A meeting with Nisa Lee will produce smiles – and a satisfied palate.
WAG caught up with the noted chef and caterer at the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden, a most fitting backdrop.
Lee is a few months into her partnership with the North Salem destination, where she’s not only bringing Pelham-based Nisa Lee Events – her full-service wedding and event planning, design and catering company – to private events but also many on the Hammond’s own calendar.
Coming to the Hammond, where Lee can accommodate events of up to 600 guests, was a revelation.
“I had no idea this was this hidden haven,” she says of her first visit this past autumn.
As she leads us through the event spaces and grounds, talking about celebrations past and upcoming, it’s clear the serene surroundings have affected her and that she deftly integrates the site into each and every event.
A signature is her circular seating, where no table is stuck in a corner. It mimics, she says, “the circle of family and friends because, you know, that’s all you need in life.”
The collaboration is already proving fruitful, says museum director Lorraine Laken: “She’s just very upbeat and has phenomenal ideas.”
WAG was pleased to have a couple of hours with Lee, who proved as charming and down to earth as one might hope (It was an appointment, by the way, rescheduled to accommodate her meeting with client Helen Mirren – yes, that Helen Mirren).
Sure, Lee answered a couple of questions about the event she was planning for the actress of international acclaim and shared memories of occasions created for other bold-faced names ranging from Paul McCartney to Hillary Clinton. But she was equally excited to talk about savvy young clients or her own four children, raised in a (can you imagine?) microwave-free home.
Over a sunny morning, we chatted away, took photographs – and had a nibble or two.
“You have to try,” she insists at one point. “You have to validate what I do.”
Consider it done.
Lee took time on her own to answer some more of WAG’s questions, which we share excerpts of here.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in catering?
“I started cooking traditional Thai cuisine at the age of 7 to help my family after immigrating from Thailand at the age of 5. Living in New York City as an adult and experiencing a wide array of cuisines at restaurants really broadened my palate and love for food. I used to love finding a great dish at a restaurant then recreating that dish at home with a few improvements to make it my own. I love the challenge and excitement of developing my own recipes now using exotic and unique ingredients from around the world combined with fresh local ingredients to balance the variety of flavors and textures.
“I started catering 13 years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I put together a milestone birthday celebration for my husband and our closest friends. Everyone raved about the food and décor, and it felt easy and very natural for me.”
This past year has seen your business expand. Can you share some of the highlights?
“My focus is primarily all about life’s celebrations – weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, milestone birthday celebrations, ‘celebration of life’ receptions but also corporate branding and product launches and memorable moments in general.
“My business has grown and evolved almost entirely by word of mouth and personal recommendations from my clients, our newsletter and more recently through social media. Editorial features in great food and lifestyle publications like WAG have also been very helpful. Other than a couple of early experiments, we have not relied much on advertising.
“Building relationships with my clients is very important to me. Not just for business, but I have forged very close relationships with some of my clients over the years. And some of the most rewarding moments for me personally come when my clients from the past, especially from my early years, call me to plan, create and produce their daughter’s or son’s wedding. Then they have children and I get to help plan their baby shower, bar mitzvah and sweet sixteen. The cycle of life is so beautiful.”
Tell us a bit more about your newest collaboration, working with the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem.
“What I love about the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden is its natural beauty and setting in addition to the beautiful art and crafts inside the museum. When it comes to events, the Hammond is like a blank canvas for me to create and design almost anything!
“For example, we are currently planning a wide range of events, including a Country BBQ, multicultural wedding receptions, Tuscany Candlelight Dining, a Masquerade Sweet Sixteen and a Broadway-themed bar mitzvah. … The possibilities are endless.
“I get to have these wonderful opportunities to create and produce my clients’ ideas and turn them into a vision and a reality. So much fun.”
No matter the venue, what is the most important thing you must ascertain from a client – and how do you view the caterer-client relationship?
“Trust, but also honesty, authenticity, creativity and a true collaboration throughout the process. Every client is unique and special in his or her own way, so no two events can be the same. Every detail must be carefully thought out to represent the client and the vision of the event. They can escape to the Far East, go to Morocco, have a Polynesian luau and so much more.
“I love hand-selecting all the ingredients for my clients’ events, freshly preparing and cooking the selected dishes on-site in their homes or at a venue – a very different approach from mainstream caterers where they have one menu with different options to choose from. My menu is created to match the style or theme for any event… with a bit of a ‘Nisa Lee spin.’”
Your clientele is filled with powerful people, notables from many fields. What’s it like working with people who may always be in the spotlight?
“I feel grateful to have worked with many distinguished clients – celebrities, dignitaries, presidents and CEOs of companies. I have found that most are genuine, personable and so much fun to work with. I think most of my clients are drawn to my company, because they sense those same traits in me and how we do our events.”
What has been your most memorable event – and what made it so?
“Over the past 13 years, there have been so many wonderful moments because of my clients, their specific styles, multicultural backgrounds, culinary interests and so much more.
“I have two favorites – working and planning Paul McCartney’s cocktail reception to showcase Linda McCartney’s personal photographs throughout the various stages of their marriage and The Beatles. …
“The other is when I had the opportunity to work with several young adults to plan their celebrations (bar/bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteen and graduations). Most teenagers leave the ideas and details to their parents. But these youngsters were heavily involved in the ideas and decision-making. They had a love of food and wanted to create a style that was original and reflective of their own personalities. I love the fact that they were so knowledgeable about food and specific culinary interests that they were able to distinguish the unique ingredients and flavors that I create for them. To me, that is very cool.”
What’s your on-site personality on event day? Do you thrive on the pressure?
“Calm, organized and quick-thinking in problem solving. Everything has to be well planned with great detail and execution so it alleviates the pressure. Each event has its own level of challenges. What is important to believe is that everything will always work out and that my clients and their guests have a memorable experience.”
Do you have a signature dish and if so, what is it? Are food trends a big influence on your menus? What’s trending now?
“Signature dishes includes Steamed Red Thai Sea Bass with Israeli Pearl Couscous, Mediterranean Chicken, Garden Zucchini and Carrot Ribbons with Mint Yogurt Sauce, or Hibiscus-dusted Wild Salmon, Grilled Corn Sugar Snaps and Farro.
“My biggest influence in the menus is using fresh sustainable ingredients, exotic spices and herbs.
“The trendiest food and styles are ethnic hors d’oeuvres, craft beer and food pairings, gluten-free cuisines and artisanal ice cream.”
Do you enjoy cooking for your own family? Are they also food enthusiasts? Do you like to entertain at home?
“Love, love cooking with my family when I can. I have four children and when summertime comes, we came up with an idea that for each week, each child gets to create a menu for the family. It can be one of their favorite dishes or they can look online for ideas. We shop together for the ingredients and make it together. This way, I get to have one-on-one time with each of them, they get to learn to shop, cook, and everyone gets to try something different. Such a fun and memorable time for me and for them.
“Yes, they all love to try new things and are always open to the various cuisines and flavors.
“I do love to entertain at home for my family and friends when I have the time. Even I get to create culinary themes when we host our friends.”
Finally, what do you hope guests remember after attending a Nisa Lee event?
“What is important to me for any event is that my clients and their guests have a unique experience that ignites all of their senses – taste, touch, smell, vision. I want them to feel as if they had escaped to a faraway place in both the culinary and design elements of an event. It’s that one moment and the very first impressions that make a difference. “Therefore, every detail and style is met with my personal attention from start to finish from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they bid farewell.”
For more, visit nisalee.com.