Cooking Up Possibility
When things heat up in the kitchen, Tufts graduate Jon Weinrott keeps a cool head.
After 18 years as President of Philadelphia's Peachtree & Ward Catering, Jon Weinrott has his share of stories. When prompted, he rattles off tales of the Bar Mitzvah his company planned for a 70-year-old man and the time his team prepared veal chops and sea bass on the beach for a rock star's wedding. But for all the stories Weinrott has collected, it's tough to top the one that occurred during the company's "breakout event" in the fall of 1995.
The event was a prestigious 600-person charity gathering held at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. It was, at the time, the largest event the company had worked and Weinrott saw it as an opportunity to provide not only superior service to the client, but to drum up new business as well. "The event came and we were doing a fabulous job," recalls Weinrott. "I was walking around making sure everybody was getting served. I was talking to one of the guests when I saw my lead supervisor trying to get my attention. When I approached her, she said, ‘You better come into the kitchen.'"
Once there, Weinrott was met with an alarming sight - 650 uncooked chicken orders. The oven, which had been working days earlier, had decided to take the night off and after 40 minutes the chicken remained raw. Faced with either feeding his guests vegetables or shuttling the food to another location to be cooked, Weinrott chose a third option. He went for a walk.
"I walked out of the ballroom and didn't tell anyone. I didn't want people to get alarmed and think there was any reason to panic even if there was," Weinrott says. "I called a few restaurants and hotels to see if we could use their ovens but was told that it would take an hour and a half. So, I walked across the food court near the ballroom to see if any of the vendors had an oven. Each one was closed except for the last one, a brick oven pizza place."
Weinrott was able to get the attention of a couple of employees working inside and after a few words, and $50 dollars, the restaurant's 600-degree oven opened for business. Weinrott mobilized his employees and, together, they wheeled three six-foot high rolling carts full of chicken past the unsuspecting guests. The chickens cooked in ten minutes. "I talk about game day conditions for my company and they don't exist," Weinrott says. "You never get the chance to cook in a 600-degree oven. It just doesn't happen. At the end of the party, I told the hostess and she couldn't believe it. As an added bonus, it was the best French cut breast of chicken with Reggiano parmesan that we have ever served, thanks to the incredibly high heat of the oven."
Two things come to mind upon reading this story. The first is that almost anything can happen in the catering business. And the second is that when this anything happens, it's good to have someone like Jon Weinrott around.
"I moved off-campus during my sophomore year because I wanted to cook on my own. One of the first things I tried was bread and I followed a recipe in Uncle John's Bread Book perfectly. But nowhere did it explain that when you bake bread it's a function of the day. If it's a dry day, then you need more water, if there's high humidity you need less. Since I didn't know these things, the bread dough I combined stuck to the board and I spent a few hours cleaning it up."
Today, as co-founder and president of Peachtree & Ward Catering, Jon Weinrott remains someone who can get the job done when it matters most. Proof of this can be found in the numerous testimonials on the company's web site, including one submitted by Rachel Feinmesser of the Israel Consulate General office in Philadelphia that said, "Many thanks are in order to you and your staff. Israel's 54th Anniversary was a smashing success due in part to the superb food and service provided by Peachtree & Ward. So many people commented on the food, every morsel was simply delicious. The preparation that goes into an event such as this takes time, patience and talent - you seem to have it all! Needless to say, it was a most successful evening." But well before praise like this came Weinrott's way, he was a student at Tufts learning the ins and outs of cooking.
"I moved off-campus during my sophomore year because I wanted to cook on my own," says Weinrott. "One of the first things I tried was bread and I followed a recipe in Uncle John's Bread Book perfectly. But nowhere did it explain that when you bake bread it's a function of the day. If it's a dry day, then you need more water, if there's high humidity you need less. Since I didn't know these things, the bread dough I combined stuck to the board and I spent a few hours cleaning it up."
With this lesson learned, Weinrott continued to practice the art of cooking. He tried out many different recipes and honed his craft at Harvard Square's Casa Mexico and The Blacksmith Shop while he was a student.
After graduating from Tufts with a bachelor's and master's in English in 1974, Weinrott embarked on a career as a chef, working at restaurants in Alaska and France. In 1985,Weinrott and his wife and fellow chef, Lori, decided to open a restaurant of their own in Philadelphia. The pair bought an abandoned 6,000-foot building and went to work, changing their business plan in the process. The restaurant was out. A catering business was in.
To save money, they moved into the second floor of the building and demolished the first to make room for the kitchen. The company catered its first event, a wedding, in May 1986 and since then Peachtree & Ward has become a popular catering and event planning choice for everyone from large companies to celebrities and individuals celebrating significant events.
In each case, Weinrott believes it's his job to help turn his clients visions into reality. To achieve this end, he has done everything from transforming a warehouse into a ballroom to launching fireworks into the air during an indoor event. As president, Weinrott is involved in every facet of the company's operations. On a given day, he might find himself leading a strategy meeting, working with his sales team, developing the company's website, adding new elements to his staff 's attire, tinkering with the Peachtree & Ward logo, or finding new, creative options for the company's menu. He oversees a team of 175 full and part-time employees and hopes to continue the company's expansion into event planning and coordination.
But for all the spectacle and great food, a Peachtree & Ward event is ultimately about the people involved.
"I have always been interested in people's stories," Weinrott says. "I'm always seeking out what is special to people and trying to make the event be about their experience not mine."
Profile written by Robert Bochnack.
This story originally ran on March 14, 2005