One of my most unique conversations to date has been with culinary artist, Katie O. And it all starts with a poem…
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
(An excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago”)
If someone asked me to create a four-course meal inspired by the above, I’d be at a complete loss. Perhaps less so if I were a culinary artist like Katie O’Reilly, who dedicates her life to creating both over-the-top, high-end dishes and “simple food done perfectly” with an eye for presentation.
“I sit with people and design food with them,” Katie O says of her job as Co-President and Culinary Artist of Kenmare Catering. “I get to know them for three or four hours. We talk food. We eat food. And then I help bring to life what they’re envisioning.”
Whether it’s an event to celebrate the anniversary of a beautiful piece of literature or a wedding that blends two entirely opposing culinary cultures or even a strictly all- vegan banquet, Katie O consistently challenges herself and rises to the occasion to provide unique dishes that embody the heart of the gathering.
“I love to tie my artistic vision into my food,” Katie O explains. “Everything has to be beautiful. It has to invite you in because you really do eat with your eyes first.”
This zest for viewing food as art comes as no surprise, given that Katie O's background is in the arts. After studying philosophy and religion in Ithaca, Katie O was hired by The Art Institute of Chicago to run their in-house catering and events program. She was placed in charge of protocol, menu design and event design. “It was a culturally extravagant place,” Katie O said of The Art Institute. “I love people and I love food. I love what both represent. It keeps it interesting.”
When her husband, Reid, began Kenmare Catering in Chicago (which has grown to be the leader in Chicago’s high-end catering market), Katie O decided to take her artistic vision and love for food to apply it on a one-on-one basis with clients.
The biggest challenge in Katie O's job, and the most rewarding, is when she is faced with repurposing tastes of someone’s culture or childhood and bringing it to life on a large scale. “I’ve sat down with the client, their mother, and their mother’s recipe for a specific dish,” Katie O laughs. “Or the bride and groom of a wedding where I need to fuse two ethnic perspectives together. I need to understand where their palate is coming from and then find a way to navigate common ground and still represent the vision. You really have to feel it and get it.”
What’s truly impressive is that the client’s vision must be brought to life in a catering format, which means larger crowds, tremendous prep work, and the trials of keeping food appetizing when it is not being cooked a la minute. It involves constant experimentation, dozens of iterations, a curiosity for working with new ingredients, and a proclivity for quick thinking.
Sitting with Katie O in her Kenmare Catering office at Germania Place in Old Town, Chicago, it was clear that her job is more than just getting an understanding of ingredients. It’s a part of who she is. “I’m always thinking about how to play with food.”
A few minutes into our interview, we were pleasantly interrupted with a tray of soup and sandwiches. Simple and yet utterly unique in the fact that the soup was Fried Green Tomato soup served in shooter glasses with Cajun remoulade. The shooters were served alongside pepper jack grilled cheese with arugula and mango chutney.
I dove right in with gusto when I heard the words “mango chutney”, a taste I grew up with during my childhood in India. Mango chutney was always brought to the table when a spicy dish was being served (so, all the time), which made it the perfect companion to the American pepper jack cheese. What I wasn’t expecting was the acerbic and candied balance that played between the soup and the sandwich. It was an illustration of true harmony between cultures, ingredients, and comfort all within a sip/dunk and a bite.
“I couldn’t figure out how to pass fried green tomatoes around at events,” Katie O gestured emphatically with her hands. So, the soup was born and I’ll never look at a fried green tomato the same way again.
Katie O's playful approach to food fits in perfectly to the aspect of her career that she is well known for—Katie O’s Food Carnival, a weekly cooking show that airs on the Women’s Broadcast Television Network and on Comcast 392. Each episode is filmed at home with Katie O and approaches food with a whimsical, carnival-esque attitude and a focus on catering. “People get the most lost in the kitchen when they have people coming over. So, let’s break that confusion. I always load [viewers up] with tips.”
Katie O refers to the show as “the most soul-fulfilling learning process and creative outlet.” Viewers can tell how naturally the concepts of playing with food and tying in art come to Katie O just from watching a few minutes of the show. She’s warm, enthusiastic, and unscripted. Her welcoming nature exudes not just from the fact that she’s filming from her own home but also because the idea of having fun with food at home is not just for show—it’s how Katie O and her family live.
A mom of four (Lindsay 13, Patrick 12, Kevin 11, Charlie 6), Katie O always has tables at home groaning with food. While she doesn’t force her kids to eat anything they don’t want to, they certainly have a more adventurous and exploratory outlook to food for such young ages. “When you’re a mom and you stay true to yourself and show that you’re happy to be you, your kids want to be themselves and are happy to explore too. It’s the difference between being a freethinker and not.”
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