and continue to do so. We now have an outdoor patio, a garden, on-site storage for our rentals, an indoor dining room, a spacious and comfortable kitchen, and an office from which we coordinate the events.
We have enjoyed having some of the most talented, capable, and friendly staff on island, and continue to do so. We have won Best of the VI for Private Chefs every year since 2010, and were 4 time winners of Flavors of St. John for Entree. Clients have flown us places to cook for them, and we have a good number of repeat customers. We have cooked for numerous famous clientele, including musicians, sports figures, and business magnates. I won’t reveal any names because we are Private Chefs, but each has their own particular tastes, just like all of our other customers.
Our space is somewhere that people can gather and have a good time without pretension, and at a fraction of the cost of some of the other options. Good food is not viewed as a luxury, but a necessity. We don’t want to just feed people, we want to nourish their souls.
We are passionate about building something we are proud of that will endure in our community. I have always found that good luck is often disguised as hard work, and all the people who have passed through our doors over the years have helped make our space what it is today.
We are involved with as many local causes as we can be. In actuality, we don’t say no to anyone who asks for and genuinely needs our help. Through the business, we have supported the St. John Cancer Fund, the Animal Care Center, Gifft Hill School, Julius E. Sprauve School, Montessori, the Coral Bay Community Foundation, St. John Rescue, St. John School of the Arts, the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, and the St. John Community Foundation to name a few. In most cases, we donate furniture rentals or gift certificates for our services so that people can generate funds through raffles. Sometimes, we donate platters of food for community potluck occasions or host events at our location.
I believe that this is all necessary for a successful business in a small town like ours. Although one can’t exactly quantify how much return on investment there will be, good will is never a bad idea and always comes back around in more ways than one.
Bringing People Together
To me, food is about bringing people together. I can remember being at my grandmother’s house in upstate New York, with my cousins, uncles, and aunts from my mother’s side, sitting around the kitchen table, and having a smorgasbord of fifteen or so homemade dishes that my Gram would make. We would all take a small portion of each dish, eat, talk, listen to music, play outside in the yard, watch movies, play card games, argue, make up, and pack up to go plates together.
At my parent’s house, we would always have our most important discussions, do our homework, hang out and read, and of course, eat at the dinner table. That is what food represents to me: people’s most basic need being met, coupled with the enjoyment of others’ company. Good food isn’t hard, it just takes time and love.
I try to make that translate into our business model. We share recipes, treat people with respect, and have a genuine appreciation for what we do. You can definitely tell when you walk into a villa or house which ones were designed with the kitchen first, and which ones had it as an afterthought. The kitchen is always first, in my mind.
Mat At Home
In my down time, I like to spend time with friends and family, especially my son and my girlfriend, although my son is at an age now (13) where he prefers being independent of his parents. I play tennis more infrequently than I want and play drums in a band as well.
Running the catering business takes up a good portion of my time, but I don’t view it as a job. My mother and father are both retired physicians who originally wanted me to take over their practice. When it became apparent that I had no interest in doing that, they encouraged me to follow my dreams and do what makes me happy. I think my mom was particularly relieved when I finally stopped chasing the money.
The Key to Happiness
I am so humbled by the fact that I get to play with food, meet incredible people, cook meals in amazing settings, pick fresh vegetables from our garden, dissect fresh fish caught in our local waters, watch families come together and become larger at weddings, and make people happier by enhancing their experience here on St. John, that it really feels like a dream to me.
I love what I do. And I think that’s the key to happiness.