Nothing stops the team at a thyme to cook

Linda Sample of North Stonington, owner of a thyme to cook in North Stonington, speaks with executive chef Shawn Bittman, regarding an upcoming function.
Linda Sample of North Stonington, owner of a thyme to cook in North Stonington, speaks with executive chef Shawn Bittman, regarding an upcoming function. Tim Martin photo

Nursing hardly seems like the career path that would lead to being president and owner of a catering and special events company. But for a thyme to cook's Linda Sample the most important measure of success – how you take care of people – applies to both.

Originally from Dedham, Mass., Sample attended Massachusetts General Hospital's School of Nursing, and then earned a Bachelor of Science in nursing at Northeastern University. Next, she focused on chronic lung disease for her master's degree at the Boston University School of Nursing and taught nursing. In 1984, while she was pursuing a PhD at Yale University, she and her former husband, John Urbanetti, opened a specialty food shop in Waterford dubbed "a thyme to cook."

Catering took off. Eventually, she divorced and married Steve Konow. And instead of finishing her PhD, she bought the property in North Stonington where the business is now housed. She has two adult children from her first marriage and three from her second.

Although, in ways, she still thinks of herself as a nurse, catering is her mission today.

"Its creative," she said, "positive, and always evolving."

Grace: Being someone who is nurturing seems like a calling that has followed you through education, work and family life. So what made you switch from nursing to catering as a career?

My goal as a pulmonary clinical nurse specialist was to help patients learn to understand their asthma, how it affects them, what factors they can control and what holistic methods to use to make them more independent, more functional and less anxious. These factors are often unrecognized until they are missing. Catering is a very similar situation. It is important to determine what the clients really want, how to help them get there and how we can make everyone most comfortable by attending to details (that they may have never recognized as a need). We help them determine priorities in design, menu, style and service. I look at this as a natural extension of my nursing experience – and promote this as a philosophy in our staff.

Grace: What was your first big success as a caterer, and how have you topped it since?

Likely the opening of the Sonalysts movie studio: We designed food stations based on several genres of movies to include bikini clad girls passing hors d'oeuvres while roller skating. We also did the food-set-design and execution for all the historically correct food scenes for the filming of Amistad. Those were both momentous occasions. Topping those highlights is relative. Bringing joy to a celebration of 50 people, in which guests reiterate — "that was so them," is to my mind, equal, if not more (rewarding). Success is not about the numbers. It is about relationships and connections and giving people what they didn't even know they wanted in the first place!

Grace: Rachael Ray is always showing us how to cook for ourselves, but having someone else do it for you is so nice. Do you like to cook?

I love food and the concept of cooking and am so fortunate to have a husband with an amazing palate, patience, great knife skills and love of flavor experimentation. So, that being said, he does most of the cooking. I live and breathe and read and discuss and brainstorm food constantly, so I really appreciate coming home late to a wonderful meal.

Grace: What is your favorite appetizer to serve at a home party?

The most important aspect of entertaining is the enjoyment of people coming together, and I hate to spend any time away from that. So, I keep it simple and do not get into hors d'oeuvres. (I provide) all kinds of olives, spreads, pickled veggies, crisp crostini with cheese, bunches of fresh herbs from our garden with a few chopped veggies.

Grace: How do you figure out what that bride and groom or corporate executive wants?

Our team spends inordinate time getting to know our clients, getting inside their heads — discovering what is it that they do not want or like, and then gradually honing in to learn their priorities and what is most important to them (not what their friends or relatives say they should do). We then review their goals, expectations, style, and what feels right, bringing out what they want (so) it expresses who they are. Corporate events are similar. We don't just want to cater an annual company party, we ask, "How can we promote your business?" (To thank employees), we surprise our clients with custom T-shirts or edible logo-wafers. This is a small community and it is important to me, personally to help our local companies grow and achieve and support each other.

Grace: What was the most challenging event you ever handled?

Weather is our biggest challenge. Just recently, we catered a wedding on the New York border and, en route, heard our phones bleep, "Tornado alert — seek shelter." (We headed) to our site in the woods where the cook tents were not where we ordered. Despite a walk-through, the floor-plan totally changed, the power was not as we discussed, and we had torrential rain. We were grilling tamarind glazed boned leg of lamb and had to use backup stoves, while moving between cook tents and dinner tents. We pulled it off spectacularly, but not without significant stress and a team that raced against elements to do whatever it took to make a perfect, seamless evening.

I have so many great stories of behind-the-scenes situations that no one would ever expect (that) we pulled off – power failure, leeching field crises, cake crashes. The most important thing is that we make it right without anyone knowing.

Grace: At an outing, are you the wallflower, the life of the party, the happy helper or the friendly guest?

I tend to be happier in the background unless I am comfortable with the group. I can rise to the occasion and speak well if presenting to hundreds of caterers but, generally, I like being behind the scenes and not being the center of attention.

Grace: If you didn't have to work, how would you spend your time?

I love my job but have so many other interests: Digging in the dirt in the garden, antiquing, creating jewelry, spending time with family and grandkids, traveling, spending time in the island of Dominica and volunteering at Princess Margaret's Hospital. I and my former husband, and now my current husband, have developed a strong relationship with the people of the island.

Grace: Catering comes with a lot of pressure to get the details right. How do you keep everything on track so that the client not only loves your treatment, but recommends you to others?

I work with an amazing team of people who truly care, take real pride in their job. We have systems in place to assure attention to detail, checks and balances, quality control, thorough training and cross-training of staff. And our event managers (not just chefs) are food-safe certified. The team establishes partnerships with our clients and recognizes that our goal is to provide the best experience, not just the best food.

Grace: What is one thing you wish people understood about your line of work?

There are so many definitions of catering: trays of food prepared six hours ahead and delivered. Hot food dropped off in a pizza-warmer. Tea sandwiches prepared out of a home kitchen. I serve on the board of the International Caterers Association, and one of things we realize is that the public needs education about what catering truly is.

Given that there are many different levels of it, people do not understand that what they see in a restaurant does not translate to a catered event. They may not realize that we need to determine the amount of power, number of circuits and distance from a power source; the location of a leeching field, safe water sources; parking; weather plans; proximity of work space to client service; sanitation concerns; accessibility for guests with mobility issues; logistics of a venue and how to keep food hot!

We create a field kitchen wherever we go; we do not prepare food in the morning and let it sit in a hotbox for five hours. We make all our own breads and grow our own herbs. We are the only green-certified caterer in the state, so we respect our environment. I believe in constant improvement and send several staff to educational seminars on an annual basis.

Finally, we design our food — not just serve it.

Grace: If you and your husband were stuck in the middle of the ocean like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the movie, "Joe Versus the Volcano," who would be the one most worried about getting back to shore?

My husband is able to make anything out of nothing. I would clearly be the one worried (especially since I do not know how to swim). He would have already rigged up something to get us to a good place. He is the ultimate survivor and practical problem solver… lucky me!

Linda Sample, left, of North Stonington, speaks with Lauren Anastasio, a thyme to cook's event sales manager, regarding upcoming functions.
Linda Sample, left, of North Stonington, speaks with Lauren Anastasio, a thyme to cook's event sales manager, regarding upcoming functions. Tim Martin photo

Chocolate Spice Holiday Crisps

Add a little zest to your
holiday gathering this
year with this recipe
from a thyme to cook:

Yield : 90- 2 “ round crisps
lb unsalted butter at
room temperature
1 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cups cocoa powder
tsp salt
1/3 rd tsp ground
black pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch cayenne pepper
Mix all dry ingredients
together and reserve.
Cream butter and sugar
together until light and
fluffy. Turn mixer to low
speed and add in eggs one
at a time. Continue to
mix until well combined.
Add dry ingredients and
mix until combined. Roll
out to inch thick on
lightly floured surface and
cut into desired shapes.
Transfer to a parchment
paper lined baking pan
leaving 1” space between
cookies to allow even
cooking time. Bake in
preheated 350 degree
oven 6-8 minutes till a
slightly firm crust forms
on top. Allow to cool 1 to
2 minutes before transferring
to a cooling rack. Can
be stored in an airtight
container up to 2 weeks.

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