Kennedy Conversation with...Brooke Greer of Contigo Catering
For our in-depth monthly series on all things Austin and events-related, we sat down recently with Brooke Greer, the owner and director of catering at Contigo Catering, to talk family-style meals, fun flavor combinations and the future of this flame-licked, perfectly seasoned business that’s become a local favorite.
KENNEDY CREATIVE EVENTS: Can you tell us a little about the story of Contigo catering, how that started, and your niche… your bread and butter… what you guys do best?
BROOKE GREER: Contigo, the restaurant, started as a dream for my partner Ben Edgerton, and was named after his family ranch in South Texas (now in Fredericksburg) to serve really great food in a comfortable outdoor setting around the fire pit — and give it a very communal feel. As the restaurant got busier and busier, people started wanting to recreate that atmosphere at their events, and so Contigo began to get a lot of requests for catering.
Ben got married in April 2014, and the restaurant catered it – both the wedding ceremony at Contigo and a more intimate party at his new in-laws’ ranch in Llano. And so that was their first (moment of), “Maybe we should try and do this.” Soon after, they (Ben and his partner Andrew Wiseheart) came to me having known my previous experience and asked, “How do you feel about helping us with catering?” My initial reaction was, “I’ll help you guys for a little bit and tell you what to do.” And they said, “No, it’d be full time.” (laughs)
So in July of 2014 I came on and the first thing was, okay, we need a phone number, we need a tax ID number – it was literally from scratch. We had our first event in October 2014. I’d say our bread and butter is really trying to bring that restaurant-quality experience to events, where catering in the past (has often been) kind of boring and predictable and sad. We’re bringing an elevated experience… the food is top notch, creative, and beautifully presented.
We started out with that ranch vibe and the rusticity, and as we’ve grown and done more and more, the catering company has found our own niche in doing upscale events, including out at the track (Circuit of the Americas) where people are used to the stadium catering. They’re bringing us in to do this higher-end (service) and people are getting really good food that’s still done in our unique way out at a sporting event. We still do the rustic thing with lots of outdoor cooking – we have all sorts of toys we use to roast whole animals and we’ve got all kinds of crazy contraptions where we can cook over fire – but then we’ve (also) gone into this different realm of higher-end, fancy, upscale dinners. We’re not going to walk out in tuxes and white gloves… while it’s still going to be excellent service, it’s comfortable and approachable at the same time.
KENNEDY: When somebody is either looking to hire someone for a catering staff role or looking to hire a catering company and staff and service are important for them, what are some things you think they should ask or be aware of before making a decision?
GREER: With us, as far as our events staff, I really like to hire servers who haven’t done a lot of catering. I like servers who’ve worked in restaurants because they understand dinner service, such as clearing plates and resetting silver before another course comes out, and just the basic standards of nice dining. That, you kind of learn in a restaurant. People with catering experience, tend to be focused on setting up a bar and moving trays around and replenishing. They can sometimes be grumpy or gruff or have it in their own mind how things should be done, and I’ve found when we have people who’ve worked (that way) for several years, they tend to have an attitude of, “well this is how we do it here — I normally lead here…” And not that we’re not open to other opinions, but we just do things a little differently.
I find that when we hire staff who haven’t done much catering and they come work for us, they think this is so much fun. We get to train them to do things the way we want, and every event to them is fresh, new and they are loving it. They’ve maybe never been to a wedding or they’re just enthralled with the bride, whereas someone else is like, “Yeah, OK, seen this a million times.”
Our event managers are full time salaried staff, so they’re in our production meetings, they’re on site visits… they’re in with the planners and our production team hearing about the event, so when they show up at the event, they’ve already met the client. They’ve already seen the space. They’re very aware of what’s going on. They’re not just someone who we’re paying hourly to show up. They are part of our management team. So I think that definitely separates us, and we get a lot of good feedback on our management-level staff at events, and on our staff in general.
Service is important to us. If people are looking at a proposal from us, they’re probably going to see more staff booked than on another proposal, so we’re going to be more expensive, but that’s an area we’re unwilling to sacrifice on, you know? We don’t want to trim or cut on the quality because if the service is bad, every guest is going to walk away having a missed experience.
KENNEDY: With fall getting into full swing now, for food presentation and table decor, are there any places that you go, or some hidden gems that you’ve found that make everything look pretty?
GREER: So, I love going to Austin Flower Co. on 38th. They do wholesale, but even for personal (arrangements), it’s just a giant walk-in cooler with tubs of florals, so you don’t really have to know anything about flowers, and you don’t have to decide in advance and order what you want… you can just go in and pick cool things, whether it’s plants with trailing vines or ferns, which is awesome, and then can stay in your home longer, but they also have beautiful flowers and they’re very seasonal. That’s a great place to just go and play.
There’s a couple of other plant shops in Austin I love… Frond Plant Shop on Mary Street and South First is amazing. I have tons of plants from there in my own house. We’re doing a dinner coming up that’s an all-vegan dinner and they’ve asked us to decorate the table. So part of that table decor is baby crudite in these wood boxes in edible potato soil. It’ll look like little garden boxes but then we’re going to do some kind of trailing vine or plant table décor as well. So I need to go plant shopping!
And then, I love The Fox Den on Chicon and East 11th Street. It’s an interesting store because they have a mix of vintage clothing & accessories, and then they have plants. Just awesome, beautiful plants, and I feel like plants are a good way to decorate your table because they they’ll live longer.
KENNEDY: If a client is looking to approach their wedding or event in a unique way, what are some details that are helpful to you that people might not think about before they sit down with you?
GREER: We always ask — it’s even on our online submission form — “What are your favorite restaurants in Austin?” I had a couple in the other day and we were trying to talk desserts and I felt like they couldn’t really express what they wanted. So I started asking, “What are your favorite restaurants?” and they’re from San Francisco, and I’ve traveled a lot too and eat out and I think that helps. And so they were naming all these places that they love, and I was able to recognize and sense, “OK, I’ve been there, their desserts are kind of traditionally plated but with unique flavor profiles,” or “This place is really outside the box the way it’s presented” — I can try and figure out why they like it and find a direction to use in catering.
I compare it to when you get your hair done, you have to show the stylist a photo — you can’t just say, “Oh I want it blonde.” If I just say “honey,” I’m going to end up with the wrong color. Photos are helpful and comparison to others — so trying to compare to their favorite restaurants, dishes, what food accounts they follow on instagram – we can draw from that.
We had a bride meeting (once), and she mentioned some cocktail that she’d had one time in Boston and how much she loved it. And so my assistant started doing some research — found the place, called the bar manager, they pulled up the old recipe, sent it to us, and we were like, “Here, we found the drink and put in your proposal. Have it at your wedding!” And she booked us!
KENNEDY: Given your choice of anyone in the world, who would you share a meal with, dead or alive, and what would be on your menu?
GREER: I think I would invite Sheryl Sandberg to dinner. I’ve read both of her books, and Lean In is incredible. Obviously the way it applies to women, but I think just in general she has such good solid ideas that are not too extreme that you’re never going to be able to implement in your own business.
Her second book is actually about getting over the grief of her husband dying. But again, she has so many interesting principles and I just read it from the point of, when I have someone going through that, how to how to deal with it, how to treat them as an employee or as a friend. But I think she’s such a talented writer, a big thinker and stellar communicator –she’s an amazing role model. I would love to have her to dinner and just talk business ideas & management skills.
For our menu, honestly, I think our panzanella one of my favorite things. I would definitely want to do it in the summer so I could have panzanella with all the amazing tomatoes and then cornbread and corn and awesome herbs in it. I love okra. I love peaches. Summer food is my favorite, personally, and so I kind of just want to do like a big meal like that.
For a protein I would probably serve one of our chicken dishes. We have a chicken with an ancho chili puree and then it comes with a summer corn succotash with summer peas and beans. Our chicken gets so many rave reviews because people are used to chicken being boring and dry when it’s catered, and our chicken is so good that it surprises people. So I think that’s what I would serve because it would be a little unexpected but an awesome surprise because it would be delightful.
KENNEDY: Last question: What celebrity’s kitchen would you most want to raid?
GREER: (Michelin-starred chef and molecular gastronomy maverick) Grant Atchaz. I would love to raid the kitchen at Alinea and see you like all the toys and the tools they use and all the ingredients and just what kind of flavors they pair together. What kind of weird things they’ve made in jars that they use, whether it’s like some kind of interesting pairing made into a salt or something dehydrated turned into a powder, you know? I’d want to see how they implement all their flavors in food.
My other favorite chef is Hugh Acheson. He has a few cookbooks (that) I think are outstanding. I’ve been to one of his restaurants in Georgia — Florence, in Savannah. I haven’t been to his other restaurants in Atlanta or Athens, but his cookbooks are just so awesome. I’ve made almost everything in his cookbook, A New Turn in the South, and everything turns out well. It’s not like you cook something and it’s just not that good or you don’t feel like you did it right. The book is well written, the photos are excellent, it’s not overly wordy or complicated, but his recipes just work, and they’re awesome. And I would love to raid his kitchen because I think he probably has tons of cool pickles and lovely Southern produce — everything he would have would just be beautiful.
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Photo credits: Contigo Catering (header/top), Stocksnap.io (middle), Wikimedia Commons (bottom)