Tulips & Maple Catering Inc.
Tulips & Maple Catering Inc. (T&M), widely known as Tulips & Maple – The Art of Catering, has helped lead the charge for farm-fresh cuisine and inventive entertaining in Ottawa since 1991. The husband and wife team of Mark van der Pas and Kristine van der Pas-Norenius founded the company. The couple met while in graduate school in Brussels and eventually took a leap of faith to start a catering company armed with a shared passion for food, launched from a basement-level apartment that Kristine’s uncle let the pair rent for only $300 a month.
“I’m an engineer by training, and when I met Mark, he wowed me with his food and creativity,” says Kristine, co-founder of T&M. “I figured we could partner together and start a consulting business for the food industry.”
The pair ultimately decided to get into the catering business instead. Kristine and Mark decided to base operations in Ottawa due to the city’s international community, which would pair well with Mark’s European flair for food and, according to Kristine, “that cheap basement apartment.”
The odds seemed to be stacked against the pair, however; the idea was to introduce a creative, high-end product during the early 1990s recession in a catering environment that was very different from the fresh and refined cuisine in which T&M specialized.
“We were barely newlyweds at the time, and just as we launched the business I found out I was pregnant, so we really started the business and a family at the same time,” says Kristine. T&M’s first few years were defined by a lot of long days and even longer nights. It would be three years before the couple broke even and another two years before the company would turn a profit.
But the couple’s focus on inventive catering and premium quality food never faltered. The business continued to experience double-digit growth every year until T&M outgrew its first kitchen and moved to a new production facility to accommodate continued growth in the off-site catering operations. Another five years later it was almost as though the team couldn’t stop racking up the awards, including the award for Top Chef of the Year, the 2012 International Achievement in Catering Excellence and the Ottawa Businesswoman of the Year.
Where Technology Meets Taste
T&M relocated once again in 2006 to its current facility, which sprawls across 8,000 square feet. The facility is packed with state-of-the-art equipment, enabling the team to effortlessly pull off inventive cuisine for hundreds of guests at a time. T&M has the ability to cater casual gatherings with its gourmet-to-go service, which supplies hors d’oeuvres and party platters that clients pick up from T&M’s premises. However,most of the company’s business is in special events catering for galas, weddings, corporate events and fundraisers, including seated dinners for hundreds of guests and receptions for anywhere between 40 and 1,500 guests.
The company has managed to turn off-site catering into a science over the years by investing in both technologies and equipment that increase consistency, capacity and quality. These innovations include sous vide equipment, or the more recent addition of a Cleveland Convotherm Combi-Oven. The Convotherm is equipped with internal temperature and humidity probes, and can self-adjust to ensure beef tenderloin roasts are perfectly medium rare, which is critical since caterers regularly have to deal with the challenges of transporting hot food and working in other people’s spaces.
“That oven has changed everything for us,” beams Mark van der Pas, co-founder of T&M. “We have now learned to use it to our advantage where we can undercook something and transport it hot so that it’s perfect at the time of serving. It allows us to serve the kind of food that wows guests, and makes them wonder where the kitchen is, when the truth is there isn’t one.”
One example would be when T&M catered the opening ceremony for the Royal Ottawa Hospital, which brought in 1,200 guests. The team was required to work out the logistical challenges of catering to the elite of Ottawa without a kitchen and within a state-of-the-art hospital.
T&M’s ability to continually evolve and innovate has enabled the company to garner a strong following, in addition to a reputation for always making a bold impression. “We call it 'catertainment,'” expands Kristine. “We’re always pushing ourselves to be creative and play around with the format of food service because at the end of the day, when our clients are planning an important event, they want to go to a company they can trust and they want their event to stand out. And we want to be seen as a partner in creating special memories, not just supplying food.”
Take T&M’s own 20-year anniversary celebration for example. The company pulled out all the stops and invited over 300 of its closest friends, strategic partners, suppliers, clients and well-wishers for a night of revelry at the Canadian Museum of Nature. T&M developed the champagne ceiling service, which involved 400 champagne flutes strung from the ceiling with ribbons of T&M’s signature tangerine colour to hover nine feet off the ground. The glasses were then cut by performers on stilts to be handed down to a waiting server and filled with champagne for a guest. The event also included a live salad cone wall, where guests could fill a savory cone with greens and toppings before being garnished, dressed and enjoyed.
The T&M team has always been able to make both the food and presentation stand out from the crowd by continuously searching for new ingredients, new techniques and new presentation styles. “Our sales team works with an incredible number of small, specialized suppliers who bring custom or unique aspects to our food and service,” says Mark. “Our kitchen team is extremely passionate and seeks out local farms and interesting food suppliers, and we encourage them to be as different as possible.”
Mark and Kristine have since transitioned out of the trenches and into more managerial roles, but the couple’s drive for new experiences led to pursuing new ventures. The duo created T&M’s sister company, Great Canadian Plates, which won an exclusive food service contract with Ottawa’s new CE Centre, a major 220,000-square foot exhibition centre.
“I love the feeling of having butterflies in your belly from doing something you never did before, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with Great Canadian Plates,” beams Mark. The company recently catered for the 3,200-guest NHL All Star Game Weekend in January 2012, followed by a concert featuring Pitbull and Flo Rida that required the company to oversee 12 bars, two concession stands and one lemonade stand.
“It’s a journey and a challenge for sure, but life isn’t just about breathing; it’s about creating legacies and memories and that’s exactly what we want to be doing right now,” says Mark.
T&M has since launched new food presentation services, like a wall of hors d’oeuvres and the Bubble Buffet, where salads are literally tossed inside plastic orbs by a professional juggler. The next years are sure to be full of delight for T&M, but it will always be the company’s unwavering passion for food and the discovery of new things that will cement Tulips & Maple Catering Inc. as a leader of inspiring, innovative culinary experiences in Canada and abroad.