Sophistication Wrapped in Humility
WORDS Robert Moreau | Photography Tim Sugden
Attending an event catered by Chef John Paulk owner of Mezzaluna Fine Catering is a culinary experience like no other. From his exquisitely stunning food to the elaborate multi-tiered, fully-lit displays with which it’s presented, every last detail is elegant and well-thought-out to perfection. So it should come as no surprise that over the years his award winning company has served and catered many large and intimate events for a long list of high-profile companies and luminaries including Nike, 2017 Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine, U.S. senators and governors, TV personalities, national sports figures, many of Portland’s top corporations, and leaders of industry.
For someone with such an impressive roster, as well as a slew of TV and radio appearances – including a stint on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen – you’d think Chef John’s been in the business his entire career. But while his love of food and fine dining began in childhood, it wasn’t until after years of working for non-profits at age 40 that he decided to start his professional life over, follow his passion, and attend culinary school. This second act of sorts helped set the theme for how Chef John would eventually run his business over the next 13 years, becoming known as the man who gives others a second chance.
In 2003, John enrolled in Portland’s Le Cordon Bleu program and began a two year intensive program. After graduating with highest honors, he began to carefully plot his next moves with precision and strategy. He started his career from the bottom much later than most. But regardless of the daunting new challenge in front of him, he forged ahead.
Knowing he couldn’t afford to start on the bottom rung, Chef John decided to go it alone and establish a name for himself in the industry. Over the next few years, he did everything he could to build credibility. From teaching cooking classes at Sur la Table, volunteering his skills with charity fundraisers, and having a featured full-page article in Portland’s Food Day, to becoming a regular guest on a local radio show. He did all of this while making dozens of appearances cooking on Portland television. Finally, John was getting noticed. He created a website and began posting dazzling pictures of his food creations. This helped launch his career and land him jobs as a personal chef.
From there, his business and popularity continued to steadily grow and clients eventually started asking him to cater events. At the time, he had no experience catering. He quickly realized if he wanted to make it, he’d have to learn on-the-job. “I’d never worked in a commercial kitchen in my life. I figured this all out on my own based on what I knew clients needed and would appreciate. I learned as I went, and by listening to my clients,” said Chef John.
Not letting his inexperience or fear of failure hold him back, Chef John tackled his first catering events head on. He built a staff of people who, like himself, loved to cook but had little to no professional experience. To assist with his first event, he hired his son’s babysitter, a high school junior from across the street who loved to cook and bake.
“Any time someone has worked or apprenticed for me, my goal was, ‘How can I help you be better? How can I help you realize your culinary dreams?’” Chef John said. His support at an early age was instrumental in this young girl’s success, who would grow up to become a renowned chef, working for Moonstruck Chocolate, cooking at Andina in Portland’s Pearl District, serving as the head pastry chef at Vitaly Paley’s new Headwaters and appearing on Food Network’s Chopped.
Even though Chef John gets tearful and emotional talking about it, he wants others to know that from the beginning, he brought in people to work alongside him who needed a second chance in life, much like he did when he when he first started out. This has become a vital part of his business.
Mezzaluna is more like a family than a successful company. His kitchen is a sanctuary from the stressful challenges of daily life. Some of Chef John’s staff members have been with him since the beginning. He considers them all leaders in the company giving them ownership in decisions about everything from the menus to the plating of the food, which he says in unusual in the industry.
Chef John said of his unique team, whose stories he easily recalls, “I hired a woman who had cooked in a church for many years but had never gone to culinary school. She said, ‘I would do anything to come and cook for you.’ She worked for me for five years.”
Chef John has many more accounts of employees he’s had over the years who were all looking for one thing: a fresh start. “I hired a guy who had been in federal prison. He had just gotten out, he had teeth missing, and he had no education. He was on parole, but no one would give him a chance,” he said. “His parole officer called me and asked if I’d take a risk and hire him. He became my dishwasher and worked diligently for me for two years. Working for Mezzaluna helped give this man his dignity back.”
“I hired a woman who had been a prostitute on the streets of Las Vegas and she was trying to change her life. I said, ‘Come work for me. I’ll teach you everything I know.’ Now she’s in Arizona and has her own catering company,” Chef John said.
“There was a man I used to chat with at Starbucks who had lost his IT job. He told me he was living in his Mercedes. I said, ‘Come work for me.’ He became a server and worked for me for several years and eventually got back on top of things and went back into the IT industry,” said Chef John.
While Chef John and his company are the epitome of a true success story, he refuses to take too much credit, preferring to shine the light on his staff. He speaks of them proudly and passionately, noting how loyal and dedicated they are. He’s built an environment where people can leave their past behind and pursue their passion of food.
Mezzaluna has become a “destination” caterer of sorts. They don’t merely provide food, but rather their goal is to always give clients a comprehensive, full-sensory, hospitality intensive experience. Guests always leave feeling pampered and cared for knowing that attention to detail was foremost.
John and his team saturate their clients with warmth and personal attention. “We strive to alleviate any stress so that our clients experience their event knowing we have their back,” said Chef John. “It’s about creating an emotional experience…a lasting memory…an event they’ll never forget. Really, it’s romance.”
Today, Mezzaluna is often booked out months in advance and consistently has a waiting list of clients, but Chef John loves people and working with new events, companies and ideas.
Each event is created by hand, from menu development, to executing complicated themed events. Most recently, Mezzaluna catered the launch party at the Oregon Historical Society’s JFK exhibit. All the food they served was made famous during the early 1960s, from miniature meatloaf TV dinners, to the very same clam chowder recipe that President Kennedy ate in the White House.
In conclusion, Chef John said, “Throughout the years, people would come and work for me and they’d say, ‘I feel like when I come into your kitchen, reality is suspended. Whatever problems I had before I came here, everything is better when I come and cook with you.’ So that is the kind of company I now have. We are truly the caterers who care.”
John Paulk resides in downtown Portland. He shares his life with his three sons and partner, Robert, with whom they just launched a new confections company, Luna Luxury Confections, selling delicious, beautifully packed cookies to waiting customers and business clients across the United States.
Credits and contributors
for photo segments:
Staging, China and Furnishings
West Coast Event Productions
Lyn Syring for Liberty Events
Tony Iyke for House of Rose
Designs by Thor.com
Cold Creek Retreat