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Food By Design has stood the test of time

November 8, 2019

Years ago, I was a partner in a fine-dining catering business. It was backbreaking work. You literally packed up an entire restaurant’s worth of stuff - dishes, food, glasses, food, silverware, more food, linens, ovens (did I mention food?), and carted it to who-knows-where - all the while keeping it warm, cold or whatever it needed to be. Why would anybody want to do that to themselves? Isn’t life hard enough as it is? Do you know what 200 china plates sound like when they all shatter at once? (I do.)

Given my clearly lopsided view of the business of catering, these were the first questions I blurted out to Debbie Vescovi, the big boss and chief cook for Food By Design catering company. Her longtime venture here in Rehoboth Beach has earned a reputation for tasty creations and particularly imaginative presentation. She has progressed from whippin’ up snacks for her daughters’ sports teams all the way to weddings and luncheons for 500 people or more.

Debbie is no stranger to slicing and dicing. As a foster child, she cooked daily meals for five so mom could work to support them. She was 7 years old at the time. “I hated it,” she admits. “It wasn’t really the work I hated, but I made the same [expletive deleted] things all the time! Over and over. It never changed.” That is, until a friend gave her something she had never seen before: A cookbook.

With Better Homes & Gardens as her guide, young Debbie took matters into her own hands. “I started by adding peanut butter to brownies. They loved it.” (What’s not to love?) As she grew up and started dating, her cooking skills were put on hold. “My fridge contained two things: ketchup and iced tea.”

Marriage to her husband Jim and a busy family with two kids didn’t change things all that much, but as the girls grew up, Debbie began trying out new things. “Poor Jim was my guinea pig,” she says. “I knew I was getting somewhere when they all ganged up on me and asked if I would please make some normal food.” The Vescovis’ quickly became the house where everybody wanted to eat. Friends suggested she open a restaurant, but with college tuitions on the horizon, she wisely chose the path with less overhead but certainly more physical exertion. Her daughter Chloe pitched in, and when she’s not waiting tables at Café Azafran, she remains an essential part of the operation.

Food By Design started out doing small theme parties. Word began to spread. The phone rang for holiday dinners, weddings, cocktail parties and receptions. Debbie refused to compromise: “I’d like to think my food is eclectic. I will not serve you chicken on a stick. I will not serve you bagels; you can drive up the street and buy them. You will not get those little frozen quiches from me, either.”

I’ve been fortunate to be on the receiving end of Deb, Jim and Chloe’s culinary high-wire act. They pull up in the van. Racks, coolers, tables and ovens roll out. Big orange extension cords snake in and around the staging area. Suddenly it starts to smell really good in there. Trays are decked out with sausage-stuffed mushrooms, margarita-shot shrimp shooters, antipasto sticks (with homemade balsamic, of course), creamy mini-soups in stemmed glasses, multi-layered platters of crisp phyllo-wrapped goodies, and her legendary honey pecan cranberry chicken salad. (You may continue drooling at www.foodbydesign.biz.) I’d love to be a guinea pig in Deb’s kitchen.

Short of the coordination required to effectively transport everything, catering is not all that different from running a restaurant. Dishes still need to be washed. Costs have to be figured and recipes refined to feed a crowd. But all that effort pays off. Debbie still talks about how honored she was to cater a lunch for 500 - including several astronauts - to celebrate the NASA’s successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

I think celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme said it best: “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.” Our local caterers work hard to bring a bit of elegance to our informal, flip flop-centered town. And Debbie Vescovi is certainly among the most talented.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.