Photographs by Sinéad Deane and courtesy Abigail Kirsch Catering Relationships
Jim Kirsch hustles down the staircase of the grand foyer in the headquarters of Abigail Kirsch Catering Relationships.
He’s welcoming and warm – but also cuts right to the business at hand, suggesting the best backdrops for some photographs before settling into a cozy conference room for a fast-paced chat about the Kirsch legacy in the catering world.
He has a deft charm, a way of combining warm hospitality with a clear dedication to moving ever forward. It is a strength that plays out day after day through business exemplified by the offerings of Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill Mansion, the company’s Tarrytown flagship, but also reflected throughout its network of exclusive venues.
Today, Jim Kirsch is at the helm – as president and CEO – of the company started 40 years ago by his parents, Abigail and Bob Kirsch, which is centered at the historic estate that was once home to Samuel Clemens, more widely known as Mark Twain.
Company-wide, Abigail Kirsch Catering Relationships puts on 1,500 events each year.
And when you know you’re going to an Abigail Kirsch event, whether a wedding, corporate activity or a fund-raising gala, you know to expect something pretty classy.
The root of that reputation, Kirsch says, is “really a commitment, an ongoing commitment, to excellence. We are constantly innovating with respect to our food and services. We’re part of the community, offering a great service, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Abigail Kirsch started a cooking school in her Chappaqua basement back in the 1960s, a venture that by 1972 grew large enough to require a storefront in town. In 1974, she catered her first event, a PepsiCo picnic for 600. The following year, her husband sold his business to join his wife. Abigail was to head up the kitchen, with Bob handling event production. Jim joined the company full-time in 1980 and the partnership expanded when chef Alison Awerbuch, who came on board in the mid-’80s, took over culinary leadership from Abigail in 1990. (Today, Abigail and Bob Kirsch are retired.)
Jim says the food business has always been a part of his life.
“As a young kid, I was sniffing around, learning to cook… I started out with a real passion for food.”
He recalls the time when Abigail was writing one of her books, “Teen Cuisine.”
“My mother made my meatloaf famous,” he says.
He went on to work in all aspects of restaurants, from server to chef.
“I love the energy of restaurants,” he says, though today his duties are more “broad-based. It’s strategic and leadership-based.”
And that taps into lessons learned at the University of New Hampshire, where his course of study was interpersonal communications – not hospitality. “I decided I didn’t want to study it, because I was already doing it.”
Kirsch draws on that experience as he shuttles between his Weston home, the Tarrytown headquarters and a company office in Manhattan. (He doesn’t have a desk there. It’s “have phone will travel.”)
His tenure has witnessed key company moments from a 1987 luncheon in honor of Prince Charles – 500 guests at a polo club in Palm Beach – to the opening of Tappan Hill in 1990.
“At the time there wasn’t much happening in Westchester,” he says. “We built Tappan Hill. We branded it. We took our tradition of catering excellence and married it with its rich history.”
Looking (always) ahead
Abigail Kirsch Catering Relationships is the largest operator of exclusive event venues in the region, offering clients settings ranging from Tappan Hill, a stately mansion tucked into the suburbs, to multiple venues at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan and Stamford to a pair at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, among others. The company also offers an off-premises catering division, operates cafés and caters major sporting events.
The chance to have control over a facility, Kirsch says, is a great strength, and one that the company will continue to develop with additional sites joining the network in the next couple of years.
It allows the company to offer clients exactly what they have come to expect.
“The best analogy is a hotel brand,” he says. If you stay at a Hilton in one city, you expect that same quality at another. “We have to have a constant brand experience. We have to see everything as a whole.”
“Until really the mid-’90s, early 2000s, catering was really a step behind the restaurant world,” Kirsch says. “Our goal is always to serve restaurant-quality food as a caterer.”
Catering, he says, was perceived as offering “really ordinary fare… the rubber-chicken circuit, if you will.”
In today’s world, that no longer flies.
“Everyone’s become a foodie and knows a little bit more and that’s been a great thing for our industry.”
“I think sometimes caterers set the pace,” he adds. They have the chance to be more experimental, not having to set a permanent menu.
But, as chef and partner Alison Awerbuch says, staffers are all well-aware of the expectations guests have for an Abigail Kirsch event.
“Yes, it’s a constant challenge,” she says, but quickly adds, “it’s a challenge we love and embrace.”
On the menu
“We try to be creative and sophisticated and do things that haven’t been done before but always keeping in mind it has to meet the expectations of a great number of guests,” Awerbuch says, summing up their cuisine as having a “creative-classic approach.”
Guests should be tickled by what they are served, not confused by it.
“If we’re going to do something that’s very different or unique, we’re going to present it in the right way,” she says.
When it comes to menu developing, she draws on her own dining-out experiences, travel, reading and membership and conversations within food-and-beverage organizations.
“A lot of our creativity is stemmed from fashion and design and architecture. Everything from window shopping on Madison Avenue to reading Architectural Digest.”
Awerbuch says she might take a crowd-pleaser such as tenderloin of beef and mix it up with an unexpected side such as “late-summer tomato cornbread cobbler.”
And for every new dish on the menu, there are some perennials designated “AK Classics.”
“I wanted our clients to know we’re not leaving them on the menu, because we’re being complacent,” she says, mentioning portobello-mushroom steak fries, developed some 15 years ago.
“It’s trite, but we’re never complacent about anything,” she says. “We constantly evolve. You really have to.”
And because of all that, Abigail Kirsch Catering Relationships appears destined to be a part of the catering scene for decades to come.
“Tappan Hill is an important part of our future,” Jim says, adding with a laugh, “we have a lease here into my 80s. I’m in my mid-50s. I have a way to go.”
For more, visit abigailkirsch.com.