If you have attended any of the myriad of events and benefits that take place in the Hamptons, particularly during “the season,” chances are you have nibbled, dined and enjoyed the atmosphere created by Art of Eating. The husband and wife team of John Kowalenko and Cheryl Stair have been providing magical event planning and catering, along with their experience, to the community and social scene of the Hamptons since 1986.
New York Magazine rated them one of New York’s best caterers, and by the way, some of those bold face names include Christie Brinkley, Billy Joel, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa, Aretha Franklin, director Barry Sonnenfeld, the P.G.A. and Martha Stewart, among others. Along with television appearances on the Food Network’s Inside Scoop and Martha Stewart Living, they have earned the praise bestowed on them by the Food Network as “A world-class catering company that buys the best to serve the best.”
In addition to Art of Eating, the couple also owns Hamptons Event Management International, creating events from benefits, intimate dinner parties and extravagant weddings, thus proving that the most important recipe may actually be the recipe for success.
Kowalendo and Stair have always demonstrated their participation and involvement in the community where they live, and have worked with a number of charitable organizations by contributing food and event planning expertise to Taste of the Hamptons, The Child Development Center, Taste of Summer, Planned Parenthood, East End Aids Wellness, Group for the South Fork, The Nature Conservancy, Bay Street Theater, Guild Hall and Long Island University.
Additionally, Kowalendo has acted as the Operations Director for Share our Strength’s annual Taste of the Nation event in the Hamptons, and is the coordinator for Island Harvest where he “Helps restaurants transport what would be waste to various East End food pantries, The Retreat, A.P.P.L.E., and the Senior Citizens Center in East Hampton.”
How do a husband and wife team decide who oversees what aspect of a genuinely hectic profession? Well, these two have found a smooth and gracious balance that not only complements each other, but benefits any and all partygoers whose expectations they have continually managed to surpass.
Kowalenko focuses on the endless logistics including securing sites and rentals to tenting and photographers. As the former Director of Marketing and Sales for JP Hotels (Ritz-Carton, Holiday Inn, Marriott Hotels), he brings over 30 years experience in the hospitality, food and beverage industries. As a former mixologist at J.K.’s, J.K.’s Too and J.K.’s No Jackets Required, restaurants and clubs located in Westhampton and Hampton Bays, Kowalenko mastered product placement, and now continues to demonstrate his expertise in pulling together all the minute details for a successful event, along with navigating the sometimes complicated world of local variances and codes, and maintaining established relationships with town officials and local police departments.
Wherever Stair goes is where you hope to be at meal time! A talented chef, she creates anywhere from five to 25 new menus per week. Well versed in international culinary tastes, she spent her youth living in Germany and France as the daughter of a military man. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, she spent many years at well-known restaurants such as Starr Boggs and The Patio, among others. After also working with JP Hotel chain and as Chef d’Cuisine at The Left Bank in Florida, Stair returned to the East End where she became Chief Chef at the popular restaurant The Laundry.
Stair has produced themed menus covering Brazilian food to Mediterranean to BBQ to Moroccan to Thai to Portuguese to Cuban. With a library of over 250 cookbooks and her collection of food related magazines, she keeps it local with her multiple farmstand visits to secure her ingredients, and uses organic produce whenever possible.
Warning! Catching up with these two for a few questions may leave one hungry for more:
How difficult was the transition for both of you coming from working for other well-known entities and restaurants to launching your own very successful business?
JK/CS: There wasn’t much of a transition at all. We were both working in restaurants and began catering on the side. One event floated on to the next and the next… in a way, it happened by accident!
You are both to be thanked for your charitable contributions. Have you noticed any surprising changes in what types of organizations may need assistance?
JK/CS: Through the years the biggest change we’ve seen is the increase of charitable events. In the past, most events were all local organizations with local ties, and only a handful per season. Now, any given weekend there could be upward of 20 different events going on, many hosted by national and international organizations. It shows the drive of those who want to help, but also shows how many people and causes need that help.
What changes have you noticed not only in menu requests, but restrictions that might prevail in local policies when doing an event?
JK/CS: Surprisingly, menus have not changed that drastically. We recently found a menu we served 30 years ago and it wasn’t that far off from something we’d prepare today. We have always believed in and embraced the farm-to-table movement, and now, people are much more conscious of it. They are much more in tune with and are extremely appreciative of what’s around us. Rules and regulations change every year, but not everyone is always aware of them. As a caterer and event planner it’s critical to stay on top of it to make sure all productions run smooth.
What are the trendiest ingredient requests you have had to incorporate in
JK/CS: Right now, one of the most common requests we’re seeing is homemade ricotta. Anything fresh is trendy, people love it.
What is the most unusual themed event you have created?
JK/CS: Themes go in circles. Something that may have been unusual last season can easily turn into this season’s most popular theme. One thing that we do see trending is the laidback and casual ambiance. Passed hors d’oeuvres are a thing of the past. People want the service but don’t want guests to realize that they’re being served.
What’s the smallest and largest events you have provided?
JK/CS: The smallest event we ever hosted was for two people. It was a wedding in the dunes in Amagansett. We were the caterers, DJ, photographers, everything. Even the witnesses! The bride and groom felt as though the big wedding they were planning with their families was getting away from the true meaning behind the occasion. They had their wedding a few weeks prior to the big party. The largest ever was a weeklong event, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for 800 people.
What is each of your favorite cuisines?
JK/CS: We love ALL food. We can’t pick just one.
For more information go to www.hamptonsartofeating.com.