Besides being a wildly successful entrepreneur and curator of luxurious experiences, Wendy Pashman cares deeply about creating beauty and giving back. We sat down with her to talk about her journey, and the natural progression from creating luxury party experiences to curating collections of artisanal linens and tableware for the home.
Take us back to your inspiration and decision to start Entertaining Company (EC) 28 years ago.
I was always in love with food and gathering around the table. Growing up outside of New York City, our family was food obsessed and thought nothing of driving two hours to an out-of-the-way neighborhood for ethnic food. After working in the corporate world, I decided I wanted to be my own boss and follow my passion for food and working with a team that shared my interest. My first large client came to me quite by accident. I met a friend who was complaining about having to make dessert for her husband’s office party of 150, and I volunteered. That party became my first paying corporate client.
EC is known for creating customized, experiential party ideas. Take us behind the scenes of the creative process with you and your team. Can you describe an event from start to finish as an example of how one evolves?
We recently were asked to cater a special surprise party for the wife of a VIP living out of the country. We were given short notice for this event of 300 guests and hadn’t met the guest of honor. We looked for a unique way to design the menu since the guest list was made up of sophisticated friends and family who are not easily impressed. In the process of planning, we learned where in the U.S. the honoree had grown up, as well as travelled and lived with her family. We developed the menu based on these places from high top cocktail table snacks to passed hors d’oeuvres to dinner buffets. The client was very happy.
How do you approach something basic, like hamburgers or barbecue, to make it a unique and memorable experience?
When given the choice, most people, it seems, love the most basic comfort food and so we are constantly coming up with ways to elevate the experience. We do this through selection of trays, food signage and condiments, not to mention using hand-baked bread for the buns. We do so many late-night snacks at our weddings. Italian beef is a big Chicago-centric hit to end a party. By creating amazing EC gardiniera with bell and jalapeno peppers, carrots and celery, we add a fresh texture to the Italian beef that is surprising when compared to the commercial version most people are familiar with.
Barbecue is really a fun starting point because in addition to the all-American barbecue, we enjoy introducing our guests to worldly barbecue varieties like Japanese, Thai and Indian. When a client calls for barbecue, we often suggest familiar comfort preparations and a few out-of-the-box surprises to tantalize guests.
To what do you attribute the success and longevity of you and your team (more than 50 years combined service to EC)?
Creating a cohesive talented team is probably the hardest thing to do in any creative business or any business for that matter! There are so many layers to the catering business. There are a dizzying number of steps, and it takes amazing coordination, precision, teamwork and know-how. Every person on our team has skills that make them valuable to us. But more basic than that, they have an approach to the work we do that is more like a mission than a 9-to-5 job.
When evaluating and selecting people, we recognize that the people who are successful here want a job that is creative, high energy and always changing. They want to be passionate about satisfying clients and not resting until they do. That takes a person with a certain zeal and intensity, and we are constantly looking for people who fit that profile.
EC clearly stands out above other catering firms in Chicago. In your opinion, why is that?
Thank you! From the beginning, we always thought that catering was an approach to guest satisfaction way beyond merely providing food. The goal is to continually work on improving and blending creative ideas, customer service and delicious food, and be able to produce the food excellently offsite in a field kitchen as if we were in a restaurant.
The dedication of our trained and tirelessly loyal staff is something we never take for granted and neither do our clients. Much of our business is repeat business from the same clients. Over time, we get to know these clients, what they like, what they don’t like, how their homes and offices operate, and what vendors they work with so we can all work together seamlessly.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “Coming up with new ideas is half the fun.” How do you continue to come up with new ideas after all the parties you and your team have planned?
Coming up with new ideas is a continual process and is so much fun! Most of my ideas come from travel, where I am relaxed and enjoying a different culture and observing the food and presentation in an everyday setting. There’s quite a bit of food research I always do, whether going to a new Chicago neighborhood or overseas. For instance, my husband and I recently travelled to Athens. Before going, I had done lots of research on Athens neighborhoods, where authentic classical tavernas were located as well as hipster neighborhoods that took a more pan-world approach. I searched out Greek English-speaking food bloggers online to see what they were mentioning, looked at Pinterest and Instagram, and followed people who were posting about Athens. After coming back, I had loads of new ideas for Entertaining Company. All of us in the office are constantly researching online, in magazines, and pop culture to discover how we can add new and surprising elements to our catered events.
What was the inspiration for the Storied Table?
The inspiration came from an idea about how great tabletop ideas made all of our food sparkle! Even a humble slider looks amazing when passed from an interesting handmade tray. Our EC food has always been so artisanal and handcrafted and we thought our serving pieces should be nothing less. Our clients are design conscious and everyone eats with their eyes. I thought that people would enjoy being able to purchase interesting, out-of-the-ordinary pieces for themselves and others for their own use.
How has the Storied Table evolved and where do you see it going from here?
Over time, we have added more artisanal products from American makers as well as our own designed textiles. We have experimented with selling solely on our website as well as on other sites like Houzz and Chairish as well as at the Dose Markets. In the future, I plan on discovering new emergent American makers and giving them a place to sell their amazing creations as well as designing some of my own!
Tell us about the experiences you curate. How did they begin, what are the popular experiences, and where do you see that arm of the company headed?
My newly married daughter Anna has an attitude to “things” versus “experiences” that gave me the inspiration for the experiences on our Storied Table site. She did not want to register and accumulate more things. She thought she had what she needed as far as home elements and planned to live in an apartment. We added experiences to the Wedding Registry for this reason. Going forward, I can see us expanding and moving the experiences into our regular EC product offerings for anyone to enjoy, not only marrying couples.
You are known for supporting needy people around the world. Could you elaborate?
When you travel, whether overseas or even in America, you discover the amazing things that people can do with their hands! Our Storied Table glassware and candles come from a workshop where half the people are severely disabled to the extent they are creating the glassware designs with their feet. When I saw this, I was immediately inspired by the artisans, and since I loved the glassware and candles anyway, it was natural to add them to our line. Closer to home, my husband comes from an area near Pittsburgh where many people are unemployed from the steel and coal industries. These people can build everything. I’d like to find a way to work with groups to employ people like these and create products for the Storied Table.
What is your dream event, the one on your wish list you would absolutely love to plan?
I would love Entertaining Company to cater the opening of the soon-to-be-built Obama Library. I imagine the guest list to be diverse with leaders from Chicago and all over the U.S. and world. The menu would be farm to table, perhaps some produce from a Chicago local neighborhood garden elevated in surprising ways to the highest level of presentation and style. Our staff would be so honored to serve at this really important Chicago cultural event.
What is your personal definition of luxury?
Luxury, to me, is freedom. As a business owner, luxury is when a client freely partners with us and we produce excellence. The person who can be free of limiting thoughts and see beauty in the everyday leads a luxurious life!