By: Leah Eveleigh, Culinary Arts Student & Cutthroat Kitchen Winner
I was a banker for over ten years and that changed when my youngest son was born in 2001. When I went back to work after three months of maternity leave, the 8-to-5 work schedule at the bank started to become a problem for me trying to balance my career and my responsibilities at home. I wanted to find a way to free up my time and create my own schedule.
I’ve always wanted to open up my own business so I did research about catering businesses. I even considered going to culinary school since I had no experience in running a business but one thing I knew for sure was that I could cook and I that love feeding people.
So, I decided to open up my own catering company in the summer of 2003 and named it Tropical Grill Catering, Inc. And that’s how my cooking career got started. As the owner of the company, it gives me pride and I’ve learned along the way the big responsibilities that come with it at the same time. Catering would be the first step before I’d open a restaurant.
My first catering job was at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival (11 years ago). Overnight I went from a home cook mom to literally serving hundreds of festival goers. My booth became popular serving up Filipino Cuisine, my menu such as Chicken Adobo–national dish of the Philippines, Pancit Bihon–stir-fry rice noodles with vegetables, Grilled Pork on Skewer–marinated pork with soy sauce, pineapple juice and ginger, my famous Lumpia–the Filipino egg rolls and my signature dish the Banana Lumpia–bananas wrapped in egg roll wrappers fried to crisp and then drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauce, garnish with fresh strawberries. These delicious street foods of the Philippines became an instant success. Just the aroma and the sound of the sizzling grilled pork on skewers is for sure a crowd pleaser. Every year people would come back to my booth again and again.
The most rewarding moments are when I get a feedback from my customers that the food was delicious and that they’re happy. My customers would ask me for the recipes and that they wanted to learn how to make the dish so that’s how I got started offering a hand-on cooking classes. Also, I am collecting all my recipes to include in my cookbook to be published by next year.
After three years in catering, I expanded and opened a restaurant named Tropical Grill Restaurant, serving up Filipino-Hawaiian Cuisine. Lechon -whole roast pig was one of the favorites. We continued to offer the catering service at the restaurant for weddings, birthday parties and other such occasions. It’s increasingly becoming clearer to me that all my time and hard work over these last 13 years is seriously paying off.
There were times that we had three events all at the same time, catering a wedding for 150 guests, a festival and a four day event at the Taste of Colorado. Coordinating these events was not easy but they were some of the ones I was most proud of because we delivered and all events were successful. It was also the turning point for me. I realized that I did not have a life and if my kids and my family wanted to see me, they’d come to the restaurant because I was there day in and day out. So, I decided to sell the restaurant and continue the catering business under a different name: Luau Tropical Catering, LLC DBA – Chef Leah’s Kitchen.
My advice to those who want to pursue a career in the food industry,
is that the first thing is to take care of your customers and the second thing is take care of your customers, period. Do your homework–find out what your customer really want because it’s all about them. Get excited about your product or services, you have to believe first that you absolutely love what you do and that your food is the most delicious thing ever. Every time you get a new business, thank your customers for choosing you and then you must deliver and then more. Do an extra mile to make the event memorable. Always remember to put everything in your catering contract. It’s your reputation and your name you’re putting out there. Honor your word and be flexible. Most of all, take a risk and just go for it!
People ask me all the time if I’d open another restaurant again and my response is it might be a possibility in the future. For now I’m living my dreams. Attending culinary school at Escoffier, writing my first cookbook, teaching hand-on cooking classes, catering, being on TV commercials, getting interviewed by the Colorado Public Radio, being featured on Asian Avenue Magazine, completing Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and winning and yes, meeting Alton Brown. I am humble of all my accomplishments. But all of that is from me being willing to take the first step and to take a risk in my culinary journey.