Sophie Storen: From world-class kitchens to big-time dining events
Chef-turned-caterer Sophie Storen on finding 'her' people and understanding what success means.
It’s November and things are heating up in Melbourne’s weddings, corporate events and cocktail party scenes.
“Next week we have our big Toyota event, which is 650 people, and a day later we’re doing a wedding for 300,” laughs Sophie Storen, owner of St Kilda-based catering and dining-experience company Cookes Food. “On Saturday, I’ve got to set up for a ‘low-key’ cocktail party in Toorak for 180.”
With sales up 60 per cent on last year, Storen is busy but satisfied. Cookes Food employs three full-time chefs (plus one part time), two kitchen hands and three event managers (and she’s looking for a fourth).
The path to becoming a successful caterer and owning her own business began with a deep love of food. “I was a ferocious eater,” she recalls of her childhood in Melbourne. “I had brothers who used to mow-down breakfast, lunch and dinner, so, in order to get a fair share, I had to be fairly aggressive.”
Storen’s stay-at-home mother was a long-time student of culinary legend Elizabeth Chong and regularly spent hours preparing nine-course banquets for family dinners. “Our whole lives revolved around the kitchen bench watching Mum cook – we’d all sit up there and do our homework or chat.”
Although Storen knew she wanted to be a chef early on, her parents persuaded her to go to university, where she explored a flair for creative writing (her one published short story involves a culinary love triangle and cannibalism). Meanwhile, she worked night shifts in restaurants and skipped classes to manage catering events.
After graduating, Storen talked her parents into helping her study cooking at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “It was pretty old-fashioned,” she says, “but it was good in a sense of learning those techniques that are hundreds of years old but so important. It made me appreciate classic cooking.”
It wasn’t until Storen met and worked for renowned Australian chef and former Vogue food editor Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries Café in London that she discovered there were people out there just like her.
“I marched in there with an ‘I love cooking’ T-shirt on,” laughs Storen at her 25-year-old self. “[But] that’s where I realised there were people like me who were completely obsessed with food and cooking and eating in restaurants and talking about buffalo mozzarella for two hours.”
Storen’s relationship with Gyngell was key. She worked at the Michelin-starred restaurant for two-and-a-half years, forming close personal bonds and learning a lot about cooking and life.
Homesickness eventually brought Storen back to Australia. For a while, she worked for the owners of the Petersham Nurseries Café, the Boglione family, in Sydney. She led a frenetic life cooking for the city’s powerful and famous, such as fashion designers Jenny Kee and Collette Dinnigan.
When Storen returned to Melbourne in 2007, her father, an experienced businessman, told her about a kitchen he had seen for lease. “That’s when I started thinking about doing my own thing,” she recalls.
Storen met Nicole De Bono, who was selling cupcakes to cafes, and asked if she wanted to start a business together. The inexperienced pair took out a bank loan and rented the kitchen. “We had absolutely no idea,” Storen says. “All the money we borrowed was spent on produce from Simon Johnson thinking we would have a shop, and then it ran out.”
Despite a few false starts, the pair gradually built momentum. They then moved to larger premises in St Kilda.
When De Bono left the partnership two years ago, Storen initially lost confidence. However, bringing in a business mentor for six months turned things around: “We got systems in place, we set up whole new templates of how we quote, and we worked out our unique selling point.” It also led to Storen moving out of the kitchen and employing people who could teach her new skills.
Today, Storen focuses on creating menus that draw from her deep passion for cooking. She says she isn’t afraid to say ‘no’ to a customer if she thinks a menu selection won’t work, either – something she puts down to self-confidence and hard-won experience.
“We used to have a menu [with a full list of dishes] and people were selecting items that didn’t work together.” Storen says clients often thought about what they liked to eat and forgot about other considerations, such as gluten-free options. “I had one guy who picked items off our menu and every single thing was fried.”
Now Storen creates a tailored menu for each event. Her selections are inspired by the brief, the venue, conversations with the client and the seasonal produce available. She only hires chefs with restaurant experience because she wants to focus on flavour rather than appearances. “We like to cook things a little bit more a la minute.”
Of all the lessons from her varied culinary career, Storen says what resonates is the ‘spirit of generosity’ picked up from her time with Gyngell. “Having a sense of giving [clients] more than they expect, and whether that’s in the service you provide or by listening to their problems – especially the brides – or giving them, a little bit more just ‘because’.
“There’s so much value in that because people feel secure, looked after and they become repeat business. And they’ll tell their friends.”
So, what of the future? After years of cooking in other people’s kitchens, Storen is thinking about creating a space of her own, perhaps a small hotel in Macedon or the Mornington Peninsula.
“We want to create a venue, but we want to do it differently to anything anyone’s done before,” says Storen. “It needs to be something where we’re not going to get bogged down – so different and ‘out there’ that it’s only for the select few who will get it.”
Cookes Food is located in St. Kilda Victoria. For more information and to get in touch visit https://www.cookesfood.com.au/
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