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Carol Shirley & Gourmet Catering – Nelson Mail 18.07.18

I first met Carol Shirley, the owner of Gourmet Catering, many years ago when she took over running the café at the old Maitai Bowling Club at the bottom of Trafalgar St, she made delicious food for members of the club as well as members of the RSA and City Clubs that shared the bowling club’s premises before membership dropped to a level all three clubs merged with others in the region and the facility was sold.

Because the various clubs didn’t require a full-time food service Carol was able to use the kitchen at the club for her own small catering business, a business that has changed over the years, evolving into what I think is Nelson’s top catering business.

We have used Carol’s catering services at our office several times and I can fully understand why her business has gone from strength to strength, the food she delivers is both generous and delicious while the outstanding service she and her staff provide always has a smile attached.

Carol has joined forces with Lincoln Womersley, who used to own Blinc Catering, for large events that require two chefs as well as her staff to manage the workload, this partnership was a shining light at last year’s Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce Business Awards dinner, they served some of the best food I have had at a function for 400+ people.

I arranged to have a coffee with Carol at our office to book some more catering and to find out a bit more about what makes her tick, and her business so successful; the second part of is easy, she is a generous person and just wants to make people happy by making fresh, interesting and good value for money food.

Carol has lived in Nelson since she was six years old and other than ten years working in the hospitality sector in Australia in her twenties her working life has been spent here, she started working at a wine bar called Valeno’s (where Subway is now) on her return from Australia and she realised there was a gap in the catering market here.

In 2003 she decided to start her own business, “my father thought I was crazy, he said I would have more chance of finding a husband than running a successful business in Nelson so that was enough motivation for me, I set out to prove him wrong.”

Carol started selling food out of baskets, “I had three runs around town, turning up at offices and retail shops selling things like muffins and sandwiches for morning teas and lunches, I gave out flyers about my catering and it didn’t take long before people ordered catering for office shouts and then business functions.”

The business grew quite quickly so in 2004 she bought The Lunch Company in Vanguard St, It wasn’t great as a lunch bar but was a perfect catering base and prep kitchen for the bun run.”

When her catering business outgrew the premises in Vanguard Street she took over the kitchen at the Maitai Bowling Club, “the RSA  had just moved there but making food for them was only a small part of the business, having the larger kitchen I could use for catering was the thing that really attracted me to the site.”

In about 2009 when the Bowling Club, RSA and other clubs using the building started going into decline her long-term future at the premises was uncertain, “the Grape Escape came up for sale so John Appleman and I bought it, he had been out of the restaurant business for a couple of years but like all chefs, he loves cooking so we formed a partnership to turn the run down café into the thriving café it is today.

“We also developed a quite large catering business as part of it.” A highlight of this partnership was winning the 2010 Chamber of Commerce medium size business award.

After three years  she decided she needed a break from the food business, “I wanted to do something different, I didn’t know what but I sold my shares to John and took a year off.”

After that year off she had the passion for food back and decided to get Gourmet Catering going again with a focus on wedding catering and for the past two years Gourmet Catering has been the resident caterer at the Tasman Bay Cruising Club, Carol runs the catering business from there, “it works very well for us, it is a really convenient location and we can promote the venue for functions too.”

While the main focus for Gourmet Catering is weddings, and large events the  general catering side of the business has had a rapid growth.

Carol told me funeral catering has also been a big part of our growth, she personally meets with the families to discuss options to ensure their life celebration is exactly what they want.

“Last year with growth of the business we found a need for people wanting simple, fresh and delicious food in a gourmet buffet style setting, cocktail style foods without staff on hand to pass the food around, so we started offering a service we called ‘Gourmet Grazing’ and it has taken off too.”

We had a grazing table for our staff Christmas and can testify to the quality, the grazing table we had was packed with delicious food suitable for everyone, from treats for the kids to a beautifully cooked whole salmon it was perfect for us.

Last year Gourmet Catering served 430 at the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce Nelson Pine Industries Business Awards at the Trafalgar Centre, “we have catered the Nayland College school ball at the Trafalgar Centre and with the ball season approaching we have three of the college balls this year as well as the Steampunk Ball at Annesbrook Church, it means long days but being able to work with Lincoln on these events makes it fun and so much easier.”

In the last 12 months the business has continued to grow rapidly but I know from experience that if anyone can handle the pressure, remain sane and keep smiling it will be Carol, she is a catering star.

Precinct Dining Co. Motueka

Motueka has had an important role in this region’s food industry for many years, primarily as a place food is grown and processed, but in recent times it has also become home to some wonderful eating establishments including Precinct Dining Co.

Located on the corner of High Street and Greenwood St in part of the Countdown building, Precinct Dining Co was established in December 2015 by Tim and Kylie Andrew, Tim is the chef and Kylie “does everything else which is about 80% of running a hospitality business” according to Tim.

Last week I sat down with them over one of my favourite drinks, a double shot long black, and we talked about why they chose Motueka as a place to start a café.

They told me that Motueka didn’t have many places like the one they envisaged, in the past there were plenty of places to eat but nothing offering a modern dining experience, in recent years that has changed a lot with several places making great food delivered with very good service.

In the case of Precinct they wanted to create a place that had a modern feel to the food and a dining environment that wasn’t too big so they could manage it pretty much by themselves.

“Instagram, social media and tv shows like Master Chef have helped change people’s expectations of food, it doesn’t have to be steak, eggs and chips or bakery foods, food is much more exciting now and the people of Motueka appreciate it just as much as anyone else.”

Something else that drew them to Motueka is the fact it is small town New Zealand with a very high summer tourist density and quieter winters, “it is absolutely full-on in summer and we get a bit of time off in winter so we can have a lifestyle you don’t get when you are working in the restaurant scene in big cities.”

While Tim is a chef and Kylie has a qualification in Bio-Medical Science they have both worked in the hospitality sector for some time; Tim trained in Queenstown at Skyline where he had an apprenticeship, “we were doing 1500 meals a day but it was all buffet style food, we did the same thing every day and it made me realise I don’t like doing buffet, but it was so hard to get an apprenticeship when the opportunity came up I jumped at it.”

He is a huge supporter of the apprenticeship programme, most people train at polytechnics or cooking schools these days but working as an apprentice has a lot of benefits, “you finish with a qualification and without a student debt because you are learning on the job, earning money while learning and getting real world experience.”

Tim has also had several apprentices over the years including Beau Lyttle who is working with him now and will be finished his apprenticeship at the end of this year.

As well as working at Skyline in Queenstown Tim also worked at the Millenium Hotel for the last year of his apprenticeship before moving to the Shoreline café at Kaiteriteri for a summer as Chef de Partie then on to his first Head Chef role at the Mecure Hotel in Dunedin which is where he decided working in a hotel kitchen wasn’t for him either.

So it was overseas for a few years, firstly to Orpheus Island, a high-end luxury lodge off Townsville, “I moved there to chill out a bit after the crazy hours of working in a hotel but it wasn’t as relaxing as I hoped, I was promoted to head chef after three days.”

His next stint working in a resort was at Peppers Palm Bay, another Island in the Whitsunday’s, that the owner ended up turning into his house on the private island.

After Peppers he ran a ski resort in Australia at Threadbo where the backpacker accommodation slept 300 people, “I was up at 2.30am to cook breakfast, then it was up the mountain to the other part of the resort for lunch service, a bit of snow boarding then back down the hill to feed everyone for dinner. It was a real challenge, I couldn’t do it now but back then I was living on coffee and adrenalin.”

In 2010 he spent another summer at Shoreline before he headed overseas to follow Kylie who was also working at Shoreline for the summer, “her mother was keen for her to spend some time at home for a while but she met me and I ruined her life by hooking her into hospitality, she is one of those people who is naturally great at hospitality” says Tim.

Kylie had an internship at Disney World so Tim followed her and he ended up working as a cooking teacher on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in the Caribbean, they sailed out of Miami every week with a new load of passengers and one of the things the cruise line offered was cooking courses.

“That was a cool job but hard work, six months on and 10-12 hour days teaching every day Americans who had no idea how to cook simple stuff, one lady had never seen a fresh carrot, she had only ever seen frozen carrot slices, it blew my mind how little some of these people knew about food let alone how to cook it, in some cases it was basically how to boil water.”

After the short US stint they moved back to New Zealand and Queenstown where they both worked in the then new Rata restaurant when it first opened.

After Rata it was back to Shoreline as the head chef and front of house manager. The couple used their previous experience at Shoreline and the experience working in other places to redesign the kitchen to give it a better flow, making it easier to serve hundreds of meals a day.

“It was a great place to work until the management board changed and the focus changed to serving as many people as possible in the hectic summer period; we had the attitude of ‘let’s serve everyone and make everyone happy’ and that changed to ‘let’s get as many people through the doors as we can’ so we couldn’t focus on the quality of food and service that was so important to us.

“We totally understand they wanted to generate as much income as possible at the busiest time of the year but it didn’t suit our philosophy so it provided the impetus to open our own café where we can focus on what we want to provide customers with, we take our time now and serve great food made with love rather than just being a production line.

“Having Kylie run the front of house is fantastic, she is very level headed and sees things differently to me, I have an opinion as a chef and she has an opinion as a customer would see it so we have complimentary skills, I don’t have anything to do with front of house and she doesn’t have anything to do with the kitchen. I think having quite different roles and respecting one another is the reason we work so well together in the business.”

This couple love what they do, especially giving young people an opportunity to do something that isn’t university, “it seems that at many schools kids are pushed to be successful by going to university but you don’t have to, university isn’t the only way to make a great future for yourself.”

In their first year in business they won a Beef and Lamb award and while they are enjoying what they we are doing and will be there for a while Tim says there will come a time we will move on to something else so Kylie can pursue her medical career or whatever she decides to do, “she has very much helped me get everything I wanted so it is only fair to do the same for her.”

www.precinctdining.com