The Secret Ingredient
Chef Suzanne Rockwell talks catering success & giving back to the community
Writer: Suzanne Huntzinger
Photographer: Amy Payne
The aroma of perfectly cooked meatloaf fills the room. From another oven comes a steaming casserole dish of bowtie pasta with grilled chicken and vegetables. It’s only 9:30 a.m. and I’m already hungry for dinner.
Chef Suzanne Rockwell emerges, greeting me with a friendly smile and warm hug. But then, who wouldn’t accept a hug from a chef bearing delicious food? The Chef Suzanne Catering kitchen is buzzing with five or six people preparing dozens of meals to go out the door. Sadly, I’m not one of the recipients of such a special delivery, so I wake from my dinner dream and glumly take a sip of my bottled water.
For nearly 10 years now, Chef Suzanne and her staff have been feeding hungry clients that range from folks with special dietary needs to special events like weddings or showers. But as frenetic as the kitchen is right now, it’s much more stable than in the early days of the caterer’s humble beginnings.
Rockwell began her catering business during one of America’s most challenging economic times. In 2009, she was working as Executive Chef at the Fox Pub and Grill when the owner closed the restaurant. Suddenly finding herself without a job, she threw caution to the wind and pursued her dream of opening a catering business. Rockwell scouted kitchens for a place to call home base. When she found one at the Sterrett Center at Fort Benjamin Harrison, she approached an old friend of hers to ask if she could rent the kitchen space. Paul Ricketts, then the Republican Mayor of Lawrence, granted her approval to rent the space.
The popular event venue was a lucky score for Rockwell’s launch and rampant speculation ensued that she was granted the approval as a political favor from Ricketts.
“There was no political favor,” she says. “I’m actually a registered Democrat. Paul helped me because we were friends.”
Suzanne and her team ramped up rather quickly, becoming successful enough to make the rent payment. Grateful for the opportunity they’d been given, Suzanne and her staff gave back to the community generously. They painted the cabin at Jenn Park in Lawrence as a service project, held barbecues every Friday at the Sterrett Center and donated money to the Lawrence community for fireworks and other uses.
Within 18 months, Chef Suzanne Catering outgrew their Sterrett Center kitchen. The next stop on their journey was Indian Lake Country Club. The country club needed a new Executive Chef, and Rockwell needed a new kitchen for her catering business. They worked out a solution allowing Rockwell and her staff to use the kitchen in the morning to conduct her catering business, then turn her attention to the club for lunches and dinners. Rockwell and her staff were able to manage the juggling act for 18 months.
The team then made a brief stop in the kitchen at Geist Christian Church. During their six-month stint, the business continued to grow, and they bought the kitchen new microwaves, a dishwasher and other items. Unexpectedly, a golden opportunity arose for Chef Suzanne Catering to find a permanent home. The father of one of the chefs on staff was building office suites at Windermere and needed a tenant. Rockwell jumped at the chance, delighted at the prospect of having a place they could call their own. The timing was perfect. The building was under construction and close enough to the beginning stages to allow Rockwell to make design specifications to accommodate a consultation area, kitchen, storage, an office and more.
Since then, Chef Suzanne Catering continues to thrive, continually adding to the services they offer. The business continues to offer catering services for private or corporate events. Weddings and showers, holiday parties or other events are still their specialty.
“One of my favorite weddings was a bride and groom who came from opposite coasts,” Rockwell says. “The bride was from California, the groom was from Maine and they met in the middle. We did a West Coast meets East coast menu. It was really fun.”
Besides private parties, Chef Suzanne Catering has lots of other secret ingredients on the menu. The chefs put on “Pop-Up Dinners” for clients, inviting them to the Chef Suzanne kitchen for a special night of food and fun. For home cooks on the ambitious side, cooking classes are available at the Chef Suzanne kitchen. To spice things up a little, Chef Suzanne Catering offers a program called the “Top Chef” competition for private corporate team building events.
The hottest new dish cooking in the Chef Suzanne oven is the athletes who’ve become clients of the caterer.
“This year, the majority of the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive line are our clients,” Rockwell says.
The caterer’s niche of preparing meals for clients with special dietary needs like allergy clients, diabetics, cardiac and oncology patients and even seniors was the special sauce that paved the way for the introduction to the Colts players.
“I connected with a nutritionist that works for St. Vincent’s, and she connected me to the Colts.”
Chef Suzanne not only connected with the Colts but other players in town for the NFL Combine.
“Through the Colts, other agents heard about us and looked us up,” she says. “We’ve got some clients from the Indiana Pacers too.”
It’s rare when a chef can hit the jackpot for everyone like Mikey with Life cereal, but Chef Suzanne sure tries hard to nail it.
“We ask all our clients to fill out a survey that identifies their preferences,” Rockwell says. “But for the Colts clients, we did a culinary boot camp where we set out a wide variety of veggies and fish and new things for them to try. It was really fun, and they loved it.”
While Chef Suzanne continues mixing things up in the kitchen, she’s never lost her spirit to give back to the community. Through School Community Liaison at Harrison Hill Elementary, Neal Gore, she became involved with preparing meals for Family Engagement nights at the school. Twice a week, the school, which is largely low-income families, holds a night for activities for the whole family to join like art classes, karate, chess and Zumba. The program is free and dinner is served. Gore needed help with the dinners and he knew exactly who to ask.
“I started off committing to just one night, but as of now, we’ve provided more than 7,500 meals,” Rockwell says. “But it’s so worth it when those kids come up to you and give you big hugs and show their gratitude.”
She also supports Noble of Indiana, an organization which helps disabled people find jobs by helping them with their fundraiser, “Noble Eve in the Garden.” Plenty of other charities are on her shopping list as well, like The Taste of Hope for the Hope Academy for Addiction and St. Simon School fundraisers, just to name a few.
Approaching the 10th anniversary of the catering company, Rockwell contemplates plenty more meals to be prepared and considers the possibility of planning a celebration. But already, she’s clear about her recipe for the milestone’s goals.
“I’d like to see our construction loans paid, give back to all the friends who’ve helped us along the way, continue giving back to charities and just be ready to stand on our own,” she says.
Whatever dish Chef Suzanne cooks up for the milestone, it’s sure to be a winner.
Check out chefsuzanne.com today to find out more about their catering services or see how they can help with special dietary needs. Give them a call at 317-913-0332 for more information, or stop by their kitchen at 9623 Winderemere Blvd, Suite C, Fishers.
In the meantime, here’s Chef Suzanne’s foolproof advice for a perfect meal.
“Start with fresh ingredients, keep the recipe simple and make it easy to prepare,” she says.