Touring caterer finds her way home
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She won't drop names, but caterer Debbie Matthews fed some pretty famous musicians during her 15 years on the road. The Charleston native returned home several years ago and opened Whimsy, a catering and personal chef business.
When pressed, she acknowledges that she toured with the Eagles, Dave Matthews Band, Annie Lennox, Sting, Dolly Parton, The Strokes and Carrie Underwood. The wide range of musical styles matches the variety of menus required. Some appetites were hearty, while vegan/vegetarian preferences reigned elsewhere.
Her culinary career started in a more mundane manner. The George Washington High School student graduated in broadcast journalism from the University of Tennessee.
"I started cooking while I was in college. I was a waitress, but I wanted to learn to cook," Matthews said. Several years later, she moved to Washington D.C., where she worked for prominent caterer Occasions for three years, and then she moved back home.
"I keep getting drawn back. It's my home. My family and friends were here," she said. Her father, Virgil Matthews, was a chemist and longtime Charleston City Council member. Her mother, Shirley Matthews, is a retired nurse. They live in Charleston, along with one of her brothers.
She was cooking at the former A Coffee Shop on Quarrier Street when a friend told her that Chef Otis Laury was looking for help in the kitchen of the Governor's Mansion.
"I thought I'd give it a shot. It was the best thing I've ever done because of Otis. I learned so much from him," said Matthews, 47, who developed her cooking skills and style without any formal culinary training.
Whether she was serving small meals or state dinners for Gov. Gaston Caperton, the experience prepared her for her career as a caterer. Her time in the mansion ended with the closure of Caperton's term.
She was busy with Lackadaisy in 1998, the catering business she opened after she left the mansion, when a travel agent friend in Washington called to see if she'd be interested in catering on tour for the Dave Matthews band.
The band traveled by plane, but she joined the crew on the bus that moved them from city to city on tour. The routine was similar with each of the bands that eventually employed her. A runner would greet her in each city and drive her to grocery stores where she'd shop for meals, feeding breakfast, lunch and dinner to groups ranging from six or seven band members to 250 members of the indie bands and crews on the Warped Tour.
For concerts in big city arenas, the large grocery stores were a treasure trove of interesting foods. Outdoor concerts were usually in smaller venues, often in the middle of nowhere.
"We'd pull into a city and I'd say, please let them have a Whole Foods," she said. "I'd plan the menu the night before, then find out I couldn't get the ingredients. Everything would be on the fly, but it made me better at what I do."
The diminutive, wiry Matthews would load enormous coolers and manhandle them backstage. At 5'1", she always had the top sleeper bunk on the touring buses.
Only two stars for whom she worked caused her to feel star struck -- Dave Matthews and Sting. They both turned out to be very approachable. "Sometimes I'd stand backstage and watch them perform for these huge crowds and think, 'I just fed these people'," she said.
Some stars were aloof while others were friendly.
"Annie Lennox is unbelievably humble. She gets crazy stage fright, so I'd make her a special tea. She's such a love," said Matthews, who treasures a brightly colored glass globe Lennox gave her as a housewarming present.
Between tours, she also did a stint as executive chef at a dude ranch in Telluride, Colo., where she oversaw both a bed and breakfast and a fine dining restaurant.
Her last gig was two years ago with Carrie Underwood in Nashville. When it ended, she knew it was time to come home.
"I loved that life. I wouldn't trade it for the world, but it's very difficult work. It's difficult to maintain a relationship or even have a dog because you're on the road so much," she said.
Matthews caters on-site, while she looks for commercial space. When her clients ask what she'll prepare, she asks what they'd like to eat. She's not being flip. She'll make whatever they want.
She's considering running a small café as well. She sees her niche as trattoria style, intimate eatery serving a menu of gourmet comfort food that would probably change daily.
"I would like to do something different every day. If somebody wanted something I didn't make that day, I might know them well enough to tell them what I think they might like instead," she said. "I'd like to have that neighborhood kind of feel."
Email Matthews at email@example.com or call 304-356-1323.
Reach Julie Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1230.