November 29, 2004
Nanci Easterling (NC '82, B '84) has been crazy about cooking ever since she was old enough to sit on a stool and stir a pot. With business savvy and unerring taste, she has parlayed her love of food and entertaining into a career as owner of Food Art, a premier catering and event-planning company in New Orleans.
Food Art's offices and kitchen are housed in an early 19th-century commercial building in the Warehouse District in downtown New Orleans, a historic neighborhood filled with law firms and art galleries. Easterling's services range from cooking take-out meals for individuals to organizing mega-events with thousands of guests. Easterling plans and caters social events of varying sizes for local businesses and organizations as well as conventions.
"The opening of Harrah's Casino, with 15,000 people, was the largest event we've ever done," says Easterling. "The really big events, with 12,000 to 15,000 guests, are typically casino openings. I opened River City, I opened Harrah's, I opened the casino out at the lakefront. I consider myself the queen of casino openings."
All food for the events is created in the company's in-house cooking facility managed by Food Art's executive chef. "Every hors d'oeuvre we make, we make by hand," says Easterling. "With the opening of Harrah's, we had to make more than 100,000 hors d'oeuvres. We ran the kitchen 16 hours a day with about seven to eight people in the kitchen for several days, on two shifts."
Menus are scrupulously matched to each occasion. "You might have a potato pancake with pastrami salmon with creme fraiche and crispy leeks," says Easterling. "Or a Korean rice cake with wasabi tuna, with a garnish, or it might be spring rolls. "I have made South African food, Asian food, Creole and Cajun food, Italian, French, Russian, Indian--you can't name a cuisine that I have not prepared," says Easterling. "If I am asked to prepare regional cuisine that I'm not familiar with, I do an inordinate amount of research, because I feel the client is expecting it to be truly authentic."
Food Art is about more than just food, however. "When we first started out," says Easterling, "we did strictly catering, but we found that our clients, first our corporate and convention clients, and then social clients, wanted to have a one-stop shop." Food Art provides services from booking bands, stage, lighting, sound and audio-visual equipment to providing decor, transportation and RSVP services.
If called on, Easterling can orchestrate events over several days. She's done weddings that include formal wedding receptions and informal rehearsal parties complete with South Louisiana fais-do-do themes, including Cajun bands and cochon du lait roasts. The opportunity to run a catering business was handed to Easterling on a silver platter by her good friend, restaurateur Frank Bailey. Easterling had seriously considered the notion of a food-oriented career, and her father, knowing how much she loved cooking and entertaining, urged her to open a restaurant.
She felt, however, that she lacked the business experience needed for such a venture. So Easterling earned an MBA from Tulane and went to work as an actuary at a consulting economist's firm in New Orleans, but she kept her appetite sharp for the food business by helping write daily menus for Bailey at his Garden District bistro, Indulgence. In 1985, Indulgence's chef suddenly quit, and Bailey pleaded with Easterling to fill in.
"It will be just like cooking at home," he reassured her. Intrigued by the opportunity, she took on a second job as chef during the dinner shift. She survived her trial by fire, only to have Bailey ask her if she wanted to take over his Christmas catering business. "What will you give me? Food? Dishes and glassware? Waiters?" she asked Bailey. "Nothing but the customers," he replied.
Easterling took Bailey up on his offer, taking a leave of absence from her actuarial job. Easterling's first business location was in her home on St. Mary Street, where she started Food Concepts catering company and St. Mary's Cafe restaurant. She soon bought out another catering company, Upper Crust, and moved into its premises on Magazine Street. "My original catering company Food Concepts focused on two to 250 as the maximum number of people," says Easterling. "Then I decided that I wanted to get out of the limited market and get into doing bigger, flashier events.
As I tell people, I didn't have to go to graduate school to learn that any number times a bigger number is a bigger number. So Food Art was born." Easterling recalls those early days when she and her staff worked in a narrow kitchen without an automated dishwasher. "I spent half of my time in the kitchen cooking and half of my time in the office doing sales and books. You would work all day, and then work the event at night. That's still true--I still work the events. If you don't love the catering and event-planning business, you won't make it. It's not a 9 to 5 job; it's a 110 percent commitment."
In other words, it's hard work. But she loves it. Her work brings together her creative spark and her financial acumen. "I like the fact that I get to use both sides of my brain."
Favorite comfort food?
Do I have to worry about calories and fat grams? There's a couple I could think of but if I just had to go off the cuff, I would say a great bowl of pasta or a piece of warm bread with butter--some kind of interesting warm bread with butter.
Greatest food fear?
In relation to the catering business--something like smashing a wedding cake on the way to the wedding.
What event would you give your eye teeth to cater?
The inaugural ball of a Republican president-- although Democrats spend more money.
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