Proof of the Pudding

 The Proof of the Pudding is in the tasting” – Cervantes, Don Quixote  proof logo

What could possibly explain the motivation for a young woman, trained as a psychotherapist and without ever having even worked in a restaurant, who had never run a business, to start a catering company, and then open Atlanta’s first retail gourmet takeout business?  Many of us who love to eat and cook are bitten by the bug. Seduced by the romantic charm of creative work and always having guests for dinner, we begin plotting menus and scouting locations and obsessively reading food magazines for new ideas. Most, however, recover before taking the plunge-the dream of owning our own food establishment always remaining a sweet and perfect imagining.  

I, on the other hand, young, adventurous and confident dove head first into the world of food.  Constantly reinforced by the gratification of wonderful fare on my own plate and the satisfaction of feeding others, I was swept up into the current for a long ride.  Throughout the dozen-plus year course of it, the business challenged every bit of my ingenuity, creativity, intelligence and emotional and physical strength.  But most of all, especially at the beginning, it was just pure fun.

“Kay, can you cook this same menu for 40 people?” our dinner guest, Joel Fleishman asked me. “Oh, sure,” I quickly replied, pleased that my menu of handmade lasagna verde with béchamel and Bolognese sauces, a salad of romaine, basil and walnuts and a dessert of macerated oranges had been such a hit.  I had just accepted my first catering job.

The year was 1974, and my husband, Buck and I were living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where he attended law school and I worked at the local mental health center and studied for my master’s in clinical psychology.  Cooking had become my own therapy. I spent each Friday afternoon rolling out handmade noodles.  I hung them on long wooden dowels balanced between chair backs and counters in my kitchen.  What we didn’t eat, I sold at a local cookware shop in small, hand-labeled plastic bags. I had been inspired by Marcella Hazan’s book, Classic Italian Cooking, a holiday gift from Buck. Having worked my way through many of her sauces, desserts and entrees, I wanted to try my hand at the pasta as well. I had never eaten fresh pasta before. 

Buck and travelled to Little Italy in New York City to find a pasta machine.  The store was a large dark room with creaking wooden floors and a jumble of kitchenware. I remember walking down a long aisle of pasta machines, some in dusty boxes with Italian labels.  Overwhelmed with choices, I finally asked the proprietor which machine was the best.  He immediately pointed to the “Imperia,” and I took it home.

That first catering job went very well, even after making handmade lasagna for 40. I learned right away that walking into someone else’s kitchen and putting a meal on the table took a lot of planning, stamina and quick thinking. You never really knew what you might encounter: a broken stove or a refrigerator that was packed to the gills with leftovers.  Where would you store the dessert? 

By 1979, Buck and I were living in Atlanta, Georgia. where Buck was practicing law. I was practicing psychotherapy and doing a little catering on the side alone or with my friends Susan Puett (who later opened Sierra Grill) and Elizabeth Terry (who later created Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah). 

We named the company Proof of the Pudding and designed a little brochure with menus and mailed them to everyone we knew. In about a year, Elizabeth, having left for Savannah and Susan choosing to participate only part time because of having two young daughters, I was hunting solo for a place for a permanent kitchen and maybe a little storefront for takeout.  I found a “For Lease” sign on a vacated camera store near Piedmont Park in the rapidly gentrifying Midtown area and within a few short months had raised the money, signed the lease and renovated the space. My friend, Stan Topol, an interior designer, said it couldn’t be done in six weeks for only $6000, but he surprised even himself when we opened on October 27, 1979. 

Proof Brochure  “The Proof” or “Pop Shop,” as we often called it, quickly became a gathering place for foodies, both those who wanted to eat and those who       wanted to work.  I was lucky with the team that first signed on: Margaret Ann (MA) Sparks (Surber), an extraordinary cook and pastry chef         from  Huntsville, Alabama; Tom Harvey, our general manager, who was the only really experienced food manager in the group; and Susan         Puett.  

  I suppose the mark of our business style was the brash, impulsive, crazy willingness to just do it, even when everything we did was for the first   time. Since we never really knew what we were getting into, we had to be flexible and good problem solvers, and had to maintain some sense   of humor. I recall one Friday evening, as we were getting ready to close the shop, I got a frantic call from one of our event captains who was     setting up a cocktail buffet about fifteen miles away.  The forty chairs we had ordered from the rental company had not shown up.  The rental     company phone lines were shut down for the night.  A quick look in the yellow pages and a call to a local funeral home saved the day.  My         years as a small-town girl had taught me that funeral homes were always a source of a good supply of chairs. Fortunately, these didn’t have       the name of the company stenciled on the backs. We negotiated a quick delivery and the party went off without a hitch. 

 The business took off and everyone thought we were raking it in.  We were, but we were undercapitalized and used everything we earned to keep buying equipment and increase staff to keep up with demand. I didn’t take a salary myself for many years, but  certainly ate well. In addition, as the new kid on the block, we often undersold our services to get the high profile jobs.

True to our name, our food style and taste was what really mattered.  We went for the pared-down fusion look and flavor: always fresh, nothing artificial, the food was always the centerpiece, the proof always in the tasting.  At our first big party at the High Museum, we resisted the urge to do silver chafers for the white glove set, and the food was presented on simple white porcelain. There were whole fresh artichokes with a curried dip, mounds of beautiful strawberries injected with crème de menthe, and mushroom pate and toasts.   It was the opening of the Richard Avedon Photography exhibit, the perfect modern backdrop to our introduction to Atlanta art lovers.  And Richard Avedon loved it, too.  He came back to the makeshift kitchen we had set up and we gave him a lesson in injecting strawberries using a few syringes “borrowed” from the CDC. 

Local and then national news articles followed, and we were on the radar screen of every food groupie in the region. We catered the airplane food for the road-touring BeeGees, designed the food for artist/writer Judy Chicago’s installation of the Dinner Party, tossed wild spring violets into the luncheon salad for interior designer, Angelo Donghia, and created nests of spinach angel hair pasta with tiny quail eggs for the Garden of Eden Ball.  I once had the heart-stopping  privilege of watching a forty something Robert Redford, strolling shirtless up the driveway after a run, while we prepared a fund-raising dinner in his honor at a client’s home. 

Two of our earliest parties were Halloween extravaganzas in Midtown Atlanta.  Both parties tested the limits of our creativity and stamina. The first, Baccanalia themed, involved roasting whole lambs with fresh rosemary and garlic to be presented at the end of a procession of semi-naked dancing men.   Susan, dressed for the occasion as Little Bo Peep, showed up with a hair dryer to gently melt the fat-congealed skin of the lamb so it would glisten as it made its way, feet tied together and suspended from a long pole, through the costumed crowd.  

The second Halloween event in 1980 took on even greater proportions and was held at the Fox Theater.  Human mannequins wearing nothing more than body paint lined the grand entry staircase. Upstairs in the the Egyptian Ballroom, transformed into a carnival, we caterers frantically tried to prepare hot dogs on hot plates for a thousand guests, blowing fuses everywhere in the building.  But our food failures were hardly noticed in the melee of music and dancing that filled the ballroom.  In fact, Buck and I, showing up with friends as “Hells Angels” in leather jackets and on real motorcycles, toured the ballroom on our borrowed bikes and were hardly noticed.

The “Pop Shop” itself was the first gourmet takeout store in Atlanta.  It was filled with coffees, chocolate, a small selection of wine and cheeses and fresh, homemade croissants, desserts, entrees and gift baskets. There were lighter-than-air chocolate or walnut or lemon roulades, brownies dubbed “medium rare” by a local food writer,  chicken bouillabaisse,  pates, brie en brioche stuffed with apricots and walnuts, Italian vegetable soup, apple caramel cake, pork tenderloins with plum sauce and pasta salads. And the list goes on. We cranked out our own fresh pasta from “Luigi”, our temperamental professional sized Italian machine bought on a whim from our coffee salesman. Once, when Luigi broke down from overwork, we posted the note “Luigi is sick” in the shop to explain why there was no fresh pasta.  One disappointed customer, not knowing Luigi was a machine, sent a get well card.

The reason we had so many homemade items was that we simply couldn’t find local suppliers for the kind of food we wanted to sell. This was, after all, Atlanta in 1979.  We didn’t know we would also become a lunch destination until the first day of operation. Someone wandered in and asked if we made sandwiches.  “Why not?” came the answer and we sliced up a fresh baguette and made a gourmet grinder with soppresata, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and fresh mozzarella.  The next thing we knew, we were designing a menu of picnic boxes for outdoor music venues and corporate lunches.  We delivered them in my ancient Volkswagen station wagon, freshened up with Proof of the Pudding signature dark green paint for its new role in life  .  Proof food

Every day was a new adventure.  One weekend we agreed to provide the concessions for a horse show on the outskirts of the city with promises of huge captive crowds.  Before the sun came up the first morning, Tom Harvey and I climbed into a giant rented truck full of sausage biscuits and fresh gourmet-style sandwiches.  By noon, we knew we had been greatly misled about the food needs of the mostly pre-teenage crowd.  Hot dogs and sodas would have fit the bill.  We lost a lot of money and chalked that one up to one of the steeper curves of our learning experience. 

Managing, especially in the food business, was something that I never quite got the rhythm of.  Oh, I certainly made some good hiring choices to make up for my weaknesses. As the years progressed I consistently hired people who knew a lot more about professional food service than I did. And I was good at developing forms and systems that helped keep us all on track in filling orders and executing parties.  But I was always throwing a wrench into the works by coming up with new ideas, projects and menus. Almost daily, MA our first chef, would walk into the office and say, “Boss lady, uh, could you give me a hint what you had in mind when you wrote this on the menu order?”  Sometimes the menu items I had sold to a client had not been invented anywhere but in my mind.  The staff ended up posting a warning sign in the kitchen, mostly on my behalf: “You book it, you cook it.”

One day, I had just given the staff a mini-lecture, the kind of thing that I thought bosses were supposed to do when they got nervous about money. And the more the business grew, the more nervous I got about money. Faced with those big payroll days coming every two weeks even when our business was seasonal was very stressful.  I found myself passing along that stress  to the staff  with “strategies.”  I had just discussed the need to not be wasteful with our food costs.  Just after the “little talk,” I walked out of my office to face MA, standing frozen in front of a giant spreading pool- several gallons worth of fresh brownie batter that had fallen to the floor.  The irony was not lost on me. Our eyes met, and somehow I gathered the grace to smile. I stooped down and with my finger traced her initials and those of her beau in the batter and drew a giant heart around them.  It was almost Valentine's Day after all. 

 Stay tuned for more: “No I Can’t”, Mr President,  “Medium Rare” Brownies, and Pentimento

Comments

  1. Margaret Ann Surber's avatar
    Margaret Ann Surber
    | Permalink
    Yikes!! Seems like yesterday. Those were the days😀❤️ Happy Valentine's Day.
  2. Kay Goldstein's avatar
    Kay Goldstein
    | Permalink
    Hi MA! You were such a big part of the beginnings of Proof. Grateful forever! KG
  3. Lauren Willets's avatar
    Lauren Willets
    | Permalink
    Im driving through Atlanta, and started searching the internet and found your recent blog post. I loved reading some of the history of proof of the pudding!

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