Cooking for Martha Stewart has got to be a little like sharing your film project with Woody Allen, right? Imagine knowing that’s going to happen, and keeping it a secret from everyone — even the actors in the project. Sounds almost surreal.
And surreal is the word Cincinnati chef and caterer Renee Schuler of Eat Well Celebrations and Feasts uses to describe her recent experience cooking for Martha, someone who set the bar for beautiful food when Schuler was growing up.
“Right up until she sat down at the table, there was not a moment that I thought it was actually going to happen,” Schuler says, laughing. She was brought onboard by her friends Matt Knotts and Leah Spurrier, owners of HighStreet Design Studio, to cater the special dinner. Schuler was sworn to secrecy as part of her contract, and couldn’t even tell the suppliers who were involved in the meal exactly who the VIP they were feeding would be. As Schuler and Knotts planned the evening, he assured her that she could get her picture taken with Stewart.
“I told him that I only had one request. I was hoping she would autograph the copy of her book, Entertaining, that my mom had given me. She did, even though my mom had written ‘Someday you’ll be better than Martha’ on the inside. I guess she understood that moms have to say things like that.”
In truth, Schuler’s family is a big reason why she was here to cook for Martha, and for the brides, grooms and other celebrants she caters for on their special occasions. When she graduated from college with a degree in psychology and an interest in theater, she started working for a theatrical agency in New York. Glancing through a photo book at the agency, she was intrigued by the beautiful covers of Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines, and thought that food styling might be an interesting career path. As she investigated that, she was advised to go to culinary school and strengthen her cooking skills, and that experience changed her life.
“I liked restaurant life and didn’t mind the night and weekend hours. I worked with amazing chefs at great restaurants in New York, but my family was here in Cincinnati. One day, I was standing in the walk-in refrigerator, looking at the beautiful produce, and I thought, ‘This grows in the Midwest. Why am I here, traveling back to see my family, when I could move home and be closer to the source of this beautiful food?’ ”
So she returned and spent three years in charge of the kitchen at Murphin Ridge Inn. She loved the vegetable gardens right outside the kitchen door, and as she cut fresh herbs each evening for the dinner service, she felt uniquely at peace. But the long commute to the country inn took its toll on her faithful Jetta, and she decided to leave Murphin Ridge for a local caterer. Then her sister Michelle asked her to cater the opening night of her art show.
“She wanted me to make the food myself, not the caterer I was working for, and she said I’d better be prepared for people to ask me for my business cards. Then I went to visit my sister Margo in Chicago, and we went to the big restaurant show. I made a few purchases, and next thing I knew, I had my own business.”
Schuler’s reputation grew as Eat Well opened clients’ eyes to the possibilities of serving fresher, lighter food at special events and business meetings. Her roasted vegetables, grilled meats and interesting salads broke the “sandwich in a box” mold, and her customers loved the change.
Now Schuler’s success is leading to a new venture: Eat Well Café and Takeaway. The café, with about 30 seats, will open this winter in O’Bryonville. Schuler will keep Celebrations and Feasts going too, and expects the “sister businesses” to complement each other. The café menu is a work in progress, but Schuler knows it will be seasonal, with fresh herbs and spices and global flavors: tandoori, jerk seasoning, Dijon, soy sauce.
Will it duplicate her Martha Stewart menu? I hope so. I was drooling over her description of simple roast chicken marinated overnight in buttermilk with garlic, onions, lemon peel and thyme. Follow that off with a slice of fresh berry pie? Sounds like eating well indeed.
RENEE SCHULER’s Eat Well Celebrations and Feasts is located at 921 Monmouth St., Newport; the upcoming Eat Well Café and Takeaway will be at 3009 O Bryon St., O’Bryonville. www.eatwellonline.com.