[attach]7156[/attach]Before launching his own cooking company, Ben Zittell was asked to cater a party for his friend’s parents. For the dinner event, he barbecued and prepared chicken, burgers and lamb for 80 guests.
He was “super stressed and a mess about it,” he recalls.
“I’d never done anything on that scale before and it went really well. The people all loved the food I made and I kind of had this ‘aha moment’ where I was like maybe I can do this.”
Although Zittell, who grew up watching and reproducing recipes from The Food Network, previously taught himself different cooking techniques, learned about regional cuisines, flavours and spices, and soaked up online tutorials, he’d never seriously entertained the idea of turning his hobby into a career until that party.
“People would always say, ‘Ben, you should become a chef, you should work at a restaurant,’ ” he says. “My response always was, ‘I like cooking for myself, but it’s a hobby.’
“It’s something that I love to do but I didn’t know if I wanted to make it my work, because I didn’t want to kill that passion.”
In September, after having gained two years of experience working at a restaurant and catering company to refine his skills, Zittell launched an at-home catering company called Ben Cooks Good. The endeavour has him preparing meals in the comfort of his clients’ homes.
“The idea is, I come into your house and offer you good food that’s prepared freshly for you,” he says. “Whether it’s a romantic dinner for two or 20, I come to your house, I chat with you and get to know you a little bit.
“I’m not just the faceless guy who is making your food.”
By offering made-to-order meals, Zittell says he can customize menus to accommodate a wide range of needs, from food allergies to dietary restrictions to kosher dinners.
Although he engages with his clients and dinner guests and focuses on service, he says his No. 1 priority is making sure everyone likes the food.
“Looking at people’s faces when they eat my food and knowing that they really enjoyed it, that’s the greatest sense of satisfaction you can have as a cook,” he adds.
Some of his most popular dishes to date include maple cured cedar planked salmon, double baked potato bites (twice baked small roasting potatoes) and stuffed burgers filled with goods like roasted jalapeno and smoked cheddar.
As the resident chef in his family, Zittell admits he also cooks a lot of dinners, including a weekly meal at his parents’ home near Briar Hill Avenue and Avenue Road, which he also uses to prepare and develop recipes.
“I come over after work for Friday night dinner with my parents so usually I’ll cook whatever the main dish is,” he says. “I pretend, I joke like, ‘Oh fine, do I have to? I just want to sit and watch TV,’ but really I’m like, ‘I get to cook food again!’
“I cook a lot for my family and my friends and I love it.”
Since starting Ben Cooks Good, one of his highlights was a birthday celebration where he prepared hors d’oeuvres for 45 people. It was his first gig. He was thrilled to see some of the guests took home his business card.
“It was scary and exciting all at the same time,” he reflects. “It was really exciting because it’s my own company and I’m doing something I love, which is amazing.
“But it was also terrifying because now that it’s official, if people don’t like what I do they have a name and a face to pin on it.” Then he adds, with a wry smile: “Ben cooks terribly, it’s a lie!”
As for the name, Zittell purposely chose the bad grammar to represent his laid-back nature and to make people feel more at ease when he comes into their homes.
“I wanted something that explained what I do but was also kind of a casual and disarming, and I think Ben Cooks Good does that,” he says. “I obviously didn’t think that was grammatically correct, but I liked the ring to it.
“It kind of describes me a little bit, because I’m kind of a quirky, whimsical guy.”