Victoria caterers find common ground downtown

The catering business isn’t as cut-throat as you might think. In a space where dozens of companies compete in cuisine for special events, Guy Le Monnier and Shirley Lang have literally found common ground.

Le Monnier operates Ambrosia Event Centre downtown, a 3,000-square-foot meeting-dining facility. Lang has Kitchens of Distinction Catering Services, a smaller, niche company specializing in ethnic foods and homemade fare for smaller groups.

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This fall, the two joined forces when Lang opened Kitchens of Distinction Boutique Bistro inside Ambrosia. The 20-seat bistro and counter just inside the facility at 638 Fisgard St., features an evolving menu of the scratch-made dishes that has made Lang one of the region’s most popular mobile foodservice providers.

“The beauty of this is, we don’t overlap in what we do,” says Lang. “Guy does the bigger feasts — the meat and potatoes — for meetings and weddings and groups of of all sizes. I’m on a different scale, with small plates, ethnic specialities, hors-d’oeuvres, sandwiches.”

Le Monnier calls it a win-win. His large kitchen is put to use through the service agreement with Lang, and her Bistro drives traffic in the downtown core, bringing in potential customers who may want to book the facility for larger events.

Le Monnier took over the Ambrosia lease in September 2012 from Steve Walker-Duncan who were operators for five years. He has since added several upgrades, including new floors.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin and Coun. Pam Maddoff, as well as Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, attended a ribbon-cutting this week that drew about 200 people, all of them fans of the food of Le Monnier and Lang.

“The timing was perfect,” said Le Monnier, a native of France who has been in Canada since 1990 and Victoria since 1997. They call it a “strategic alliance.”

“The support, the contacts are very beneficial,” said Le Monnier. “Often work in the kitchen is isolated, so having another caterer here is a good thing.”

Lang and Le Monnier have diverse backgrounds, but a common focus on creating good food. Although their paths never crossed, they were both in Toronto for several years where the ethnic mix gives way to variety of restaurants and food.

Lang, 55, is of Cree ancestory, born on a farm in North Dakota and has been cooking since she was eight. She moved to Toronto at age 19, where she ran a talent agency and hair salons. She lived with families from Morocco, Greece and Lebanon over the years and learned cooking styles in “family kitchens.”

She carried that through over the years with her catering business. Lang’s Moroccan chicken is famous. Last month, she celebrated Mexican Independence Day with traditional dishes. Next month, she has a focus on East Indian cuisine. True to her heritage, she also catered First Nations and Métis events with traditional foods.

“I create menus every week that are different,” said Lang. “I find holidays around the world and celebrate it with food. It’s popular and keeps you creative.”

She uses very little salt, relying on herbs and local ingredients instead.

The Kitchens of Distinction brand comes from learning in home kitchens and taking her catering into private parties and residences. Her bistro is guided by the same. “I was taught when you invite people into your home, you treat them like gold and make them feel welcome to come back,” said Lang. “When we all sit down around a table, we’re all equal. Food levels the playing field.”

Le Monnier, 50, left his home in France as an 18-year-old for Germany, travelled all through Asia and on to Australia, learning his trade in restaurant kitchens. He’s also worked in Paris for several years, working in chef pools that placed him in several restaurants.

It was during those stints that Le Monnier learned the art of French cuisine. “I would have my knives and go each morning, on the subway, to different restaurants,” he said. “You learned so much that way.”

Le Monnier spent seven years in Toronto, working at various restaurants as well as owning his own French place. “I needed that ‘everyday is different,’” he said. “I also wanted a nice place to raise my family.” So he arrived in Victoria to create a catering company and ran Island Gourmet for years.

He had a commercial kitchen, but closed it just as the lease for the Ambrosia Centre came open. He’s coming off a brisk wedding season, corporate business has been solid and the Christmas season is nearly fully booked.

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