2010 Flavors Best Appetizer:

East West Catering Blends French Technique with Asian Flavors for Mouthwatering Dishes

East West Catering owner Julie Van Pelt, below, dishes up some of her distinctive dishes highlighted with local, organic herbs.

With its eclectic and mouth-watering blend of Pacific Rim and Caribbean dishes, East West Catering has built a loyal clientele over its more than a decade on St. John.

Local chefs added their seal of approval when East West owner Julie Van Pelt’s shrimp and lobster potstickers was voted “Best Appetizer” at Flavors St. John.

The annual Rotary fund raiser was hosted in November at the Westin Resort  and Villas and featured top island chefs going head to head for the honor of wining the judges’ favor.

Van Pelt was a shoe-in with her scrumptious potstickers, which were devoured by the crowd, and the judges. With her unique blend of tropical influences, French technique and Pacific Rim flavors — imagine a miso-sake-soy marinated Seabass over wasabi mashed potatoes with Asian style grilled asparagus — Van Pelt has definitely discovered the perfect recipe for success.

But the California-native found the world of cooking only after studying poli-sci in college. When the then-UCLA student, who majored in political science and Chinese, studied in China, she was as enthralled with the cuisine as with the politics.

“I spent two years in China studying and while I was there I went to cooking school on the weekends,” said Van Pelt. “I just loved the food. Back then they had these black markets where you could buy anything you wanted and there was all this amazing produce coming in from the countryside.”

“I fell in love with Asian food,” Van Pelt said. “When I came back from China, instead of going to law school, I started cooking.”

The life-long skiing enthusiast began her cooking career in Aspen, Colorado, where she was introduced to that other country of culinary expertise, France.

“I went to Aspen and apprenticed under a French chef, but I didn’t want to be a French chef,” said Van Pelt. “I loved the French technique, but I also loved the Asian flavors. Another thing that I really liked was the way French chefs built flavors from the ground up.”

“With French cooking you start with your onions and garlic and simmer them down and add from there, whereas in Asian cuisine, those are your finishing touches that you add at the last minute,” said the chef.

After tiring of the long Colorado winters over more than seven years, Van Pelt decided to head south and try her hand at sailing.

“I didn’t want to do eight months of winter anymore,” said the chef. “I went to the Aspen public library and found a sailing magazine and read about this company called Moorings, which had a base on Tortola, which I couldn’t find on an Atlas. I had never been to the Caribbean before.”

“They talked to me about revamping their waterside restaurant and flew me down to Beef Island,” said Van Pelt.

After helming several kitchens on Tortola, learning how to sail and meeting her future husband, a chance encounter with a St. John resident brought Van Pelt to Love City.

“I met Jennifer Triosi on Tortola and she loved my food so much and said no one was doing it on St. John,” said Van Pelt. “She asked me to come and spend a day on St. John and I just fell in love with the island. I went back to Tortola and quit my job.”

“It took me six months to move over here,” she said. “I quit my job and started developing my menus for the first East West Catering season and we’ve never looked back.”

That was back in 2000 and since then Van Pelt has continued to expand her offerings, tweak her menu each season and help residents and visitors make life-long memories. Now in her 12th season of catering, the practicing Buddhist keeps busy running the company, donating her services whenever possible and keeping her menu enticing and exciting.

“What I’ve learned is that this island is the most beautiful place that you could ever imagine,” said Van Pelt. “People sometimes wonder if they should be someplace else, but I realize I’m on the most incredible island in the world with an incredible population that really cares about each other.”

Van Pelt continues to give back to the community as well. In addition to offering her food at the Flavors fund raiser, she has also cooked for Friends of V.I. National Park fund raisers,

Wagapalooza and will be serving up some of her favorite dishes at the January 8 St. John Animal Care Center fund raiser.

“We’ve always tried to give back to the community,” said the chef. “I’m a Buddhist and I believe that you have to give away everything that you can without bringing hardship on yourself.”

While her menu changes each season, in order to “keep it fun and different,” some things at East West Catering have remained the same over the past few years.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we have not changed our fees in three years, since the economic downturn,” said the chef. “It’s very important to me that I can get up in the morning and know I did a great job for a great price.”

Being able to offer Josephine’s Organic produce has been the most exciting advancement for East West Catering, according to Van Pelt.

“We’ve become such a fan of Coral Bay Organic Gardens and we do everything we can with them,” the chef said. “We use herbs and produce that just came out of the ground that morning.

The local food grown here takes my cuisine to a whole new level that I don’t even really have anything to do with.”

After more than a dozen years in the business, Van Pelt still gets excited to cater someone’s special day and become a part of their memories, she explained.

“I’m creating memories and that is what keeps me going,” said Van Pelt. “We get to be a part of some people’s happiest days and that is really special.”

East West fans won’t want to miss the ACC fund raiser on January 8 when Van Pelt will be whipping up a grilled warm duck salad over Josephine’s arugula with fresh grilled mango and Gnarly Head Zinfandel reduction sauce.

Or call up East West for that next party. Van Pelt offers on-site catering, villa provisioning, week-long chef services, gourmet drop off and more. For more information about East West’s services or to book the caterers, check out www.eastwestcatering.com or call Van Pelt at 693-9343.