For this week's "Hail to the Chef" I spoke to Karina Ulrich of Karina's Catering. I met Karina at the Mendocino Crab and Wine Days Crab Cake Cookoff. Her crabcake was one of our favorites and featured a tomatillo sauce.
CC & I talked with Karina and her husband a bit at her booth at the Crab Cake Cookoff. She made such a great impression on me with her personality and food, I picked up her card so I could contact her after the event. Here is the result:
1. What made you want to become a chef?
I always loved food, discovering new flavors and ways of preparation has always been the greatest excitement and to recreate flavors I had tasted is such a wonderful challenge. I think it is inevitable that you explore the possibilities of cooking for yourself and others if you have a passion for food.
Pictures surrounding questions 1 through 7 are from a catering Karina did at a barn. It was BBQ style, with no electricity or running water.
2. Where did you receive your training?
I am self taught, I started when I was 12 years old cooking for a girlfriend who also was passionate about food. We used to spend our allowances and hard earned money on going to fancy restaurants and sharing elaborate meals which we enjoyed for hours - definitely some sloooow food going on––and that eventually led to us taking over our moms' kitchens once a month and cooking for each other, simple meals in the beginning which became a more sophisticated several course dinner including our parents good wines, candle light, good music and everything else that enhances the experience. It became competitive, we always tried to outdo ourselves/the other and the last great meal. I think we both learned a lot for life, she is still a great cook as well. From then on I just never stopped and I think it is the same with any other experience, life teaches us and we improve.
3. Who have you worked with that you have really admired?
I've worked with a lot of people in the food and service industry that have made an impression on me and who I admire for their creativity, but my favorite person to work with is my friend Taji, she was 7 years old when she came into my life and we always talked about food. Now she is a great caterer in LA and I call her for advice. I admire her for her culinary creativity, her organization, how she makes everything seem like a breeze, her professionalism. I love talking "food" with her.
4.What is a typical day like for you with your catering business?
That depends on the season. At this time of the year there is a lot of preliminary work, like doing tastings for potential clients, creating menus, writing contracts, community events and fund raisers etc. When the busy season starts it's back to food preparation, a lot of things can be prepared several month ahead of an event and kept in the freezer without impacting quality and nutrition. Just before an event it is shopping, organizing, lists a mile long, cooking into the night and figuring out all the details down to the presentation.
5. What are/who are your primary cooking influences?
My biggest influence are the women in my family, especially my grandmother. Her kitchen in the old apartment where she grew up in was the central hub, that's where everything took place, all life's important decisions were made around her what seemed to my child's mind gigantic kitchen table, always centered around a family meal or witnessing some great cooking and baking in progress. My mother took the tradition over from her and then handed the baton to me. We still make the same old family recipes like stollen, German yeast cakes, meat rolls, potato dumplings, red cabbage, sauerkraut etc.
But then my other passion - travel - contributed to my culinary evolution, I just wanted to recreate all the flavors I encountered on the way and expand my repertoire. Any time I read a cook book or cooking magazine I go through the same process, it sends me on a journey.
6. What are your favorite and least favorite foods to prepare?
I really have to think about the least favorite because I love it all so much. So lets start with my favorites, favorite cuisines are Italian, Mediterranean, Latin and Middle Eastern, my favorite foods are pasta, stews and soups, fresh seasonal vegetables preferably from my own garden or the local farm/farmers markets. I love all comfort foods but I also love the intense flavors of raw food preparation, from Macaroni and Cheese to Raw Lasagna, bring it on. As you can see it is really hard for me to nail it down, if I would have to come up with a last dinner choice I would be hanged before I can decide. I also like simple food preparation, let the food speak for itself, just help it along and coaxes the best flavor from it. My least favorite foods, hmh, ah, intestines or other alternative meat cuts, things that smell bad when cooking it. I also don't like cooking when I am not happy.
7. Please tell me about your most overwhelming moment in the kitchen:
When I was supposed to cook a wedding dinner for a friend after traveling all day to San Louis Obispo the night before the event and the power went out. All that I could do was say #&@! it, go to the rehearsal dinner and get drunk. It all worked out the next day.
8. Who are your favorite chefs or famous chefs?
I know it's cheesy but yes, it is Julia Child! Also Paul Bocuse, Rick Bayless and my Grandmother, she could make something delicious out of nothing.
9. White wine or red wine? Do you have a favorite wine varietal/label?
In the summer: white, dry riesling, pinot blanc. Celebration: Champagne, Perrier Jouet, Winter and in general: red, preferably Pinot Noir/Burgundy or Zinfandels, if money is no issue, William Sellyem Pinot or Helen Turley Zinfandel.
10. What is your "can't live without" kitchen tool and why?
Food processor probably, just because it is so versatile, it can serve as a blender in a pinch, chop, grate, make great spreads, best pie crusts and so much more. Second runner up my little hand mandoline for cutting/shaving anything and everything on the spot.
11. Please tell me how you go about planning your menus.
I keep in mind what the clients preferences might be as far as food, but also budget. If the budget is tight I plan menus that are less labor intense and can a) be prepared in advance and b) don't take a long time to make. The season is important as well, I prefer to use lot's of heirloom tomatoes in the summer along with all the other wonderful produce that's available, so Mediterranean cuisine dominates my menus. I try to custom design menus for clients, every one is different, but there are always my old favorites, especially for vegetarian options.
I also need to be inspired, so when I write menus, I tend to browse through cookbooks and magazines a lot, I am also a bit of a by the seat of my pants creator and sometimes just come up with something that I have never done before, I love challenges.
12. If you had a different career choice, what would it be?
Fashion designer or Floral designer.
13. What are the most important things to remember (can be relative to anything) while working as a chef?
To love what you do and to not let anything get you down and to stay calm under any circumstances. That makes for a really nice work environment. I personally can not work with people that are unhappy or bring their woes to work with them. I don't believe you can cook good food while being upset, it's just like in the book "Water for Chocolate", plus a good attitude will overcome any obstacles you might encounter.
14. What is the most important thing you have learned in your culinary career?
Not to be too uptight about anything, the more relaxed I am about cooking the more creative I get. If I am insecure about a dish then it usually does not turn out that well, if I just let it come to me it's always a hit. Another important thing I have learned is the use of salt and lemon/vinegar. Most times a dish tastes dull it is because it does not have enough salt, the other big flavor factor is acidity. Though I oppossed the minimalism of German Cooking when I grew up, I learned over time that you all you need to make anything taste good is salt/pepper/fresh herbs and lemon, and of course don't forget the olive oil!
15. Tell me a little more about your specialties.
I make a killer moussaka, traditional lamb or vegetarian, I wooed a number of boy friends with my coq au vin, my scones and German Christmas cookies are legendary and in general I love all ethnic foods, Italian and Latin are definitely on my specialty list. On the underground list would be homemade liquor and other contraband items.
Christmas cookies by Karina, another specialty
16. What are the parameters of raw food? Why should people think about trying a raw diet?
Incorporating raw food into your diet is an excellent way to initiate a cleansing period. Our diet is rich in fats, sugars, coffee, meats, dairy, processed foods that are like drugs in the sense that they slowly "poison" our systems and make us sluggish. I can honestly say this from my own experience and if I wouldn't be so addicted to all kinds of foods I would probably be a rather strict raw foodie. The improvements on raw food are immense, a hightened sense of well being, feeling high and full of energy, wonderful restful nights, aches and pains subside, one looses weight easily until the body finds it's right weight, skin, hair, nails become very healthy looking and a heightened sense of taste are all effects of a raw food diet that I have learned to appreciate and miss when I am not on it. I would recommend it for anybody to at least try out, while at the same time I warn my clients of taking any diet to the extreme, because you eventually loose interest. I don't believe in anything that makes you feel restricted, finding your own balance is the most important and will sure keep you on your path whatever that might be.
Raw, zucchini slices rolled up with a nut herb ricotta and raw tomato sauce.
17. What was the largest event you catered?
Weddings for 150 people and an annual retreat where I cook 5 days for 100 men, it's work but incredibly rewarding. I am looking forward to the challenge of cooking for 200 and more.
18. Best meal ever?
My most memorable meal I had in the South of France at a little restaurant/farm on the side of the road we stumbled into and dined for 6 hours straight. They raised their own goats and had a fish pond (in a swimming pool), we got to pick our own fish that we admired on our plates 1/2 hour later, baby goat roast, herbs from the gardens, home made goat cheese, clafoutis and so much more that I don't remember. All my most memorable meals seem to have been in France/Paris.
I want to thank Karina for such intresting responses. I also want to let Sacramento people know that sometimes she is in the area and teaches cooking classes as well as catering events.