Ever serve dinner to a houseful of strangers, in a kitchen foreign to you, on a stove you’re not used to? Where guests hover, watching you like you’re a Food Network show, and children and pets patter about, hangry?
Kathy Paradise does it all the time. And she carries it off like a perspiration-proof pro, making fast friends of all those strangers while she’s at it.
But the Charlotte Harbor chef hasn’t held a spatula for that long. In fact, she learned how to cook at the age of 44, out of dire necessity.
“My husband Jeff’s family is Italian, and they all cook,” she said. “They made homemade ravioli, homemade meatballs. They always did the cooking, and I was always asked to bring the rolls. I thought I’d never measure up.”
When Jeff, now 57, suffered the first of several massive heart attacks 13 years ago and nearly died three times, Kathy, then a Murdock Middle School staffer, changed their lifestyle radically. She began preparing a special diet for her husband, studied cooking and gradually developed her own style.
With Jeff severely disabled and unable to continue working, Kathy realized she needed to do more. She had to start her own business to support them.
She consulted a mentor, who asked her what people always called on her to do—her calling, if you will.
She thought for a minute, about event requests that she’d been handling for Murdock Middle, and replied, “Cook.”
“Well,” the mentor told her, “that’s what you should be doing.”
THE MAKING OF A CHEF
In 2014, at the age of 52, Kathy entered the Charlotte Technical College culinary program.
She quickly became the most memorable face behind the lunch counter at CTC’s student-run Papa G’s cafeteria, and not just because of her age. Her glowing good cheer boded well for a future in hospitality.
Of the CTC program, Kathy said, “Chef Jason Osborne is a great teacher, who can relate to all ages. But the hardest thing I had to learn was that, to be teachable again at my age, I had to completely humble myself and learn not to be afraid to make mistakes.”
After graduating in 2015, she started humbly indeed, prepping for mammoth catering events at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center. She remembers hours spent peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes and standing in the cooler with a jacket on, scooping 500 ice cream balls and coating each one with coconut.
She soon decided to move on, while running a personal chef business on the side. By 2016, the earnest adult student was a CTC paraprofessional working for her former teacher, Chef Osborne, and managing the school’s Breaktime Café student-operated coffee shop.
A CALLING TO CATER
“People kept asking me to cater,” she said. “So I got my state catering license in 2017 and hired a few people, including my current sous-chef and right hand, Jesse Ciarcia, whom I’d met at CTC.”
Ever since, she’s been operating her own culinary enterprise—Event Elements Personal Chef and Catering Services—not just to support the family, which was her original goal, but also to ensure enough at-home time to be Jeff’s caregiver. It’s been a delicate balancing act.
She explained, “The left side of Jeff’s heart is basically dead; it doesn’t work at all. He has an LVAD (left ventricular assist device), an implanted machine that keeps his heart pumping. We’re still praying for a heart transplant, but he’s not yet eligible for one. He’s my first priority, and this business is how God has allowed me to provide for us.”
In fact, Jeff wouldn’t have qualified for his life-saving LVAD if Kathy hadn’t been in a line of work that allowed her to act as his caregiver.
Its popularity spreading by word of mouth, Event Elements began catering events at homes from Naples to Sarasota—holiday gatherings, theme parties, weddings, anniversaries and birthday blasts for all ages.
“The best part of this job,” Kathy said, “is meeting so many wonderful people and helping them celebrate special moments in their lives.”
She describes her cuisine as “comfort food, home cooking, flavors that are delicious, and simple foods that taste good together or inspire me. I think people overcomplicate things; sometimes the simplest foods are the best.”
Instead of having an 18-page catering catalog with lots of confusing add-ons at different price points, Kathy tries to simplify that, too. She meets with clients first, to learn how they want their party to happen and how she can make it a special event customized for them.
The client finds a place for her to fit into their home. Kathy and Jesse do prep at the kitchen they’re currently renting, then finish everything at the client’s house. Afterwards, they’ll neaten up, put leftovers in containers they provide, take the garbage out and clean the floor.
“I had one client who must’ve changed the menu for her husband’s 80th birthday four times and was so concerned about all the little specific details,” Kathy remembered. “It was golf-themed, and each station was supposed to be a green. People can have something in mind about how they want things done, but I have to give them the reality of executing it. So, I remained patient until she finally settled. Then I said, ‘Okay, this is our final arrangement, and it’s going to be great!’ It ended up exceeding her expectations.”
THE LORD WILL PROVIDE
Event Elements was on a roll in 2020, in its second year among HARBOR STYLE’s Harbor’s Hottest caterers, with nine major events scheduled for March and April.
They all COVID-canceled, one after another, drying up Kathy’s sole source of income.
Her heart sank. “What now?” she thought. “This is all I do. I don’t have another job.”
“We applied for help from the Charlotte County Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD), the SBA disaster loan and the Florida bridge loan,” she said. “Our bank told us to be patient.”
Meanwhile, she and Jeff shifted gears to once-a-week meal pickups and deliveries, with Jeff manning the phone and pushing promos on Facebook.
Then the church whose kitchen they’d been using shut down.
After the Paradises spent two incomeless weeks seeking a new kitchen, Lisa Blanchard of Punta Gorda’s temporarily closed Orange House Wine Bar stepped up to offer them hers.
“It’s been a big struggle, especially through this COVID crisis, but somehow we’ve survived,” Kathy said. “We can’t give up. We have to keep on trying. This is what God gave me to do, and somehow he provides. The community has rallied around us—our Deep Creek Community Church family as well as our friends—and we’re very grateful.”
Today, Chefs Kathy and Jesse wear masks and gloves, sanitize everything, follow ServSafe Manager procedures and take every precaution, as they’ve always done.
Only one complication still gnawed at their confidence and loomed over the oncoming holiday season. The Orange House kitchen wouldn’t remain available forever. Surely the Punta Gorda wine and tapas bar would reopen to serve its own customers, and Event Elements would have to leave.
But once again they’ve been borne up by good friends in the local restaurant business.
Now, after months of uncertainty, anguish and pivoting, the Paradises’ ultimate dream—having their own restaurant while continuing to cater—is beginning to come true. If all goes smoothly, Kathy said, she hopes to offer Thanksgiving dinners-to-go for four, eight or 12. They’ll return to dinner pickups and deliveries. They even dare hope to hold sit-down dinners, two or three days a week, served from their own permanent kitchen in a restaurant that they’ll announce by November 1. (Editor’s Note: Full details were not available by press time.)
It will be a big transition, this time to something she’s never done before. But, as Kathy says, “It doesn’t matter how old you are. You have to keep growing.”