"Every Wednesday evening during the summer, Connie Blanchard gazes at Lake Minnetonka from the lawn of the Minnetonka Yacht Club and counts the sailboats in the water. That—and a quick check of the weather report—will give her a pretty good idea of how many people she’ll be cooking for later that night. It’s not an exact science, she admits, but after six years of catering the grill-outs following the weekly sailing races for the Minnetonka Yacht Club (MYC), she’s gotten pretty good at estimating the turnout.
But it wasn’t always about prosciutto and polenta for this chef. It was a mere six months ago that Blanchard left a longtime career in communication and information technology to focus fulltime on her new business. Faced with the opportunity to do what she’d always wanted, she set her sail for a brand new course. A food lover and member of a gourmet club, Blanchard has always enjoyed cooking and hosting immensely. So when the chance came to turn her passion into her full-time career, she decided it was time to do what she’d always loved.
Blanchard smiles her wide, rosy-cheeked grin as she talks about where she’s come from. Most recently, it was Paris, France, where she took an intensive two-day course in Regional French Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu. For a week, she stayed in a quaint apartment on the Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter—a gastronomic heaven for foodies—buying the freshest seafood, wonderful bread and amazing wine from the local merchants. Based on her extensive class notes taken from some of Paris’s most esteemed chefs, it’s clear that this cooking teacher enjoys being a student as well. Whether she’s learning from a Michelin five-star chef or absorbing a new technique from a student at the Minneapolis Institute of Culinary Arts, Blanchard seems thrilled to continue learning and growing as a chef.
These days, she cooks for about 145 people a week after the MYC races, but not without the help of an eager crew of MYC member-volunteers. Months before the weekly races begin, Blanchard’s volunteers begin signing up—some for every race of the season. By teaching her crew new techniques, she enjoys turning the work of event catering into a weekly cooking lesson.
Usually, she comes with a plan: A garden salad, orzo pasta, grilled leg of lamb and some kind of dessert, for example. But when there’s room for creativity, she may offer up a challenge. Bringing along a huge basket of fresh vegetables, she once asked one crew member to create a side dish of his choosing. Out of the bounty, he created gorgeous stuffed peppers—and made his teacher proud. “What begins as chaos, somehow all comes together in the end,” Blanchard marvels.
Although Blanchard’s career began through catering these weekly sailing races, it has evolved into so much more. “I like to think of my business as a three-legged stool,” she explains. There’s event catering, not only for the yacht club, but also for intimate and elaborate gatherings alike. She’s also teaching through cooking classes offered at the SouthShore Center in Shorewood.
For now, Blanchard gets most of her business from referrals. “It’s a very personal business,” she remarks. Most of her clients, she explains, love to cook themselves. By hiring her for their event, they are able to enjoy themselves while having their personal style and taste shine through. Although Blanchard gets a lot of pride from creating beautiful events for her clients, she seems to also enjoy the thrill of an adrenaline rush. “In every event, there’s always a moment when I wonder if we will make it,” she says with a smile. With the wind in her sails, there’s no doubt she will. -Diane Timba