Saturday, September 10, 2011

4-Month Vacation

Yeaaaaaa right!! There's a few good reasons why I haven't been able to update this blog since May.....

1. Weddings
2. Parties
3. Cooking Classes
4. more Weddings
5. more Parties
6. Luncheons
7. Bruncheons
8. more Cooking Classes
9. more Weddings
10. ....and..............oh, I know I'm forgetting something here..............give me a second, it will come to me..............................................shoot, what is it??

Oh, I remember!


Yep, as if I wasn't busy enough already, I'm also a crazy lady who decided to open a cafe. Okay, that's kind of a stretch...I didn't exactly "decide" to.  Sometimes life throws something in your path or forces you in a direction you didn't expect to go in. And you can either fight it, try to change it, or roll with it and make the best of it.

Way back in January when we began talk of moving in to the Interior Marketplace to set up shop for our catering and cooking classes, we had talk after talk with the landlord, Tom, about what he expected of us and what the terms of our lease would be. You see, the space that we were interested in occupying is made up of three main parts:  A beautiful demonstration kitchen (perfect for my cooking classes), a massive commercial catering kitchen (self-explanatory).....and one additional room that separates the demo kitchen from the catering kitchen that is clearly designed to be a restaurant.  Plain as day: He wanted us to open the restaurant for some type of daily meal service because he wanted to increase the foot traffic to the Marketplace.

Well back then, 8 months ago, the words "open a restaurant" made me shudder. I could take the world by storm with my catering and cooking classes, but a restaurant? 6 days a week?  Ay yi yi! I have worked in restaurants since I was 17, so I know what an enormous, monumental undertaking it is and I never once envied the owner whom I worked for. Tom didn't make any specifications about what kind of restaurant he expected to see, he just basically said "Serve chicken salad out of a bucket, for all I care!" If you've ever met Tom, you can probably hear him saying this, and a huge smile has likely spread across your face. (He is hilarious!)

So as we dug our feet in, cleaned/painted/decorated/put our mark on the demonstration kitchen and catering kitchen over the next month or so, the poor lonely cafe sat in the middle, totally neglected. We walked through it every day, putting it off, putting it off, putting it off. We catered many a wedding, hosted many a cooking class and luncheon at the Marketplace, and found ourselves constantly replying "Soon enough!" when asked when we would get the restaurant open. It just seemed a million miles away.

We began talking of menus and employees and names for the restaurant. We pondered the decor and atmosphere. We pondered how in the world a catering business (The Chef Next Door), a cake business (Slice at a Time), and a restaurant could all operate out of the same kitchen.  But it was all just talk, and it still didn't seem like it would ever become reality.  Until it did.

Taylor and I, along with my family, traveled to Pawley's Island, South Carolina for our annual family beach trip at the beginning of June. It was an amazing two-week vacation as it always is, but the whole time we were there, we knew life was going to be different when we returned home.  We didn't have a firm deadline to open the restaurant, but we just knew it was something we were going to have to do to make good on our end of the deal.  It was time to hold hands and walk down the path that we never planned for ourselves.

We returned to Huntsville refreshed, relaxed, ridiculously tan...and ready. We knew we were going to need help, so we turned to a lifelong friend from Birmingham, Matt, to come up and help us run the restaurant. Without any hesitation, he agreed, left his job, moved up to Huntsville, and bought in to our restaurant. We knew we were going to need more money, so we turned to yet another lifelong friend, Joseph, to help with our start-up costs. Without any hesitation, he agreed, wrote a check, and bought in to our restaurant. We knew we were going to need help with the day-to-day operation of the restaurant, specifically the kitchen, so we turned to my dear friend, Heather, owner of Slice at a Time. Her younger brother, Matthew, who has extensive food-service experience and a hunger to own his own establishment someday, jumped at the opportunity, left his job, and moved down to Huntsville from Tennessee.  We had our team, we just had to create the restaurant.

I won't bore you too much more with the details, but it took from June 15th to August 20th to get it done. And I'm not talking 5, 6, 7 hours of work a day, taking Saturdays and Sundays off.  I'm talking 13-14 hour days, 7 days a week, for over two months. And when we weren't at the restaurant physically working, we were at home pecking away on our computers or at dinner discussing logistics. There was demolition to be done.  There was painting to be done.  There was designing to be done.  Logos to be created. Websites to be created. Cups to be ordered. T-shirts to be designed. Menus to be made. Ingredient lists and vendors to be lined up. Kitchen processes to be established. Marketing to be done. Licenses to be purchased. Paperwork to be filed.

With an onslaught of help from our closest friends and families, (honorable mentions here!), we brought this thing to life.  And with every passing day of working on the restaurant and getting closer to being able to open our doors, we fell more and more in love with it. We fell more in love with the idea of our lives being completely different from here on out. We fell in love with being able to offer something incredible and new to the people of Huntsville. Something that scared the Hell out of us at first was something we became absolutely passionate about and obsessed with. (Probably how new parents feel, huh??) Finally, the day came.  We all looked at each other and said, "Are we ready?"  We were.

We opened our doors to the public on August 20th, 2011.  We met our customer goal on Day 2.  We blew our customer goal out of the water on Day 3.  As of today, Saturday the 10th of September, we have been open three weeks, and WE. ARE. ROCKING. IT.  The customers are coming over and over and over and over and over again. Word is getting out and we are ecstatic.

It's funny how life pushes... no, SHOVES you down the road, sometimes. It makes me wonder what's around the next corner.  If you asked me a year ago if I would be where I am right now, I would have thought you lost your mind. Wow, ain't life something.   :)

Please enjoy our "baby", The Marketplace Cafe


The Chef Next Door

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Better Late than Never

WAY back in March, the 31st to be exact,
The Chef Next Door had the


honor of catering the "Flowers After Hours" Cocktail Party as a part of the three-day long fundraiser for the Huntsville Museum of Art called "Art in Bloom."  Three days of lectures, teas, luncheons, presentations by celebrities in the floral world, topped off with a beautiful cocktail party for 300 guests and an "Iron Florist" competition! Up until that point, our largest catered function was for 150 people and was just a simple we have never worked so hard in our lives but it turned out gorgeous and if our business wasn't booming before, this event really put us on the map!

Thank you to my love Taylor, my awesome Mom, my friend and business partner Heather, Taylor's sister Allison, and my oldest and dearest friend, Gracie, for all of your fantastic help!!

For the full photo album complete with descriptions, click here. Until next time!


The Chef Next Door

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

This Bread is BANANAS! B.A.N.A.N.A.S.!

Gosh, I really don't like that song. But it IS funny, right?  Anyways..... Here at The Chef Next Door, we just got to updating our 4-month Calendar and stood back to realize that every single dad-gum weekend between now and the middle of JULY is spoken for.  Kindof jarring to see each weekend with some writing in it, most of which are catering events! Phew, we are blessed!  So we have decided to take full advantage of a not-so-packed April and hit the lake as much as possible.  No catering event on the weekend? You can bet we will be at the lake from Thursday morning through Sunday night or Monday morning. Ah, the joys of being self-employed.  So last weekend, the weather was wretched.  Completely wretched.  Thought we were going to blow away and possibly lose power on Friday, it was frigidly cold all day Saturday.....   And when the sky gets even the tiniest bit cloudy, good ole DirecTV stops working.  Cable, Internet, the whole nine. SO- with no TV, no Internet, and no lake fun, Chef Margaret got pretty bored.  And when Chef Margaret gets bored, she gets to cooking.

We normally like to just grab our stuff and head to the lake, without a lot of thought put into taking food for meals and what not.  We grab what's in our produce bowl, maybe whatever protein is in the fridge at the moment, and hit the road.  This time, we had way-too-ripe bananas.  So as the storm is rumbling outside, as is my tummy inside, I stared at the totally brown bananas and thought to myself: "Am I REALLY bored enough to BAKE???"  (If you know me, I'm not a huge fan of baking. I don't like to measure, and I hate the floury mess!)

Turns out, I was indeed THAT bored.  I did a quick google-search of "Banana Bread" (Thank you, AT&T 3G Service!) to make sure I had all the ingredients.  Check! Grabbed my camera and so it went......

You will need:  

  • 1 stick of SALTED Butter, melted and cooled at room temperature while you gather the rest of your ingredients
  • 1 and 1/4 cups of Flour
  • 3/4 cup of Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of Baking Powder
  • 1 teaspoon of Baking Soda
  • 1 teaspoon of Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Nutmeg
  • 1 cup of Milk Chocolate Chips
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup of light Sour Cream
  • 1 teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
  • 1 teaspoon of Lemon Extract
  • 1 Tablespoon of Grand Marnier or other Orange Liqueur (yum!)
  • 1 cup of mashed, ripe Banana (about 3 large bananas)
Here they are. Not so scary, huh?

Start by combining all of your "dry" ingredients in a mixing bowl.  First goes the Flour...
...then the sugar.....
 ....Baking Powder and Baking Soda.....
 ...then the Cinnamon and Nutmeg....
 ....then Chocolate Chips!
 Stir them all together.  It looks like this.  
Riveting stuff, eh?

Now start mixing the "wet" ingredients together in a separate bowl.  This would be the Eggs, Sour Cream, Melted Butter, Vanilla Extract, Lemon Extract, and Grand Marnier.  Tee hee....
 Look how cute.  The "dry" and the "wet" are waiting to get married, but the "wet" ingredients aren't quite ready for the big day.  They need some Banana.
 Peel three SUPER RIPE Bananas (meaning: so mushy, you wouldn't want to eat them as they are) and mash them in a third bowl.  Hey, nobody said baking isn't messy!
 I started with a fork, and ended up doing it with a whisk! Was much easier. 
It ends up looking like Baby Food.
 Now whip that mashed Banana into your "wet" ingredients.  They will be so happy to meet eachother!
 Finally, the wedding day is here! Time to bring the "wet" and "dry" ingredients together.  Pour the "wet" into the "dry", and fold them together.  Don't stir them too hard or their marriage will be hard as a rock. 
Just mix them until they are evenly incorporated.
 Perfect. :)
 Try not to eat whole spoonfuls of this beautiful batter, so as quickly as you can, pour it into a 9x5" loaf pan.  Make sure to grease it up real nice, so your bread comes out easily! Don't trust a "non-stick loaf pan" like I did.......   

Put him in a 350 degree oven, and set your timer for a long, miserable, torturous 55 minutes.

 To distract yourself from the heavenly aroma coming from your oven, make a glaze.  And you spent a bunch of dough on that Grand Marnier, so you may as well use it again!

Pour the remaining Chocolate Chips in a glass or metal bowl, add half a can of Sweetened Condensed Milk, a teaspoon of Vanilla Extract, and a good healthy splash of Grand Marnier.  Maybe 1/4 cup, give or take.  Glazes aren't finicky like the baked goods they cover, so don't fuss with the measurements too much.  Set this bowl over a saucepot that has just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot.  Bring this to a boil so it makes steam!  The steam will gently melt the chocolate, instead of scorching it= nasty!
It will look really scary and funky for a bit.....
 ...until it looks smooth and beautiful like THIS!
 Now, the glaze-making process won't take you anywhere near 55 minutes to make, so you'll just have to suffer through the remaining time on your own.


 DING! It will be the happiest sound you've ever heard.  You must do the "toothpick" test to make certain your bread is cooked through, but it should be.  If your toothpick has some batter on it, put your bread back in the oven for another miserable 10 minutes.  Don't hate me!

Finally, it will look like this.  Practically bursting out of its pan, begging you to eat it.
 Now YOU will have used an awesome non-stick spray to grease your pan.  But I didn't listen to my inner voice, and I put way too much faith in our ancient "non-stick loaf pan."  My bread broke a little when coming out, but yours wont.
 Nothing a little Chocolate Grand Marnier Glaze can't fix!!
 I dare you not to eat the whole thing in one sitting.  Seriously. I dare you.
 Cut yo'self a slice, sit in yo' comfy chair, 
and go to town on this thang!


This Banana Bread is just about as good as it gets.  Moist, tender, sweet but not too sweet, Chocolatey but not too Chocolatey, rich but not too is just perfection.  You could wrap the bread in Saran Wrap, tie it up with a bow, put the Glaze in a glass jar, and give it as the perfect Easter/Mother's Day Gift. Or just destroy the whole thing for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner/Dessert on your own. :)  Either way, it is a DYNAMITE treat, and definitely brightened a very gloomy day at the lake.  Maybe baking isn't so bad after all.......


The Chef Next Door

Thursday, April 14, 2011


You know, I took four years of Spanish back in the day.  Two years in High School, two years in College. At one point in my life, I was actually able to hold my own and basically have real conversations with Evelyn, the housekeeper at a vacation rental in Costa Rica.  She told me about her family and taught me how to make some authentic Costa Rican dishes, while I explained that I wanted to be a Chef and start my own catering business one day.  I wished I didn't understand so much Spanish as my family and I were on a bus going in to the Super Market...being called hateful, ugly things simply for being from a different country and not being quite as tan as they. But I loved being able to able to ask the store manager to point me in the direction of the Avocados, or ask the night guard at the house if he would wake us up if the sea turtles came up to lay their eggs on the beach.  Alas, Spanish is one of those "if you don't use it, you lose it" type of things...and I've reverted back to being able to say "Gracias" or "De nada" or "Por Favor", and not much else.  I couldn't even come up with a fun title for this blog and felt too ashamed to google a Spanish phrase to use.  Pathetico!! 

Anyways, a few weeks ago, I was asked to cater a Supper Club monthly gathering for Stephanie Depriest Robbins and 11 other couples in the Supper Club.  There are 12 couples total, and each couple hosts the monthly gathering at their house once a year.  Pretty cool idea!  They have been going strong for over 20 years, and I was so thrilled that Stephanie decided to let me take the load off her hands and get in on the fun! We decided to REALLY have some fun, and do a Mexican Buffet.  As I pulled the Sofrito out of my freezer, stirred together the Guacamole, and pulsed the Salsa in the food processor- I found myself longing for the days in Costa Rica, where the Spanish poured out of me like I had been speaking it my whole life, and Evelyn showed me the beauty of cooking real Hispanic food with a pinch of spice, a spoon of Sazon, and a whole lotta love.

Enjoy the photos from the FIESTA buffet, and if you are craving a little homemade Mexican food sans the Ol Del Paso seasoning packets, give me a call and I'll show you how it's done.  (I promise to speak English.)

 Stephanie's nifty tablescape!

 Her killer Margarita the end of the night!

 Buffet table in her gorgeous kitchen

 All the fixin's!

 The spread. Taco Salad, Chicken Fajitas, Saffron Rice, Black Beans, Queso, Chips, Salsa, Guacomole, and on and on and on.

 It was so much fun! Thanks for having me, Stephanie. Cinco de Mayo is right around the YOU need a Fiesta in YOUR house??  Call me.


The Chef Next Door