Let’s face it, in Wisconsin, we need to savor every warm-weathered moment possible. When Mother Nature shines down upon us with favorable temperatures, we need to escape the stuffy trappings we look to for refuge in the winter and soak up the sun.
The months ahead will be cause to hold a variety of special events outdoors, including weddings and graduation parties. Across the area, local businesses offering catering services will help plan menus at assorted outdoor events this spring and summer, and each offers their own specialty or niche.
Lemongrass Madison Catering
Saren Ouk, owner of Lemongrass Madison Catering, established the business in early 2018, but his experience with food preparation extends back much further. Saren specializes in cooking Cambodian fusion cuisine—a nod to his cultural upbringing and his mother’s influence in food preparation.
Since launching Lemongrass, Saren has provided outdoor catering for such organizations as the Madison Blaze women’s tackle football team. Saren also has shared his love of cooking at disparate events across the area. Among them: the Cinco de Mayo festival in Verona, Taste of Madison, and the Monona Community Festival. As 2019’s outdoor events ramp up, Saren says he has more planned on the horizon, including catering his first wedding.
Mother Nature, of course, can throw a few curveballs in the spring and summer as rain and other unfavorable conditions occur. Saren, however, says he is undaunted by such phenomena. “It’s really more about the experience. You want to make it as enjoyable as possible. And when you’re outdoors, you just see a whole different light on people’s faces.”
Regardless of the venue—outdoors or indoors—Saren says he enjoys sharing his love of cooking with others. “What I do—it’s not a job, it’s a passion. I love to see smiles.”
Saren says he also enjoys giving people an opportunity to try some of his Cambodian fusion dishes, some melding his cultural influence with a taste of the Dairyland. The Wisconsin cheese curd tempura is an example of one of Saren’s signature dishes. In addition to the namesake curds, ingredients include a lemongrass avocado puree and sweet-pickled red onions. “The world is bigger than we know.”
Mad City Chefs
Ethan Kaercher, executive chef and owner of Mad City Chefs, launched the business in 2012. In the more than half-decade since its launch, the business has become known for offering what Ethan describes as an affordable luxury—a private chef. The goal, Ethan says, is to offer health-filled, high-quality, chef-prepared meals.
When it comes to catering outdoor events, Ethan says Mad City Chefs has offered up its services at a range of functions. In addition to weddings and graduations, the company’s services have been offered at such affairs as Madison’s annual skydiving event.
Mad City Chefs has offered its outdoor catering services at events from as small as 10 people to as large as 200. Ethan says he and his staff are able to maneuver around any challenges that might crop up, and he points to the planning and prep work beforehand as reasons for the ease in the process.
“I like to get to know my clients on a personal basis,” Ethan says. “Every situation and circumstance is different for each event. I really like this work because it’s challenging—it’s good to try to pull off the impossible. There’s nothing better than being of service to somebody who cares.”
In terms of menu items, Mad City Chefs has become known for its farm-to-table cuisine. Ethan says authenticity is at the heart of each dish prepared. “We work with different local farmers.” Regardless of the event, Ethan’s goal is to offer up a delicious, nutritious meal.
The company participates in the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program, which “shows we’re a true farm-to-table operation,” Ethan says. “We try to be as local as possible with everything we serve.”
Willy Street Co-op
Longtime Madisonians are likely familiar with Willy Street Co-op, which is in the midst of celebrating its 45th year in business. The local cooperative has long been known as a grocery option for fresh, local, organic, and natural foods. More recently, Willy Street Co-op has become a destination for catering, including outdoor events.
One of Willy Street Co-op’s most visible and recognized signs of outdoor catering is the organization’s annual meeting and party. Five thousand meals are served at the annual event, held each July as a celebration of Willy Street Co-op’s member owners and accomplishments from prior years.
Jamie Acocks, kitchen director, whose roles within the cooperative include planning menu items on the hot bar, says Willy Street Co-op launched its catering service more than a decade ago. Meals are prepared at Willy Street’s commissary kitchen in Madison.
In terms of outdoor catering, Willy Street Co-op’s niche has been an extension of its in-store offerings. Staffers have provided services and expertise to a range of different events, including weddings.
“We are the go-to place for people looking to have fun, casual, folksy weddings,” Jamie says, adding that the cooperative’s expertise with vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and other types of specialty cuisine are a notable area of focus. “We appeal to lots of different folks, and we think we have something unique to offer.”
Willy Street Co-op also has offered up its outdoor catering services at small home parties and has been putting on display its food preparation services by way of the $5 dinner events that have been offered at the northside location.
In the road ahead, Jamie says Willy Street Co-op plans to continue growing out its catering services, indoors and outdoors. “We are constantly innovating and looking for new ways to grow and expand the business. When it comes to outdoor catering, we are looking to bring it to a whole new level.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.
501 E. Badger Road
Madison, WI 53713
Mad City Chefs
824 Drumlin Drive
Oregon, WI 53575
Willy Street Co-op
1221 Williamson Street
Madison, WI 53703
2817 N. Sherman Avenue
Madison, WI 53704
6825 University Avenue
Middleton, WI 53562