Sunday, November 4, 2012

And Where Do You “Where To?”: Aleya Desné of Culinary Princess Catering

As we inch into autumn, millions of holiday affairs are starting to sprout up. I thought about all of the Christmas parties taking place in restaurants and hotels – the holiday functions being catered at banquet halls, work offices and homes – and one particular person popped into mind: Aleya Desné.

Aleya Desné is the Executive Chef & Owner of Culinary Princess Catering (CPC), a successful boutique catering business that creates specialized dishes for a variety of clients and events, ranging from holiday gatherings to wedding buffets and food preparation and delivery.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen her articles pop up in local newsletters, greedily ogled and drooled over the dishes she’s posted online and learned a lot about food (like the benefits of Brussels sprouts) from reading her blog. So, I decided to reach out to her to learn more about how she launched her business – especially in an economic time like this – and to find out what it’s like being a young entrepreneur.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased because she’s a fellow USC Trojan and she’s also a member of my sorority, the amazing Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., but I don’t think so. Aleya truly has an inspirational story that’s realistic and not sugar-coated about what it’s like to step out on faith and to follow one’s passion...

Continue reading to find out how she got started, what her most popular mouth-watering dishes are and what fabulous pearls of wisdom she has to offer!

Miss Wilson: What prompted you to launch your own catering business?
Aleya Desné: I discovered my passion for cooking in a non-conventional way. After working in the apparel and cosmetic industries and then being laid off, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to do something with my life that made me truly happy every day. After exploring my creativity by doing things like scrap booking, writing poetry and reading, I was still direction-less. I prayed and asked God to show me what I should be doing with my life. Boom: Cooking happened. I had always enjoyed cooking, but had never thought about making it into a career before. I decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu and combine my cooking knowledge with by undergraduate degree in Business from USC to build a life for myself where I could continue to strive for my passions daily and build a legacy for those who follow me.

I actually wrote a blog post on why I made the switch from corporate to culinary when my journey first began (mostly so people wouldn't think I was crazy). It might fill in some of the gaps:

Miss Wilson: Did you ever think about joining a restaurant or an existing catering team prior to launching your own catering business?
Aleya Desné: I had never even thought about opening my own business prior to starting Culinary Princess Catering! My focus was on Marketing and Public Relations. I thought that I would have more stability by working for someone else. That was proven to be incorrect when I was laid off on a whim. I do not have plans at this time to open a restaurant, but I will continue to grow my catering business, including the private chef and in-home cooking class components.

Miss Wilson: Is it a balancing act to manage both the business/operational side and the creative, culinary side?
Aleya Desné: Yes! It definitely keeps me busy, but I enjoy both the analytical and creative sides of my business. I get to design amazing dishes and then play my own devil's advocate by asking myself questions like, "How much is that going to cost?" and "What type of ROI will that yield?" I will admit that it is easy to get bogged down with routine tasks. I can't wait until I get a bit bigger and can hire more office support so that I can focus on the strategic vision to drive my company forward.

Miss Wilson: How did the current dishes end up on your menu – what was the selection process like?
Aleya Desné: All of my dishes start with my favorite foods. Usually, if I don't like to eat it, it will not appear on my menu. I test out dishes prior to revealing them to the public and if it makes me say "Mmmm," then it is a winner. I also enjoy being inspired by seasons, new ingredients I find at the farmers market and past experiences. Some dishes are created to evoke a good memory or feeling. For example, the Baked Dijon Ranch Chicken reminds me of dinnertime with my mom and my Curry Chicken is inspired by my father. My menu is forever evolving and improving, which is part of the beauty of being in the culinary industry: Your art grows as you grow.

Miss Wilson: I noticed that you mentioned on your menu that the Ginger & Scallion Crab Cakes with Sweet Basil and Lemon Aioli (pictured to the right) is frequently requested. What would you say is the top favorite amongst Culinary Princess Catering clients – is it this one?
Aleya Desné: That is definitely one of them. Other CPC Client favorites include Mint & Basil Brussels Sprouts, Sauteed Spinach with Elephant Garlic and Shallots, Shrimp Puffs, Dijon Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb and Roasted Beet Salad.

Miss Wilson: What about you – do you personally have a favorite dish off your own menu?
Aleya Desné: Usually, when people ask me what my favorite dish is, I respond, "food" lol! What I enjoy eating usually depends on my mood, but one of my favorite comfort foods is Boeuf Bourguignon (pictured below).

Miss Wilson: What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?

Aleya Desné: My greatest accomplishment has been being brave enough to step out of my comfort zone and go after what makes me happy. I used to be very set on relying on the corporate structure for stability. Now, I feel more empowered and much stronger as a person.

Miss Wilson: Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring chefs and aspiring business owners?
Aleya Desné: Keep going! Starting a business can be a very daunting task. Setbacks can take a toll on you physically, emotionally and financially. However, if you keep working your passions, you will be successful. Infuse your day and your vision with positivity and purpose. Post inspirational quotes, bible verses and encouraging messages around you, and surround yourself with people who believe in your goals. My relationship with God has been critical in propelling me forward and keeping me encouraged. I would also recommend building your network with people within the culinary industry and outside of it. Join professional organizations, such as the American Culinary Federation (ACF) and learn from your peers. There is no "right" way to do anything, but by listening to the experiences of those who came before you or those who have concurrent journeys, you can better form your own way.

Miss Wilson: Where is your favorite “Where To” destination in LA (i.e., your favorite restaurant, lounge, museum, nightlife or social destination, etc.)?
Aleya Desné: I love Pete's Cafe in Downtown LA. It may not be ultra swanky, but the food is great and the environment is comfortable. Plus, I have a crazy schedule and they are open really late.


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