Among the restaurant staff in town, a few hidden culinary talents await the right timing and opportunity to exhibit their skills. You may recognize them as the bartender who makes a particularly intriguing and complex cocktail or the server who can always find a perfect wine pairing and seems to know way more than the average person about food. April Hyon belongs in that select few and began sharing her culinary skills with the public recently as the new catering manager for Art Mart's catering services.
Hyon graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Las Vegas in 2006 and relocated to Illinois to be closer to family. After she moved, she chose to serve as front-of-house staff in the local restaurant industry, most recently at Bacaro, to pay off school bills, while keeping her skills sharp as a local private chef for a family for several years. Now she is expanding into a more public role as a chef.
Art Mart offered boxed lunches beginning in the 1980s, but in the late 1990s, when their last catering manager moved on to a different career, catering services became a less prominent focus of the business. Then late last year, the collaboration opportunity evolved between Hyon and the managers of Art Mart, Courtney and Brian McKay. Hyon began adding to the catering menu to incorporate new ideas and some of her personal style as a chef. She says the range and focus of the catering services right now is for 10 to 50 people, and “[with] the focus on smaller groups, the quality really translates into the food.”
Catering services currently include boxed breakfasts or boxed lunches and a wide array of charcuterie, artisan cheeses, pâtés, crostini, finger foods, salads, and smoked salmon plates. With Art Mart’s addition of a wine selection to their store in June 2011, catering orders can also include wine pairings, selected by Hyon or by their resident wine connoisseur, Paul Simpson.
A look into Art Mart’s deli case reveals the variety of quality imported or local ingredients that the store stocks, and the quality of ingredients carries over into the catering as well. A few of Hyon’s artisan cheese trays are the Recherche, with six selected French cheeses, including a Valençay and Pont l'Evêque; the Bel Formaggio, presenting six Italian types, among them the Fontina Val’Aosta; and the Amante de Queso, with six Spanish cheeses, including Idiazabal and Garrotxa. Yes, the trays also contain other cheeses with more recognizable names like roquefort and provolone, but they exhibit a tasty and carefully selected variety you might not find elsewhere.
Boxed lunches include a specialty sandwich, a deli side, a pickle, and a cookie. In gourmet lunches, the customer can choose to swap the cookie for a truffle. They are available on 24-hour notice, either for pickup or delivery, with a minimum order of six lunches.
Hyon also likes to add personal touches to the food and the presentation, and she notices all the details, sometimes as small as coordinating box lunch ribbons and napkins to match school or business colors. “Presentation-wise...I don't want to put anything out there that I wouldn't want,” she said.
Photo by Susanna Kline
No novice to the restaurant or catering industry, Hyon has worked with Chef Terrance Fong from Hawaii, among other big food names. Throughout culinary school, Hyon volunteered for many events to increase her experience with various types of catering and chefing affairs. She worked under Charlie Palmer for a 3000-person cigar aficionado event called The Big Smoke Out, prepared pastries alongside the owner and executive pastry chef of The Chocolate Swan of Mandalay Bay for the Las Vegas Odyssey Event (an annual food and wine celebration), and catered with Bleu International (started and run by herself and other Le Cordon Bleu grads). She also cooked and plated signature dishes for the French-Asian Fusion restaurant Chinois at the 2006 Epicurean Event in Las Vegas.
To compete for a scholarship, Hyon cooked in a Mystery Food Basket Competition similar to the Food Network show, “Chopped.” Each contestant was presented with a “mystery basket” of ingredients that included starches, proteins, and vegetables. After a little time to plan their menu, the eight contestants cooked a meal for a panel of judges. Although she didn't win with her tabbouleh-style lamb chop and bulgur wheat dish, she says that, because of the time stress and limitation of ingredients, that experience topped the difficulty level of any of her other cooking or catering events.
Photo by Susanna Kline
Since she moved into the Champaign-Urbana area, she has performed volunteer catering work for several organizations, including the CU Ballet, helping to cater the soirees one year and catering an in-home party for board members on another occasion. She also participated in the Spence Farm’s “Harvest Feast,” making profiteroles filled with savory butternut squash and candied bacon.
To plan ahead for your upcoming office lunches and other special events, like Easter, Mother’s Day, Kentucky Derby parties, or graduation, with a catering order from Hyon, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art Mart is located at 127 Lincoln Square in Urbana.
Photos by Susanna Kline, except when not credited: by April Hyon. Used with permission.