Meet Sam and Jeni Wahl. The Wahls are a couple who best represent what Chicago and Chicagoans are all about. Both are creative and warm, and have created a community of like minded individuals. Sam makes music. Jeni cooks. If you aren't already a part of this community, this is your introduction, and your invitation. Call Jeni in for your next party. Next Wednesday, come out to Ace Bar, and hear Sam's band.
This is an interview with Jeni Wahl. Learn about Jeni, her friend and chef, Keith and her husband Sam. Then get off your own couch. Come on out to hear some good music. Enjoy some of Jeni and Keith's good cooking. And do something about supporting local business in Chicago.
Jeni, tell me about Get Off the Couch Catering. How did it begin?
"It all started with Get Off The Couch, a singer-songwriter showcase my husband, Sam Wahl, started nearly 3 years ago to network with local Chicago songwriters. We used to host an after party in our loft, and I would make food for the artists and their guests. After months of feeding musicians both from Get Off The Couch and other touring musician friends of ours, we finally realized it was time to start Get Off The Couch Catering. Our friend and chef, Keith Carlson, was the perfect addition to make it happen."
When did you learn how to cook?
Jeni: "My Mom is rather incredible in the kitchen, and so is my Grandmother, so I certainly have cooking in my blood. I think I first became interested in learning some kitchen staples while I was in high school. My mom would teach me how to make a few dishes really well. Once I mastered a few things, I was able to branch out and try new things with confidence. In college I ended up being the one that hosted all my friends over for meals. That tradition has never ended."
Keith: "I've been interested in cooking for as long as I can remember, but after following my aspirations in 2001 by attending Le Cordon Bleu, I have been able to refine and improve all my skills and palate."
How do you develop new recipes?
Jeni: "It's hard to say. I am constantly being inspired by items from my childhood or even dishes I have out at a restaurant around town. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a recipe idea."
Chef Keith: "Lots and lots of research on the cuisine I'm interested in, and then I try and do something totally different."
What are two ingredients you can't/won't do without?
Jeni: "Ok, so here is where the Cuban in me comes out. Garlic and Pork. Mmmm garlic and pork."
Chef Keith: "Garlic, because it adds so much flavor in a variety of different ways (raw, roasted, browned). Scallops. Because they're amazing."
Who was your inspiration?
Jeni: "My Mom is and always has been pretty amazing in the kitchen, and she branched out from the amazing Cuban staples she learned from my grandmother. The combination of their abilities always led me to spending lots of time in the kitchen and more importantly, learning how to make things from scratch and not out of a box.
When I fell in love with something I had at a restaurant, my mom and I would try and replicate it at home. Google would have been nice back in the day. My mom was always willing to try something new and teach me that it just takes a little practice, and you can make anything happen in the kitchen. That has always remained with me. Confidence in the kitchen is critical."
Chef Keith: "Growing up and in my early years of culinary school, I was inspired by Emiril and the other TV stars of the burgeoning food network stars. After meeting Emiril, I realized I was more inspired by those that loved the food like Martin Yan, Lidia Bastianich, and finally, the Chef during my internship at Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis.
The internship was a great experience in a restaurant utilizing farm-to-fork long before it was the norm. I still use his inspiration when sourcing quality ingredients and preparing complimentary dishes of uncompromising standards. I was happy to hear my old boss won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Midwest."
What do you like to eat?
Jeni: "There isn't much I don't like to eat. Maybe frozen pizzas. I hate frozen pizzas. Things I love are creative and unique twists on common dishes and ingredients. I love combinations of flavors you don't expect to see, and I love spicy food when it's done just right!"
Chef Keith: "I love foods from all over the world! What I like to eat best is food that was made by someone that who food and truly desires to eat and present what they create. From scratch goodness is a good summary."
What makes your catering company, your food, stand out?
Jeni: "Our service, our attention to detail, and our desire to make you whatever your heart desires with our 'Custom Menu' approach. We make everything from scratch and Chef Keith is outrageously talented and he brings incredible experience and creativity to the table. We stand out as edgy, Rock-N-Roll Caterers."
Sam Wahl: "Resulting from our long history with the Music business, and our ongoing connection to the Chicago music community, especially with our monthly songwriter series, Get Off The Couch, we are very in touch with the wishes and desires of touring artists. Our familiarity with these artists and musicians and their rider requirements make us the best candidate for backstage catering in Chicago. We've been there and traveled in those shoes, and we know how important it is to have amazing food, made from scratch, when you're on the road."
How would you describe your cooking style?
Jeni: "Made from scratch would be the first thing that comes to mind. We like to mix old tradition with new techniques. I have a soft spot for some of my grandmother's Cuban recipes such as slow roasted pork, which we roast for 12 hours and use for some of our most popular appetizers like our Mini Medianoche Sandwiches (sweet bread, slow roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, homemade mustard, & pickles)."
Who are some cooks who have inspired you?
Jeni: "I must start with Chef Keith. I would be nothing more than 'that friend that cooks really well' were it not for Keith. He has really taught me how to bridge the gap on all the small things that make a big difference. But I wouldn't have even gotten to this point were it not for the influence of my Mom and Grandmother. Growing up in a Cuban kitchen certainly inspired a lot of the dishes I make today."
Could you finish this sentence please - Life without good cooking is...
Jeni: "Bland! Food is integral in everything I do. I am certainly one of those 'Live to Eat' types. Plus, this city is just jam packed with so much amazing talent, great comfortable spots to eat, that it just becomes a part of everything I do."
What's your biggest challenge for this catering business?
"We have been in business for a year and our business has grown so much that we desperately needed our own commercial space which we found at 939 W. 18th Street. We are excited to open Dia De Los Tamales as our storefront at that location in the Pilsen neighborhood and that space will also serve as our catering kitchen.
The kitchen construction is near completion and we are reaching out to our community via a KickStarter campaign to raise the funds for some of our equipment. Not reaching our goal on KickStarter means we don't get any of the monies pledged. Without these funds, we will not be able to support our quickly popular tamales brand or our catering clients.There are some pretty amazing incentives available, so don't miss out!"
What do you like best about it?
"What's not to love!?! The three of us are following our dreams, and creating something that people love! Everything can be connected to food. We couldn't be more excited about how the Pilsen Community is responding to our Dia De Los Tamales brand, the ongoing success of Get Off The Couch Catering and the project that started it all; our Get Off The Couch showcase the last Wednesday of every month."
The KickStarter campaign has begun and will run until February 22nd.
Inside Chicago *** My personal recommendation