Whenever Dawna Smith and her friend Laura Charest of Harpswell would make hors d’oeuvres for a cocktail party or put together a menu for a charitable event, people would rave about the food they created. What’s not to like about such offerings as chili-rubbed beef on parmesan crostini, lobster dumplings, Szechwan shrimp in filo, or Bailey’s Irish Cre?me chocolate triangles, after all?
Three years ago, Smith, now 70, and Charest, who is 56, finally decided it was time to start their own catering business, Thymes Two Catering.
“I said ‘We ought to do this for money,’” recalls Smith.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Are you serious?’” adds Charest.
“Now our husbands just shake their heads when we walk out the door for a job with all our stuff,” says Smith.
The fact that these two entrepreneur friends should be enjoying – or at least thinking about – their retirement is just one of the things that sets them apart from other catering firms. As they explain, their goal is to provide a unique and creative experience for their clients, whether the setting is an outdoor engagement picnic for two or a sit-down anniversary dinner under a tent for a party of 60.
To that end, Smith and Charest like to get together with their clients and not only decide on the menu, but also a theme for the parties they cater. One time, for example, they served a breakfast buffet on a moving train. During the London Olympics, they catered a cocktail party fit for the queen. Another time they made decorated bibs for the guests at a lobster bake.
“We wouldn’t do it if we couldn’t be creative,” says Smith. “And we always do something extra to personalize it.”
Both women spent their working lives outside the kitchen. Smith, who grew up in Woolwich, was an English teacher in Hawaii for a time. Charest was a dress and shoe buyer for several retail firms. Yet there were plenty of indications that food might someday move front and center in their lives.
In the 1970s, Smith took some cooking classes just for fun at Le Cordon Bleu in London and La Varenne in Paris. Later, while living in San Francisco, she cooked every meal in the Julia Child cookbooks, volumes 1 and 2. At various events, she met James Beard, Chuck Williams (of Williams and Sonoma), and finally, Julia Childs herself.
“She was exactly what you would think: imposing but wonderful,” Smith recalls.
While on the West Coast, Smith also developed an interest in Thai cuisine when she taught English to a woman from Thailand. When she and her sea captain husband moved back to Maine, Smith continued to plan and host fancy dinner parties for her friends.
Charest’s food background included waitressing in her younger years. When she and her husband moved to Maine, they decided to buy a 20-room bed-and-breakfast in Ogunquit. Charest served breakfast and afternoon tea to the guests every day. It was during these years that Charest learned that how something is served is as important to the dining experience as the food itself.
“Presentation is so important to us,” Charest says. “That’s why we decorate tables and bring our own dishes to an event.”
Thymes Two Catering has a faithful crew of three regular servers and a dozen others for large parties who help to cater the events and “leave the kitchen the way they found it,” Smith says. Smith and Charest do all the cooking themselves, utilizing locally grown food when possible. The lobsters for their dumplings come from a lobster pound in South Harpswell, and their vegetables from a farm in Freeport. Meats often come from Pat’s Meat Market in Portland, and mushrooms from Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Freeport.
Thymes Two Catering has a sample menu on their website, thymestwocatering.com, but Smith explains that no two menus are ever the same. They want their clients to suggest things and to feel as if they’ve had a hand in creating the event.
“When someone calls, we say, ‘What would you like to do?’”Smith says.
Because each event is unique, there are no prices on the Thymes Two website. Charest says the average cost per person for a four- to five-course dinner is probably $90 to $125 a person. She thinks their food would stack up against any gourmet restaurant charging a similar price for a meal.
“I think we’re going to make a better meal,” says Charest, adding that, “you don’t even have to leave your house.”
After a hectic summer, during which Smith and Charest worked “a good 30 hours a week,” Thymes Two Catering took a break in September. They are available for some weekends in the fall, and then they’ll take another break from January to May.
After three years together, the Thymes Two duo is still exploring creative possibilities. They expect to do more weddings and engagement parties next year, along with the lobster bakes and cocktail parties they’ve become known for.
As for how much longer they expect to keep working?
“Who knows?” says Charest. “Until we stop having fun.”
Laura Charest, left, and Dawna Smith are friends and partners in the catering business, Thymes Two Catering.
Dawna Smith, left, and Laura Charest in action at a Thymes Two Catering job.
Tuna three ways, a first course, prepared by Thymes Two Catering.