Founder of Emma’s Eatery, a Toronto-based catering and events company, Emma Moore spoke to our team about the challenges of running a catering business in the midst of a pandemic. In this interview, she discusses ways that she has pivoted her skills to continue encouraging people to entertain at home and shares simple tips for how to take your hosting and cooking skills to the next level.
Tell us about Emma’s Eatery – how did you get started?
So we’re coming into year eight of the business now. I’ve always loved entertaining and that aspect of life – and I love cooking. I went to university, then wanted to get into the kitchen so I did a two-year chef’s degree before working in a high-end Italian restaurant. Catering appealed to me as I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing every day. That’s what I love about it – you’re not in the same location day in and day out and there’s a lot more creativity such as helping with décor, rentals and florists; it’s more of a whole product as opposed to just the food.
So with Emma’s Eatery we do everything from small sit down dinners for ten to big weddings and corporate galas, which of course with the pandemic, has all changed now. We love doing events of all scales – whether that’s helping people celebrate important milestones or just making a 40th birthday celebration feel really special.
Is it important for you to work with local suppliers?
Completely important. In Toronto and all of Ontario where we’re based, we have amazing produce and suppliers, so we focus on everything that’s fresh, local and seasonal. I love getting to really know the suppliers based out of Toronto, and across Ontario and Canada, and working with them to influence our menus.
I think this crisis has helped a lot more people to focus on keeping things small, thinking locally and supporting independent businesses. It’s great for the farmers, creators and the local economy in general. There are so many great vendors right under people’s noses that they just don’t know about, so we try to spotlight some of them when we do our menu cards. For example, people might see that we’ve used a honey farm just north of Toronto and maybe they’ll then start buying from there instead of the bigger brand names that they’re used to.
How has COVID impacted your business?
When lockdown measures were introduced, we pretty much had to do a full shut down because we’re so event focused – we don’t really do ‘to-go’ food or drop-off meals.
But this time has given me the opportunity to explore something I’ve always wanted to do – write a cookbook. So I’ve been working on writing that and have also started a new platform to share some of my recipes. Every week I’ve been doing a live-stream cooking class which has had some really great engagement. I’m connecting with a whole new audience of people who before now, may not have found cooking classes very accessible or approachable. So at the moment, it’s just about staying current and connected with people but sadly, the main part of the business has had to shut down for now. On the flip side though, it’s been nice to have a summer unlike any other. Normally they’re full of weddings and events so it’s been amazing to have some family time – but I am definitely missing my business. Sometimes I think my table settings at home are getting to be a bit too much as a result!
As we look ahead now, the rules have relaxed a bit so we do have some events coming up like get-togethers and small weddings. Several weddings that were originally going to be large events have been scaled back to small outdoor dinners with mostly just family in attendance. I think that’s going to be the new normal for a few months – I have no idea what to predict for the winter though! People just aren’t fully ready to entertain yet I’d say.
Do you think there will be a fundamental change in the whole entertaining industry?
I do think it’ll change, although I don’t really want it to! Who doesn’t want to go to a big wedding, have a dance and enjoy some human connection? I think that’s what everybody craves, but I think we’ll just adapt a bit and we’ll have to make things as special as they can be for now. It’s a nice change for people who aren’t used to as many intimate events. This will be a way for people to slow down and really appreciate those important milestones. I hope that eventually, we’ll still be able to provide the service as we used to in a safe way so that people know that they can still entertain and celebrate, even if that’s for a smaller group.
So for people who do want to entertain – what are your tips for entertaining now and how to make those events feel special?
Like with so many things, when you get into the bigger numbers a lot of elements fall to the wayside. Maybe you don’t do beautiful menu cards, or you don’t splurge on the charger plates or the napkins or you don’t have gorgeous candles on the table that make those intimate dinners really special. So I’d suggested for hosts to really think about the table setting as a whole and how they can bring the theme of the event together through the food, florals and smaller details that not everybody thinks about. That’s what will really create that special atmosphere. While the weather is good, I would recommend utilising whatever green space you have access to, whether you’re in a city or the countryside. I was driving in Toronto the other day and saw a family having a birthday party for the kids just on a few picnic tables and I just thought how great that was – they had balloons, a pink tablecloth and lots of decorations. It’s so nice that they were still making that day special by doing something different.
What’s your favourite way to style a small event?
I go both ways! I love the rustic vibe, especially in the summer. I think it’s so pretty and just complements all that natural greenery but I also love making things feel fancier, maybe with gold flatware and having beautiful charger plates or putting out candles – candles are actually super important to me. Having great lighting makes such a big difference, as do florals, even if they’re just small bud vases. All these little details come together to make a huge impact. But as for style, it really depends on the event. Sometimes I like to go really high end, but I also love going for a very natural and rustic look – with wildflowers!
Tell us more about your cookbook!
I had always wanted to write one. I love cookbooks, I think I own over 150 of them and they’re just treasures to me. This has been a really good time to work with an editor and start putting pen to paper. When I started doing that, I began to realise that for some people stuck at home, they might not be used to eating in as often as they are now – maybe they rarely even cook at all. So I wanted to find ways of interacting and connecting with people during this time. By creating the cookbook platform online, doing live-stream videos and sharing more day-to-day cooking ideas, it’s been great to engage with people who aren’t so familiar with hosting gatherings and to show them ways that I entertain at home, and the way that I love to cook for small events – that’s the goal of the cookbook too.
The cookbook will be focused on cooking for between eight to 12 people. It won’t include recipes just for two or four – it’s more about entertaining. Like walking through the steps of preparing a whole beef tenderloin and serving it family-style among three or four couples, or a bunch of girlfriends. The aim of the cookbook is ultimately to encourage people to entertain at home. I’ll also include things like how to put together a great cheese board, charcuterie board or dessert spread – showing people fool-proof ways of taking an event up a notch.
How have the Instagram lives gone? I love that you always start with a glass of wine!
I started doing them on Thursday nights because that’s usually the time of the week that people would be out having drinks with friends – which of course, we can’t really do as much now. So I wanted to offer a way for people to start unwinding for the weekend. It’s great to make people feel like they can relax at home while cooking; that it can be fun and enjoyed with a glass of wine on the go.
What’s your favourite thing you’ve done on the IG lives so far?
The shrimp taco night was really popular. It was great to introduce meals that people don’t always make at home. We also got a lot of really great feedback on the shawarma night which was a surprise! I love Middle Eastern food but I wasn’t expecting people to love it so much so that’s been really nice. I suppose people just weren’t used to making those kinds of dishes at home, but we made them using very standard ingredients so people didn’t have to go out in search of a Middle Eastern spice market to seek out zaatar or anything. I think people loved those two because they’re so full of punchy flavour which they might have only experienced out in restaurants – they don’t realise they can create these kinds of meals at home. I also just love cooking pasta. I’m a pasta-holic, I could eat it every day, so I always love doing those recipes.
The best thing about the IG lives is hearing how much people have learned from them, not only the recipes themselves but also learning the simple things in a kitchen you should do to make cooking more accessible and ultimately make your food taste better.
What are your top three tips then for generally making your food taste better at home?
1) Season food the whole way through! In order to end up with a cohesive and well-seasoned dish, you need to season every aspect of your meal, not just throw salt in at the beginning or end.
2) Make sure your meat or fish is room temperature before cooking it. People don’t realise how important this is, but it makes a huge difference in how it cooks.
3) And finally, when you are cooking proteins at home, make sure they’re patted dry before you put them in the pan or the oven to help create that really nice crust and caramelization.
Do your travels influence your recipes?
Yes, I love to travel and food is definitely a defining factor in how I decide where to go. I love Italy; the food there is so focused on quality and freshness and every region is different. I also lived in Spain for a time so I have a big love for Spanish food. When we go anywhere, even in the US and Canada it’s nice to get to know different chefs and talk to them about what they do, from markets to fancy restaurants, I love it all.
What are the first places you’ll travel to when we can move around a bit more?
Japan is high on my list. I’d also like to go to west coast Canada, like Tofino and that area and I’d love to go to Israel – I love that food and style of cooking.
How about the best places you’ve been to already?
We went to Newfoundland and went to Fogo Island Inn (read more about Fogo Island Inn here). It has such amazing seafood and everything is so local. The Inn is really focused on sustainability, so that was a neat experience because you don’t see that so often in Canada.
New York City and its Michelin-starred restaurants are amazing. We had an incredible night there. And Italy! I just adore Rome. I love Roman cuisine and I could eat it every day. Whenever I go to Europe I think about a pitstop in Rome. I love it so much.
Emma will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for her upcoming cookbook. Stay tuned for updates by following The Emma’s Eatery Cookbook Instagram account and the Emma’s Eatery Catering Instagram account. Emma is continuing her live-stream cooking classes on Instagram, so be sure to check them out on her accounts.