You know what. I tried really hard to edit this interview. I seriously made every effort to make it succinct and bite-sized (pardon the pun)... but I failed. Sophie Cookes and Nicole DeBono are just so inspiring and so truly passionate about their industry and their brilliant little business, I really couldn't bring myself to cut too many of their words! It is just so refreshing to hear from two local ladies who have launched their own super successful business, and who work so incredibly hard to make every project unique and even better than the last.
Sophie and Nicole joined forces 5 years ago to launch Cookes Food - a boutique catering and events company in Melbourne. I first met this dynamic duo in December, when they assisted us with catering for The Design Files Open House! They did an amazing job and were so efficient as well as being great fun - we were so lucky to have them!
For Sophie and Nicole no challenge is too great - you could basically book them to cater a function in a remote forest with no electricity or refrigeration or running water, and they are the only events people I know who would say 'AWESOME let's do it!'. AND it would be amazing. :)
This interview provides such an excellent insight into the launch of a successful events business, but also there are so many valuable pearls of wisdom relevant to any small creative business. In addition to being one seriously clever creative team, Sophie and Nicole have a brilliant sense of humour, so this interview is an entertaining as it is inspiring!
EVEN BETTER - for our little nod to the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (which kicks off tomorrow), we have invited Sophie and Nicole to join us ALL NEXT WEEK on the Guest Blog, sharing their favourite local foodie suppliers and even some RECIPES.... Amaze.
SO without further ado, here's the interview! I know it's a bit long but truly it is solid gold, just read it on the iPad on the train home or something.
LOVE YOUR WORK ladies!
Tell me a little about your backgrounds - what did you guys study, how do you know each other and what path led you to joining forces and launching Cookes Food?
SC - I always loved cooking, but to be honest it didn’t come naturally and I would consistently demolish mum and dad's kitchen whilst creating the next culinary train wreck. I studied a bachelor of arts and then a graduate diploma in professional writing, before realising that if all I could write about was food, then something had to give.
I was very lucky that my parents were supportive, so I left Melbourne and spent a year living and studying cooking in Paris. It was brilliant, inspiring and lonely all at once. Once completing my course I went off to London to join my cousin who was living in squalor! We lived a hand to mouth existence whilst I spent my days working for Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries. It was the single most influential and inspiring time of my life. I arrived at the office door where Skye greeted me with skepticism and amusement - I was wearing a y shirt that said “I love cooking”.
I spent 2 years learing from Skye and the team, I met a string of incredibly influential people including Maggie Beer, Greg Malouf, Alice Waters and Patricia Michelson. It was like a food dream that didn’t seem to be real… I travelled with the kitchen to France where we went to the French markets and I spoke of close to nothing but food for the entire time I was there.
When I returned to Melbourne, I was bewildered and confused about where to work. Not only that but no one had heard of this Skye Gyngell person or Petersham Nurseries and I could not find a job. It was rather depressing. I took some jobs at different cafes, feeling a little uninspired, chugged along at this speed for about 1 year.
Then I met Nicole DeBono who was working as an event manager for an extremely successful events business, and had a second business baking cupcakes every evening after work. A mutual friend introduced us and I began purchasing her little cakes. We got to talking and very quickly realised that we both had this vision of a food-based events company with a strong focus on seasonality. So 2 months later after what can only be decribed as speed dating we rented a kitchen and here we are!
ND - My background has been many things, I grew up in Adelaide then moved to Melbourne five years ago. I worked in fashion for about five years, then decided it was time for a new challenge in my life. I studied events management and targeted a business I had my eye on - they specialised in experiential marketing for large corporate brands. My job demanded a lot of me, it proved quite challenging and every day I was learning important lessons about events and how small business works.
Growing tired of working for someone else I started a cupcake business called Sweetidarling. It was at this time a friend introduced me to Sophie who was working at a café close to my home, she had just returned from OS and was keen after a very quick meeting to get my cakes into the café. We soon became friends and headed out for a drink (first of many many more) and chatted about food and business.
Sophie expressed an interest in catering, and as I had worked with so many caterers and been involved in my fair share of corporate functions I had a good grasp on what I felt was missing from the industry. And so began our ideas and business plans for Cookes Food!
What have been one or two favourite recent jobs and why?
SC - We catered a wedding in Warrambeen for a couple who Nic and I got on with like a house on fire. (pics at the top of this post). Relationships in this industry are so important - if you can’t relate to your client and if they don’t trust you, then you should part ways immediately, as it’s just never going to work! This particular couple were a dream to work with – together we created a menu that was perfect for them and the environment.
The other job I thoroughly enjoyed working on was another wedding in Robe, S.A. It was really difficult logistically but was so much fun to work on. Nic and I love road trips and we loved taking our staff with us… all staying at the Sea View caravan park with the florists, waiters and chefs! It felt like a travelling carnival. Nic did all the styling and worked with Mel from Cecilia Fox on the flowers. The wedding was a brilliant success and the bride and groom were thrilled, which at the end of the day gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling.
ND - Another excellent one was a wedding we did last year at Sothebys in High street Armadale. The bride and groom didn’t want anything traditonal at all, and gave us a huge opportunity to be creative and design something that was just all about them. They were into the idea of a supper club.
We took inspiration from the Plaza hotel's marble-clad Palm Court, Marrakesh L'Avenue and movies; Out of Africa and the Great Gatsby, we talked about aesthetics, lighting, trees, flooring, and music! With a love for 1920’s and the occasional sing along, the groom’s pick was Marty Rose to kick of the nights proceedings, he played classic covers whilst guests smoked on cigars, and dined on old fashioned prawn cocktails under the huge sky light in the venue’s ceiling. Once the mood was set, the party continued with an 11 piece jazz band playing Louis Prima and Ella Fitzgerald – a genre of music that is close to my own heart. The night was full of old school elegance, with all the guests completing the look in white dinner jackets, and our waiters dressed in white shirts and fes hats ….it was visually spectacular!
What does a typical day at work involve for you guys?
SC - I spend a lot of time in front of a computer these days but my solace is always when I step into the kitchen, with great music on and my team falling into the rhythm of the job or prep list.
ND - Anything and everything, most days its office time for me, sharing my time between clients and putting together different ideas and quotes. I go to site visits, check out venues and do my best to pop into new café or restaurants to see what is happening out there food-wise!
Some days there are menu tastings (which are always fun) - we have quite a few client meetings at work which I also love, and then there is all the time that sophie and I just discuss what’s on, coming up, needs to be done and so on and so on on!
What sets Cookes Food apart other catering and events companies?
SC - I don’t reallly know what makes us different…we are definitely food focused and we are both quite in love with our business. We love meeting new clients and being able to play with past clients again.
ND - I like to think that our service is really personal. We are a small team of two essentially - so we enjoy the close interaction with our clients and getting to be part of their event. On the food side of things Sophie’s style is what is a stand out within our business, we really stuck to our goal by creating unique seasonsal menus for our clients, and it’s a compliment each time our clients tell us that the food is amazing – makes all the hard work that goes into it worth it!
Which other local foodie people, events people or generally creative people do you look up to?
SC - Michael Strownix; a stylist and florist that we have worked with a couple of times recently. He is insanely creative and can see things in a space or theme that completely open your mind.
Som from Rickets Point makes the most breathtaking ice cream/sorbets in the world – my fave at the moment is the apple cider sorbet.
Adam North at Hopkin’s River Beef is really passionate about meat and so am I, and we often chat about it… Hopkins River is a new supplier for us!
ND - Most of the people we interact with about food and ispiration come from the people around us, our good clients, friends and family!
What is the best thing about your job?
ND - Obviously the food and the wine are a HUGE bonus, but I love the creativity, I love the interaction with clients, I love that it gives me the opportunity to travel and go and see parts of Victora that I have never seen before. I love that every day is different, which is giant cliché but the truth is, it really never gets boring!
SC - Every time I need to create a new menu and then execute on game day.
And the worst?
ND - Hmmm probably how much my body hates me sometimes when I have been on my legs for way too long. Big events require a lot of energy and after a 3 day bump in, then event then bump out – sometimes you just feel like you have been hit by a bus!
SC - Corporate catering.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media which you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
− French by Damien Pignolet (‘cause Skye Gyngall gave it to me).
− Spoon HQ blog - I met Sarah when I worked at Petersham in the UK and she is very clever.
− Au Pied de Cochon ('cause Dad gave it to me and we share a decadent food side)
− Old Gourmet Travellers – older the better
− Wolterinck – an extremely rare book that mum gave, with some of the most beautiful and over the top styling I have ever seen.
− Northern Spy Food Company blog - I read a lot of overseas food blogs to check out restaurants, catering and events companies website from all over the world.
− The Loft Project
− Boobs Radley - for comic relief when everything seems too much.
I love the style of John & Peter.
Sophie has put me on to at least a thousand wedding blogs but one goody that is easy to use is Grey Likes Weddings.
Dutch floral artist Marcel Wolterinck – we have his book on loan from Sophie’s mum, its pretty amazing to say the least!
For my birthday last year Sophie gave me Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi - this is one of my favourite cook books, the pictures are really well done, it's quite rustic and non pretentious which I like!
What would be your dream creative project?
SC - A wedding overseas – somewhere crazy like Brazil where we could use local produce and work with a local kitchen team or work with a restaurent… heaven!
ND - Funny you should ask, as just this morning I was thinking that I would love to produce a music festival, maybe it’s just the mood I’m in, it’s a far cry from what I have been working on and slightly ambitous but I think mixing all the creative and catering components together on a large scale event could be awesome!
*OMG Nicole AWESOME idea – local food meets local music, please do that I am there! - Lucy
Do your friends and family expect perfection at your dinner table!?
SC – sometimes!
ND - Haha with my family interstate, I rarely have to cook for them and even if I do, its just pasta the way my dad likes it!! With friends, we often go out for dinner so fortunately I don’t get judged, or we go to Sophies place and she cooks and well then its always delicious!!
What are you looking forward to?
SC - I’m going to Milan with AJ (future hub) and I can't wait to eat my way around Italy.
ND - I’m looking forward to this year and our businnes blossoming into it’s sixth year. The first five years were intense, and with all the hard work which we have put into the business I am hoping that this year we can stretch our wings a little more, get a bigger office and maybe even add a few new staff to our team!
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
SC - I really enjoy South Melbourne.
ND - I have always loved the city, I love Spring street, The City Wine Shop, The European and The Supper Club. I love meandering through Melbourne laneways and finding new hidden away restaurants. When I can it’s also great to get to the Victoria Market deli and buying up on picky bits mmmm!
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
SC – It’s not Melbourne but Dunkeld so I hope it counts. I went to the Royal Mail with Nic after we had worked our butts off at a wedding in Robe. I wasn’t expecting much as I don’t really get molecular gastronomy (and it’s the opposite to the way I cook) but I had a perfect plate of whiting with toasted quinoa, a brilliant sauce made from coconut or something (I was in a daze) beautiful produce and it made the rest of the drive a little more bearable – Nic had a stunning pecorino risotto w shaved zuchinini – she loved it!
ND - I do love pasta and a favourite of mine is Da Noi, Toorak road.
Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?
Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning?
SC - Either asleep till midday if I worked on Friday night, or out to breaky somewhere wonderful!
ND - If we are not working, my day usually starts with walking, coffee and a good breakfast!
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
SC - Da Noi.
ND - I am into the fish taco’s at Fonda.