The Joy of Catering

By Michelle F. Solomon

Joy Wallace with Vizcaya Executive Director Joel Hoffman
Joy Wallace has fed everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to every president since Jimmy Carter. Her Miami catering company has been in business more than 25 years and boasts creating the menus for three parties in honor of President Bill Clinton and two for President Barack Obama. "For one of the parties at a private home, Obama didn't show, so instead they substituted celebrities — Matt Damon and his wife, Luciana Barosso; Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck." The second for President Obama, he did show, she says. She knows that the Queen of Spain has an allergy to MSG. "So do I," she says, "so we never prepare anything with MSG," says the professional caterer.

She remembers a food taster being sent in before an event she catered for Pope John Paul and Ronald Reagan. She reveals that as a caterer, you cannot tell purveyors that you're buying food to cater a party for a president. "For some presidents, they'll send someone to watch your preparation." And, there cannot be a specific plate created for the president. "You can't say, 'this is the plate that will be served to the president." From dignitaries to celebrities, her staff must be pre-approved and there is a no cell phone and no camera zero tolerance rule.

It's an exciting life for A Joy Wallace Catering. The A was added when she boldly approached Vizcaya after just opening her business to inquire if they would add her to their list of caterers. "I knew the list was alphabetical, so when they asked me I said the name of my company was A Joy Wallace. It got me to the top of the list and everyone surmised that I was the best caterer on the list — people didn't know it was alphabetical."

If success is measured in square feet, Wallace's is tenfold. She now has five buildings for A Joy Wallace catering at its South Miami location, including one building that's devoted to housing a 25,000 square foot commissary. She has 60 full time staff members that are individually hand selected by her. "I think life is too short to be with people you don't care to be with. I'm with these people more than I'm with my family." That fact is not an understatement for someone who works usually more than 60 hours a week and attends almost every event her company is catering. "Once I worked 110 hours in one week." On the day we spoke, Wallace was getting ready for two back-to-back parties — one at her home turf of Vizcaya and the other at The Bath Club on Miami Beach. Not only did she have to worry about the food, the flowers and other details, but it was going to be one of the coldest nights of the year in South Florida. "We're scrambling for heaters. We own some and we are renting others."

At a recent luncheon Wallace hosted for press to generate excitement around the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Café and Shop, Wallace mentioned, among other things, that "We're now doing gay weddings," then talked about her own "Cinderella" story. She held up the storybook Cinderella and described her own magical life. She said she found her Prince Charming — husband, Richard, but that her fairytale wasn't complete until she had a castle to entertain guests. Twelve years ago she said she got the opportunity when she became the exclusive caterer for Vizcaya's Museum and Gardens Café and Shop.

She received a call that the gentleman who had run the café and gift shop for 24 years had left. "At the time, I had never run a café, but I try not to say no to any opportunity for business. I'll say yes and then I'll figure out how to do it and do it well." The management at Vizcaya told her that part of the café job would be to also run the gift shop. "They ask, 'could you run the gift shop, too?' and I said, 'Sure.' — I had never done that either," she confided.
The entrepreneur, who says she feels fortunate to be a woman who has succeeded in an industry dominated by men, has never been one to resist a challenge. After Hurricane Katrina hit, Wallace was asked if she'd round up her catering trucks and head to Pass Christian, Miss. "We fed 3,000 people every day for 3 ½ months." As someone who had lost her home in Hurricane Andrew, she felt their pain. "Except they had lost everything — their homes, their cars, entire towns washed away."

For Wallace, the opportunity to feed people, she says, is a daily blessing. "Food is very personal. Food is emotional. The thrill of sitting down together, having a glass of wine, enjoying good food — from the place settings to the food itself, it should be inspirational."

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