In retrospect, the path to being a chef and owner of a catering business has been a constant in the life of Jessica “Jess” Clearwater, owner of Moondance Catering in Blowing Rock.
Though, the journey was not always a straight one that goes from Point A to Point B. Jess admits it took a while to realize what her life’s work would be. But now when speaking with Jess, her excitement about what she does is evident by her smile and the sparkle in her blue eyes.
Moving to the High Country
When Jess enrolled in the Culinary Arts program at Central Piedmont Community College, she had landed on what would become the mainstay. Yet, it still would be some years before she found her niche.
After getting a degree in Culinary Arts from CPCC, at the encouragement of one of her long-lasting mentors Bill Bullock, an instructor in the program, she moved to Boone and completed a business degree in Hospitality and Management at Appalachian State University. Like many, she has stayed ever since.
For a couple of years, Jess pieced together a few different jobs to make a living, such as managing the restaurant Twigs and bartending at Woodlands. Both of these experiences proved to be instrumental in discovering her enjoyment of catering.
Through her work in the food and beverage industry, in particular bartending, she met a lot of people with whom she made connections and one thing led to another. One significant relationship that developed was with Claudia Clark, owner of Sweet Seasons, a bed and breakfast on the Chetola estate. Claudia and Jess worked together for more than six years catering events, and Jess regards Claudia as another great mentor. One of their joint endeavors was catering realtor open houses, which eventually led Jess to obtain a realtor’s license and sell real estate. Of course, this is in addition to her running the food businesses.
In 2009, when the real estate market hit a trough, Jess became the wedding coordinator at Chetola. During the four years she was there, she built their event engagements from a small amount to about 100 events the next year, she said. During this time, Chetola’s kitchen had burned. The chef was able to work a deal using the kitchen at Meadowbrook Inn, and Jess eased the fears of the brides who were panicking. She said that some of her clients attest that one of her strengths is her calming nature and her ability to work through obstacles in an even-keel manner. This attribute serves her well in the catering business.
Jess started Moondance Catering in 1999. She has taken some time from it periodically over the years. But, she went back to the business full time in 2016.
Jess places importance on getting to know the client and gaining an understanding of what they are looking for, their ideas and their vision for the event. There are no cookie-cutter solutions. If a client wants gluten-free, vegetarian or even vegan, she will accommodate their wishes. Of late, she has focused on micro-weddings that are typically 12 to 25 people, which enables her to provide a truly individualized experience.
After the initial information-gathering meeting, she tailors a menu specifically for the client. Jess recognizes that events, especially weddings, are now all about the food. She says, “Food has been influenced by the foodie culture”, and her clients want better food than in the past. This is what she strives to achieve — great food, fresh and based on what the season offers.
A typical day in the life of Jess starts off with shopping locally for fresh produce and meats. She visits several groceries as well as the local farmer’s market and other locations to make the menu unique. Jess likes to create beautiful, colorful dishes whether it is a charcuterie board, an appetizer or a main entree. The visual aspect is as much a delight as the taste of the food.
For the cooking and preparation, she rents kitchen space at Sunny Rock in Blowing Rock and is able to use the space after the restaurant closes at 1:30 p.m. This is when she starts working on the courses for the event. Many times, she has gone into the kitchen the night before and started her prepping. After the food is ready, she transports it to the venue.
Jess has the help of one staff person, Alice Craft, who has worked with her for four years in setting up, serving and breaking down their setup at the end. Sometimes Jess’ husband comes in and helps when needed also.
Recently, Jess has prepared pimento cheese and jalapeño peach tarts, prosciutto-wrapped breadsticks with black truffle butter, chicken with peaches and country ham, and her charcuterie boards are visual masterpieces. Visit www.moondancecateringnc.com for sample menus.
A Love for Catering
It is evident when speaking with Jess that she loves what she does. When asked about specifics that keep her excited about her catering business, she talks about the ability to be creative with food. There is no doubt that Jess is gifted in this regard. She knows the flavors to combine for a delicious, yet unique, experience.
She likes the ability to work for herself and have control of the final product. She enjoys having the flexibility to accommodate her clients’ requests and being an integral part of their special day. She develops relationships with her clients and becomes a member of the team that makes the event distinctive.
Helping her juggle a host of different activities needed to be a caterer is her organization and time management skills. Her attention to detail is impeccable, as evidenced by the meticulous care she takes in preparing her attractive and delectable dishes.
She also credits herself as being able to think fast on her feet, which allows her to quickly pivot when the occasion calls for a quick change. Catering in the High Country usually involves being outside, which can lend itself to adventures with adjustments to plans. The main challenge, according to Jess, is the weather.
“I can control my food and my mood, but I can’t control the weather,” she says.
For instance, she recalled a time when it started raining buckets without warning and she had to walk the food back and forth carrying an umbrella from the food station to each guest in order to serve them. She added that a different time featured a bear who showed up at an event and she had to repeatedly tell an event attendee to stop feeding the wild animal. These are in addition to once when a groom went missing for an hour-and-a-half, causing a commensurate delay in the wedding she was catering.
A Happy Life
As one can imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on Jess’s catering business. A lover of hiking and the outdoors, Jess went on a hike one afternoon to clear her head and think of what might be in store for her during the pandemic shutdown.
“I went into the woods with nothing and came out of the woods with a hot-dog cart,” she says.
In addition to her catering business and her real estate work, she created a hotdog business called “Jess’ Weenie Wagon” and located it on U.S. 321 outside of Blowing Rock. She has Nathan’s hot dogs and makes the condiments like chili and slaw from scratch. It was a huge success and provided revenue during that very tough time.
Jess is pleased with how her catering business has developed and grown over the years and with her busy life, including her real estate business and Jess’ Weeny Wagon. There is never a dull day for Jess Clearwater in the High Country.