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Introducing Suzanne James - Executive Chef

My career started in 1989 when I left Westminster College and went straight into event catering. It wasn't quite the same back then...very limited styling, just good food, guests and a party!  

In the 90's I set up a catering company with a business partner. It was successful and became well know, but behind the scenes all was not well and this was when I realised that having everything in writing was crucial.  I said my goodbyes and the company later merged with another caterer and they are still going strong.  

Over the next few years I worked as Head Chef with three different event caterers, until in 1999 I took a deep breath, left paid employment, and with ¬£500.00, a wish and a prayer started working from home under my own brand. I registered my kitchen with the local authority, took out insurance and started cooking.  I would get up at 5am to make bread and truffles and would go to bed late after cooking dinner for a client. I worked hard and long hours but I absolutely loved it! It was not unknown to find me lying on the floor with my legs in the air to restart my circulation on occasion! 

In 2003 I paid the deposit on my first professional kitchen, here at Barry Road - that really was a turning point.  At that time it was an organic bakery so we moved in and ran both the bakery and catering simultaneously with the bakery working through the night and catering through the day! It was a perfect combination. I kept it running for 3 years but with a wheat shortage in 2006 and the bakery not being my real passion, I closed that part of the business and moved forward with what I do best - event catering!  

At that point a then very good friend approached me and in addition to my own company, we formed a partnership and together we headed an incredible yet short-lived events company. Incredible because we were a formidable team. Short lived because he had no idea about finances and spent money before we earned it meaning the rise and fall was certainly in sight! I must admit that this is one business I'm glad I walked away from and I have sadly since then seen him liquidate the second catering company he went on to set up and a restaurant. The third catering company he formed is still going strong and if nothing else, I admire his tenacity.  

Thankfully, during this time I had not lost focus on my own business. In fact I loved it even more and appreciated the team around me.  Having learnt so much from my experiences to date I felt ready to take Suzanne James Ltd forward to the next level. 

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. Children of my private clients grew up and got married and my business grew with them when we were asked to cater for their weddings, which led to a natural progression into this market.  

In 2014 it became clear that the kitchen was working to its limit and with an ever-increasing number of enquiries expansion was once again needed.  At the start of 2015 a full refurbishment took place, with brand new, state of the art kitchen equipment expanding our capabilities. Planning that and working with Denton’s to get everything on my wish list was an incredible experience but lead to one tiny problem...now we had the kitchen facilities to take on even more work, but not enough event sales, planners and operations staff to respond to the volume of enquiries! Investment in two more event planners fixed this problem with Claire and Harri accepting full time positions within the team in 2016.   January 2017 saw us complete the second stage of the refurbishment works when we extended our mezzanine space to finally allow the office team to be back under the same roof as the kitchen!  

So now, here we are.  The numbers that we catered have grown from an average of 30 for dinner, first to and average of 300 and now an average of 750! Canap√© receptions for 1,000 or more have become the norm.  Despite this, no job is too small for us and we remain a privately owned, independent business, with our hearts set very firmly on the success of every single event. 

Then, we would arrive and cater an event: Now, we arrive, coordinate and cater.

Then, we would go into any and every venue: Now (thank goodness) venues have wised up and have accredited lists, of which I am proud to see my name on many throughout Central London and the South East. 

We have an extensive list of corporate clients with whom we work on a regular basis. We advise on venues and how booking a venue through us can actually be beneficial to clients too.  

One of my proudest achievements has been the creation of our East Dulwich Supper Club, which has been running monthly since 2010.  It started off as a pop up restaurant, run on a not for profit basis to raise funds to support growing projects in local primary schools.  That mission hasn't changed, but we now also use EDSC to support the training of our Apprentice Chefs from Westminster College, and our front of house staff too!!  It is so wonderful to be giving something back to both the local community, but also the industry that I have always loved. 

I always need a challenge, and now the kitchen and office works are completed I have been able to start work on my shop in the heart of East Dulwich, which will open shortly.  

It's been a long journey and one that I would gladly repeat. This fantastic industry has allowed me to be a mum, wife, chef and boss. It has shown disbelievers that dreams can come true and supporters, well I thank them from the bottom of my heart. Don't get me wrong, it's not all been plain sailing...I have had to give up a lot and accept that a handshake does not always mean a client will actually pay! I've learnt to be firm and focused, and accepted that sadly family cannot always come first. It's been hard, but my vision was always to carve out my name in an industry that is synonymous with great food and incredible service.  I truly hope I have achieved that! 

What do you love most about your job?

The creative side - working on new menus, listening to clients’ ideals and using my experience to make them happen, and networking - which I have had to learn to love, but I really do now!! 

What do you love to prepare?

I love cooking one-pot meals - back of the fridge suppers because they are quick, easy and they use up leftovers.  It makes you really think about flavours and how to make something work! 

What's your favourite food to eat?

Gin!!

  

If you could dine with anyone, past or present who would it be?

I would turn back the clock 18 months and have supper with my Dad again, even though his favourite lunch was a cheese sarnie (sliced, not grated)!

 Where did you train?

Westminster College - and I loved every minute of it.  I still have friends that I keep in touch with from those days!

  

What do you like to do when you're not at work?

When I'm not where???  Ah OK - mostly just to be with my family, ideally not on the sidelines of a rugby pitch!  We eat together and have lazy times watching a movie.

  

What's the hardest thing about being the boss?

Being the boss!  I trained as a chef, not an entrepreneur!

If you weren't a chef what would you be?

  

Anything that is customer facings appeals to me, in the service industry.

  

In your opinion what makes Suzanne James different from other catering companies?

We are an independent, privately owned, catering and events company.  I really do believe that we have the best interests of each client at heart.  We listen, we guide, and we really care. I am honestly proud to see my name on the elite list of caterers at so many phenomenal venues - those are the moments when I have to stop and pinch myself to believe what I have built.