By Deborah Wilker
Lunch with top South Florida caterer Joy Wallace doesn’t have to be a fancy affair. A simple rice dish. Fresh turkey wraps. A colorful salad, a splash of ice water.
There was, however, one bit of exotica during our casual meal at her South Dade warehouse the other day: A dainty risotto pastry, sprinkled with flecks of real gold.
One of the region’s foremost event managers, Wallace has set tables for Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II, Hollywood royalty such as Will Smith, and every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter. So inevitably there will be a little something special when you visit her, even if it’s just during her daily staff lunch, when all 60 of her employees eat with her inside the company’s sprawling kitchen.
The gold flecks have no taste, “but they look so pretty,” she says. “You can have great parties if you know how to make people happy. I love making people happy.”
The occasion for our visit — other than to learn how this South Florida institution continues on top after more than 25 years — is for a quick tutorial.
We can’t all be Martha Stewart — or Joy Wallace — or can we? Can a mere civilian — those of us without a personal chef or 25,000-square-foot warehouse of props, set pieces and floral arrangements — really throw an effortless holiday party, just by making other people happy?
“Yes,” she says.
She comes by her knowledge first-hand.
Before she built her nationally known empire, Joy Wallace was a proud stay-at-home-mom to two daughters. “I always loved entertaining, I love having people over, I loved when they came to my door, I loved welcoming them.”
“When my youngest started driving and I realized they really didn’t need me as much anymore, and I found out that you could go to FIU to hospitality school [and] be paid for throwing parties, I thought how cool is that? I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a caterer.”
So at 40 she re-launched her life, graduating from college — for a second time — with a degree in hospitality management. Initially she worked for others, learning the ropes putting on events at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens and other landmarks. Eight years later she struck out on her own. She named her company “A Joy Wallace” knowing that Vizcaya listed caterers alphabetically and with an “A” at the front she’d be first to be called when they needed someone.
Today A Joy Wallace plans and runs about 500 events a year, from society weddings in Palm Beach to the recent Beach Volleyball World Tour Final on Fort Lauderdale Beach to disaster relief efforts feeding emergency workers across the country.
Full of Midwestern charm and steely focus, Wallace says we can all be great hosts if we love it and work hard. So if you’ve missed the caterer’s deadlines and find yourself completely on your own this holiday season, you can still pull it off.
On being the perfect host
There’s no shame in pot lucks, Wallace says, in fact she loves them because they’re personal. “Ask friends to each bring one plate: a salad, a dessert, soup, their favorite holiday dish, or maybe something you’ve had at their home that you really loved.”
Even if you are doing everything yourself, hire at least one person simply to tidy up beforehand, help set up, serve and keep the kitchen clean as the night progresses.
The kitchen needs to stay clean, she says, because parties tend to gravitate there. Don’t try and force people to stay in the more formal areas of your home. “A party is always in the kitchen. Everyone just comes in, because it’s like being at home with your mom.”
Host events at night, whenever possible. “Everything, people and food, always looks better at night.”
Prepared foods are fine, but never serve anything frozen that you bought some place. Buy prepared foods from your favorite restaurant, “dishes that are personal to you, only top quality.”
Leave nothing to chance. Have everything laid out and ready to go beforehand, “the buffet set, glasses out, utensils, napkins. Ice ready.”
If your party is on a Saturday, start on Thursday so you can relax and enjoy the day. “Guests don’t come to watch you work.”