One of the top caterers in Canada encourages industry hopefuls to go with their gut.
“If you want people to love your food and you have that passion, you are truly cooking it into your food,” says Sheila Whyte of Thyme & Again Creative Catering. “People who are miserable in the kitchen—I swear you can taste it.”
Whyte, who has catered for the Prime Minister of Canada’s office, the Queen, and was host to pretty much every celebrity and rock star making their way through Ottawa, started cooking and catering as a side job while pursuing university.
After completing her degree and with many years in catering, Whyte has acquired human resource, hospitality, management, and kitchen skills “that can take you anywhere in the world and turn into other things.” She loves that her job is different each day and she’s never bored. She’s overseen an initial three-person enterprise grow into 100 employees and speaks with passion for the creative side of it.
“That being said, be aware it’s hellish work,” she cautions. “It’s long. You can stand there and cut carrots for three years. It’s physically demanding, even if we’re seeing the industry change.”
Whyte says that today she’s excited by the burgeoning raw and vegan food trends and the young, local catering talent cropping up in Canada who don’t have to go through “old boys club” processes and “wear the white hats.”
One young caterer doing just that is Dahn D’Lion. By day, he’s delivering burritos to women’s shelters, burger patties to locally sourced grocery stores, and sandwiches forSophie Sucrée Bakery. By night, he sells vegan sausages and serves burritos at Alexandraplatz, a hip hideaway in Montreal’s cooler-by-the-minute Mile-Ex. Once a month, he hosts a vegan brunch club that seats 20 to 70 people, depending on the ever-changing venue.
The Peterborough-bred, Montreal-based D’Lion is so busy working as an independent, car-free caterer out of his own kitchen that he hasn’t called his mother in months.
“I studied as a sommelier originally,” he says, adding that having his own restaurant has been his dream since he was a kid in charge of Christmas dinner. But when D’Lion was attacked on the street a couple years ago and lost the ability to smell and taste, he told himself he’d never cook again.
“I spent a lot of time reflecting on that and my new disability made me drop out of school and find a new path. My joy has always been sharing food with others—especially if it’s positively political. It’s hard to explain to people, but I went from ‘Oh, I’m supposed to evaluate this glass of wine and tell you the soil condition’ to a totally different spectrum of taste.”
He says he doesn’t hover or obsessively taste as he’s working anymore but thinks about food and the balances ingredients provide. He also likes that he is his own boss. The key to success, D’Lion thinks, is trying to spread the love for the food you create like wildfire.
“I’m learning every day and here’s my advice: hustle.”
Scott Warrick, the culinary coordinator of Algonquin College’s school of hospitality, agrees that the industry demands a labour of love. But if you want a business-savvy edge, completing a technical program can help wannabe caterers succeed. Many of his students are also mature students, he says, coming back to school after various fields for the joy of cooking.
“You don’t go into this for the money, but you can still make money. The opportunities for caterers today is excellent, even if the hours are long,” he says, citing 60–80 hour workweeks. That said, the pay scale for caterers varies as much as ingredients and menus.
“But here’s a hot tip: you’re all not charging enough… As soon as you start, you have to know your numbers and budget. And if they’re not going to pay to cover plates, don’t feed them.”