My wife, Charlene, is my only helper. I do all the cooking myself, plus mop the floors when I am done. I do not want any assistants because I wish to remain personally responsible for the quality of the food I serve.
Even though I can prepare any type of cuisine most of my clients choose tri-tip and chicken. Chicken Marsala is our signature dish. However, I appreciate the challenge of preparing different kinds of dishes and even exotic cuisine. There is no dish that I couldn’t prepare. One client wanted Australian food, so we shipped in fresh emu and rabbit from a Tennessee supplier. The guy wanted to conclude the meal with a Pavlova, which is a pastry covered with white pudding, fresh fruit, and topped by a confection sugar glaze. I thought the dish was a little nauseating but the client declared it was the best Pavlova he ever ate.
I’ve been in the food service business for 51 years, beginning at age 15 when I got a job working with my dad who was a chef at San Jose’s Black Angus. I was learning the business from the bottom up washing dishes, doing prep work, cleaning the hoods, and whatever grunt work nobody else wanted to do. After six years, the company transferred me to the Black Angus Restaurant in Pleasant Hill, where I became the youngest head chef the company had ever hired. (I probably still hold that title.) Five years later they promoted me to regional chef in charge of the 10 restaurants in their Northern California District.
When I was 34 I opened my own restaurant, called Leopard Café, on 18th Street in Antioch. Eight years later exhaustion drove me out of the business and I subsequently spent eight years at Concord’s Big C Athletic Club as manager/ chef with the assignment of preparing dishes and entrées that were both tasty and healthy. I became a specialist in healthy
food preparation, nutritious eating, exercising, and the other elements of a healthy lifestyle. One of the great outcomes was that I applied the lessons I was learning to my personal life.
I began exercising and avoiding fats and other unhealthy ingredients. I lost 25 pounds and became an active participant in the Health Industry. An even better outcome of my position at Big C was that I met Charlene Van Dyke, who ran the front desk. Charlene and I became friends. After six months, we began dating, and after two years got married. My work at Big C brought me into contact with a number of club members who were doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. They began hiring me to cater their affairs. My word-of-mouth reputation grew until I realized I could spin out on my own. Charlene and I are doing the business together. She is in charge of decorating, staffing, payroll, and schedule management. Plus, she goes on a lot of events with me. I opened Ralph’s Catering 22 years ago. We serve groups from 25 to almost any size. On two occasions we have served 5,000 diners. Charlene was a little stressed the first time we did that, but I thought it was fun. An adventure!
I’ve begun an ancillary business as a cooking instructor. The idea got started six months ago when, out of the blue, an inspector from the Health Department advised me to start a cooking class. He knew of my extensive experience and was aware of the local need for such training. As I write this, we are now on our third 5-week cooking series. The first night covers basics about flavor, identifying and using the five taste essentials — sweet, sour, bitter, salt, savory, and acid. The second night is “High-Heat Cooking Without Fat” then “High-Heat Cooking With Fat,” followed by “Steaming and Poaching,” and concluding with “Braising & Stewing.”
We are putting together plans to begin intermediate classes, which will cover sauces and soups. We will then create an advanced class with instructions on how to prepare dishes like Beef Wellington, that require multiple preparation steps.
Last March I checked into Kaiser Hospital where they put triple stints into my heart. My doctor insisted that I take a class in healthy eating that, of course, told me nothing that I didn’t know. However, the class only talked about eating healthy with not a word about healthy cooking, so I put together a program to make up that deficiency, and in January we will begin a 4-week series covering food preparation styles that eliminate fats and provide information about such things as choosing appropriate dishes, plus the role of lean meats, grains, and legumes in healthy food, diet, and preparation.
One of the emphases in the class is that healthy dishes should also taste good. Otherwise, people will fall back into their unhealthy eating patterns. Someone recently told me of a friend’s principle for healthy eating, which is summarized in the words, “If it tastes good, spit it out.” The fact is, there are methods and techniques of preparing healthy dishes without a lot of fat, sugar, and salt that are so delicious people will come back for seconds. I know how to do that. We are members of Antioch’s Golden Hills Church and enthusiastic supporters of the church’s programs of community outreach. Golden Hills sponsors annual Thanksgiving Day meals at three area locations including Brentwood’s Veterans Hall, Bethel Island’s Scout Hall, and the I.D.E.S. Hall in Antioch. They serve more than 2,000 meals. Ralph’s Catering delivers meals to the people who lack sufficient mobility to get to one of the dining places. Volunteers from my church help me cook and package over three hundred meals. Other volunteers then deliver them to the homes of the various shut-ins.
Ralph’s Catering territory has no boundaries. We’ve prepared food for groups as far South as Ontario, as far North as Portland, and as far East as Chad, Africa. That Africa assignment was a 14-day short-term mission trip for Charlene and me. It was difficult; we were surrounded by Muslim friends but confined in a compound to protect us from others who might intend to do us harm. I was preparing meals for 35 people on a small propane-fired “English Stove,” which in America would be called a camping stove. Sanitation was non-existent and I had to filter my cooking water three times before it would be clear of the red pollution that fouled it.
I brought 200 pounds of frozen food, which we exhausted in 12 days so for the next two days I was making dishes based upon camel and goat.
I thought the Africa mission was a great experience. I think Charlene is glad she was able to do this with me; I know for sure, however, that she would never do it again. Ralph’s Catering business is good; my own taste buds seem to be aligned with those of my clients; I know what dishes will please them because they are ones that I like myself.
Next time you host a catered affair, give Ralph’s Catering an opportunity to please your own taste buds.