John Kowalenko and Cheryl Stair, the principals behind Art of Eating, know a lot about catering. And marriage. They’ve been running their business, one of the most well-known and in-demand catering companies in the Hamptons, for the past 31 years.
And they’ve been married for 33.
First, the company. To what does Kowalenko attribute their company’s staying power? “People who hire us know the food’s going to be different. It’s going to be local and creative. We use organic and in-season as much as possible,” he said.
“Cheryl is always reading up on places when we travel. She doesn’t want to hit the touristy spots. She’ll ask our cabby, ‘Where do you eat?’ and we’ll go to some little street stand where the food is spectacular.” It’s because of this constant innovation in the kitchen, Kowalenko believes, that Art of Eating stays in front of the trendsetting curve.
Some offerings are always popular. Crab cakes aren’t going away, people. The most popular dish, because of the area, Kowalenko said is “local fish, whether it’s a whole striped bass or blackfish. People love that. They can smell it cooking. It’s coming off the grill, going into the kitchen, being portioned out, and being served.” He and Stair both agree, these days there’s a turn toward more simple, whole food with less ingredients.
But, he pointed out, even if the wedding planner or the bride and groom have a set idea of a menu, “It’s important for us to always have something for everyone. There are vegetarians and vegans, and there are a lot of food allergies out there, much more than there used to be, it seems. It’s not up to the wedding couple to know every single food allergy or sensitivity their guests may have, so we make sure we always have something, even an hors d’oeuvre or side dish, that’s gluten-free, dairy-free, so that everyone can enjoy the food.”
Not so popular these days is beef at weddings, perhaps because of the high proportion of East Enders who are subject to the tick-borne Alpha Gal illness. Also, chocolate fountains are falling by the wayside. “Too messy at weddings,” Kowalenko said. “People want something they can just pop in their mouths. Everyone has a drink in their hand, so they’re really looking for what I call ‘one-bite wonders.’ Stations are okay, but it’s the passed hors d’oeuvres that people really fall in love with. And the simpler, the better.” Stair concurred. “People are saying to me, ‘I don’t want anything on a spoon or a stick.’ Or those baby lamb chops — how awkward is that when you’re all dressed up?” she said, smiling.
Some of Art of Eating’s signature dishes that are wildly popular at weddings include free-range chickens smoked on site over an open flame, “beautiful to watch and delicious,” and a specialized dessert, a “pie pop,” packed with organic, in-season fruit filling and made in-house.
Kowalenko’s personal favorite passed hors d’oeuvre? “Artichoke risotto cake,” he said without blinking. “A little mozzarella cheese wrapped in risotto, then sautéed in a pan, and then on top of that is a dollop of this artichoke spread Cheryl makes, and then on top of that is a little rosette of salmon, and on top of that, a little caviar. It’s an unbelievable bite. Cheryl’s brilliant at this. And then you see it on a food site and you’re like, ‘That’s my hors d’oeuvre!’” he said with a laugh.
Challenges along the way have included blending cultural preferences. “People say they want farm-to-table,” Stair said. “But whose farm and whose table? It can be Indian, it can be Chinese, it can be anything you want it to be. You can kind of play around, but it can’t be confusion food, it has to work.”
Art of Eating has catered weddings from the very intimate to a plated affair for 450. From its headquarters in Bridgehampton, complete with kitchen and all the bells and whistles, a truck can back up to load everything up, “but a lot of time we’re cooking on site, in a field somewhere,” said Kowalenko.
Stair and Kowalenko took a minute to reminisce about their own wedding, which was in the fall. If they could do it all over again, they would still pick the fall, and their menu would include “blackfish, free-range chicken, lots of vegetables,” Kowalenko said. “We had a heavy passed hors d’oeuvres, and that was great. I think that’s the most popular part of the menu at all weddings.”
What are the keys to a successful marriage where the partners work together, day in and day out, for over three decades? The couple looked at each other and broke into laughter. “Know where your boundaries are,” Kowalenko offered. “Separate bathrooms,” Stair joked, but added, “Compromise is key. Sometimes you have to give in if it’s not that important. You need to pick your battles,” she said.
“And have fun,” added Kowalenko. “Which, for us, means to travel and eat!”