Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Sounds Good to Us: Heidi Schlecht (left) and Amy Linstrom strive to create 'beautiful, vibrant food' for Feel Good Catering events. Schlecht also owns River Café.
Weaving together a lifelong friendship, a passion for good food and a commitment to the environment, Heidi Schlecht and Amy Linstrom are Feel Good Foods
By Christina Waters
Heidi Schlecht and Amy Linstrom's excellent adventure in party food performance art is a huge success story in the world of Central Coast catering. "It really started at my own wedding 12 years ago," recalls Schlecht, a Los Gatos native with a lifelong passion for interesting and beautifully presented cuisine. Along with her high school friend Amy Linstrom, Schlecht turned her culinary passion into an all-organic specialty catering business called Feel Good Foods, using her own wedding as a professional debut. "We always went to lunch together," the partners recall of their schoolgirl days. And they took notes on favorite foods, special and unusual dishes, and dreamed of having a restaurant or food business when they grew up. Now approaching their 40th birthdays, Linstrom and Schlecht orchestrate a full schedule of retreats, conferences, receptions, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, winery openings, bar mitzvahs and birthday parties--and cater events from Half Moon Bay to Monterey to Silicon Valley.
In the beginning, Feel Good Foods caught the attention of patrons by offering completely vegetarian specialties. "It was our way of reacting against the existing food system," Schlecht admits. After finishing college--Schlecht at UCSC in politics, Linstrom at UCSD in literature--both women got caught up in the organics movement. When Linstrom returned to the area to work with the UCSC Agroecology program, the catering idea was born. Today, reflecting the availability of free-range and natural meats, Feel Good events include artisanally produced meats that reflect the partners' lifestyles. "Lean, healthy, organic," they laugh. "Like us."
Feel Goods' signature dishes look as good as they taste. One-of-a-kind serving pieces are adorned with unexpected combinations of flowers and herbs, olives and nuts. The innovative pairings of tangy fresh fruit with salty cheeses and olives has long been part of their sparkling repertoire. Items like coriander-encrusted salmon wrapped in fig leaves and myriad brilliantly seasoned salads have helped create a devoted word-of-mouth clientele. The composting of food waste and reliance upon local producers are standard Feel Good practices, as they are at the neighboring River Café, spun off from the catering company a few years ago and now under Schlecht's ownership.
Striving for balance between work and private lives was crucial for both--Linstrom has a 2-year-old son, and Schlecht a 9-year-old daughter. The schedule is as full as they both want it now, and still allows time for family, home gardening and an annual two-week holiday at Yosemite. "We're not megacaterers," Linstrom says. They also admit to being recovering workaholics. "We used to be the first on the job and the last to leave," says Linstrom. But now they're not afraid to delegate some of the detailed multitasking involved in masterminding special occasions.
What do they strive for in establishing an identity? "Really beautiful, vibrant food," they both respond. The key to success? Always being personally on-site. And always being flexible. Here's how it works. First the partners consider the season--there are no stock menus, no "Teriyaki No. 24" people can point to and order. "Everything is customized," they insist. "I do recon on Wednesday," says Linstrom, who along with Schlecht combs the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market for choice items from local purveyors. "We deal with Niman Ranch for beef and pork, fish from Dave's and H&H and Rosie's for chicken," explains Schlecht. Unlike restaurants, a catering group can't simply buy half a pig and use all the parts in producing a single event. "We need 50 tri-tips," she rolls her eyes, adding, "There's a lot of math in catering."
Thursday can involve a full morning of sauce making in the sunny kitchen on Potrero Street. The day before a Saturday event more cooks are called in. "We both go to the job three hours in advance," says Linstrom. "We're taking the pulse of the event the whole time." In a dozen years they haven't had to endure any big disasters. "We've been pretty sharp on our toes, and that's what makes us good at what we do," Schlecht believes. "When something goes off-schedule--like the minister goes on 20 minutes longer than planned--you don't freak out," Linstrom adds. "You just deal."And for fun? They laugh. "We eat out."
FEEL GOOD FOODS is at 306 Potrero St., Santa Cruz; 831.429.7579. The RIVER CAFÉ & CHEESE SHOP is at 415 River St., Santa Cruz; 831.420.1280.