Susan Mendelson, from Theatre to Culinary Household Name

Susan Mendelson is the owner and co-founder of noted catering company The Lazy Gourmet. She wrote the official cookbook of Expo 86, along with nine other bestsellers, and agreed to share her fascinating journey with our readers.

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Susan Mendelson

Ana-Maria Gheorghiu: Please tell us a bit about your first years in Vancouver. When did you come here, and how did you start?

 

Susan Mendelson: I came here from Toronto at 19 years old, in 1971. I moved from a big city to a pioneer-type city (in the sense that everybody was open to new ideas). Many people I met here were from somewhere else, as opposed to Toronto where everybody I knew was from there. It was an exciting time.

 

I went and studied Theatre and English at UBC for three years, and I loved it! I was passionate about it, but my theatre teacher told me: “Susan, you’re never going to be an actress; it’s just not gonna happen!” He was a very good friend of mine and he loved my cheesecake. He told me he knew this girl who made a fantastic cheesecake, so I tried different recipes for him until he finally said: “This is the perfect cheesecake.” But he kept telling me I wasn’t going to have a career in the theatre.

 

A.M.G.: Did you take that to heart?

 

Susan Mendelson: I knew it. I just didn’t have the talent. I traveled for a year to Europe and Israel and, when I came back, I decided to start a career in social work. At my summer jobs, they ran school programs for children in neighborhoods. They were called community schools, and it was a whole new concept. I started at Norquay School in the East End, and that was really exciting. I was very young and I was in charge of a lot of kids; it was amazing. It’s funny, a young man kept bumping into me every time I went to Metrotown, and one time he stopped me and said: “Are you Susan Mendelson?” I said “Yes”,  and he said “I was a little Brown boy at Norquay School, and you just took me under your wing, and I remember how you made me feel, and it just changed my life.” I was almost in tears, I mean, this was a grown man, probably around 35, with 2 little kids with him, and I thought “Oh my God, I really had an impact and made a difference in a child’s life!” It was different from someone just using my cookbook.

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John Norquay School
Image credit: Richard Eriksson, CC, Flickr

The year after that, I worked at Collingwood Community School in Kitsilano, and I started this summer program for which I hired out-of-work actors (my friends from theatre school). We all took care of 100 kids at summer school, and it was a fantastic experience. So I decided that might be my calling. When I took the summer off, and I also worked in a home for delinquent teenagers, and that was a horrible experience, because I had no training whatsoever. So, after traveling to Europe, in 1975, I came back and studied Social Work at UBC, but I wasn’t making enough money to support myself. Fortunately, Larry Lillo, my Theatre teacher, had a communal theatre company called Tamahnous—it was very experimental, avant-garde, phenomenal theatre, and they became the resident company at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.

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The Van East Cultural Centre building (a former church) in 1973, its first year as a home to the arts – 1895 Venables St.
Image credit: Copyright City of Vancouver

Because the Van East Cultural Centre got a resident company who received a government grant to establish themselves, the Cultural Centre used that money to upgrade. Larry Lillo eventually became the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse and went on to fame, but, unfortunately, he died of AIDs in the early ’90s. He was my mentor, my best friend and my soulmate…

 

Anyway, Larry said to me: “Susan, they’re looking for a house manager. So you can go to school during the day and house manage at night at the VECC.” House manager meant organizing the whole audience, getting them in, arranging all the queues for the companies, taking the money, organizing the box office, then getting people out at intermission, getting them back in, closing up, doing all the cash, and taking the cash to the bank.

 

I got this job, which was about $350 a month, but it still wasn’t enough for me to live on. So I started making Nanaimo bars and cheesecake and carrot cake, and selling them at the theatre for 50 cents per piece. I lived in a tiny little apartment with a very small stove. I’d go to school during the day, work at night, then I’d go home and do my homework until 2am while the cakes were baking in the oven.

 

A.M.G.: How much would you make in a day selling desserts?

 

Susan Mendelson: Sometimes I would have as many as three cheesecakes, so I’d make about $20, but that wasn’t pure profit. Then I started making a bigger carrot cake, like 40 pieces, but I think it was still $20. I would normally make an extra $100 a month. It still made a difference in my income. My rent was $200 (and I had my own apartment) and school was $500 per year, so times were very different. I could make enough money to live well. I bought this 1967 Volvo named Helga, because I needed a car to drive back and forth.

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A 1967 Volvo
Image credit: peter barwick, CC, Flickr

It was a wonderful time, because the VECC was an incredible place. We did avant-garde theatre, but also classical pieces; we had masterpiece music, and then we had another group called the Cultural Funk which was “cool” music like rhythm and blues, Blue Rodeo—some people went on to be quite famous. Then, we had dance, every kind of dance you can imagine. We also brought in companies from across the country that were traveling with the Canada Council for the Arts, and we mounted festivals such as the Festival Habitat in 1976.

 

There was more money for the arts. It was all run on government funding, and people thought that would last forever. None of the companies would have managed to establish themselves without the support of the Canada Council; the fact that the government takes away all the funding is killing the culture. People will try to find the funding on their own, or will create their own art and culture, but it’s terrible that they’re not getting the support they need. And actors will work for next to nothing, but they’re starving. One of the greatest actors in the country— I’ve been told that he’s working for only hundreds of dollars, for stage work, and he’s won the Order of Canada for his contribution to the arts and he doesn’t get paid… it’s insane.

 

A.M.G.: Did being in that theatre environment make you want to try again as an actress?

 

Susan Mendelson: I’ve actually been back on the stage this last year, I’ve been doing some shows. And Tamahnous put me in a couple of shows, too. I went on to become a radio personality in Vancouver doing recipes on the radio. After I started making the food and selling it, people were calling in asking: “Could I get two tickets to the theatre, and could I book two pieces of cheesecake for intermission?” But they couldn’t do that, so as soon as the curtain went down, people raced into the lobby to buy the food, and they’d be fighting each other to get to the front. So the radio called to talk about my cheesecake. After I went on a couple of times, they invited me to come on regularly. My boss, Cris Wootten, was in the office and—you could interfere in phone calls in the old days—he pressed the button, got on the line and said : “This is Susan’s agent. When are you going to start paying her?” So they paid me $25 per show—$50 per month.

 

A.M.G.: Family recipes?

 

Susan Mendelson: Yes. I did some experimenting, but it was mostly family recipes. After I went on a few times, they asked me to do a show on aphrodisiacs for Valentine’s Day. I didn’t have a clue! So I went to the library, read about aphrodisiacs and made up recipes to go along with them! It took a lot of—do you know what chutzpah is? It’s a Yiddish word that means bold, daring, when you take something and just run with it.

 

A.M.G.: When was the point when you knew that his was not just a way to make an extra $50 a month, but a career path?

 

Susan Mendelson: Oh, it got a lot more complicated than that! Chris, my boss, started asking me to cater opening-night parties. He’d give me a budget of $100, and I would have to make food for 100 people. We’d go down to the docks and get salmon for 99 cents per pound; one big salmon would cost $6. Now I pay $70. So I started doing these opening-night parties, and two things happened: one, Darlene Marzari, who was a city councilor, called me and said she wanted me to cater her wedding. I said: “Darlene, I’m not a caterer, I’m an artist! I wouldn’t even know where to start!” But she insisted, so I ended up catering her wedding, and people started calling me.

 

Then, Ernie Fladell, who was the Head of Social Planning and very connected with the VECC, contacted me and said: “Susan, I have an idea. I want to bring people from all over the world for a festival of music and theatre for children, and I’m going to call it the Vancouver International Children’s Festival. And I want you to cater all the food for all the performers. I’m going to have 250 people from around the world; I have a 60-person group from Russia and a group from Japan and I want you to do all their dinners. I got an LIP grant and I can get you $90 a week, and you’ll learn how to do this. It’s all systems go!”

 

It’s an unbelievable story. I got permission from the City to bake in my own kitchen and put everything in a deep freezer. You could never do that today, never ever ever!

 

A.M.G.: But how could you physically do all that for 250 people?

 

Susan Mendelson: I prepped a lot in advance. But I almost died because I was so exhausted. Anyway, I pulled it off, and it was the most exciting thing of my entire life! This was a year before I started my business. In the meantime, I was working as a social worker, too, and I was also working nights at The Cultch. But I felt that I had a lot of energy, and I thought of my grandmother who was in her 80s and said to me: “You know, Susan, I’ve always wanted a little tea house where people would come and serve tea, but I had four children, and I couldn’t do it.” So I thought I didn’t want to be 80 and talking about my regrets to my grandchildren. I adored my grandmother and dedicated my first book to her.

 

I partnered with a good friend in 1979 and started my business. I worked at The Cultch as a social worker right until I started the business. But then I looked at my taxes and I saw I made more money catering than doing social work. I thought I would need to fall back on social work for a couple of days a week to help fund the catering company, but we never looked back.

 

I had a little space at the Planetarium and I hired out-of-work actors again. We made all kinds of sandwiches with meat, tuna, egg salad, smoked salmon, and people loved the food!

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The Vancouver Planetarium in the 1970s
Image credit: Copyright City of Vancouver

A.M.G.: Why do you think people loved your food so much? What were you doing different from other companies?

 

Susan Mendelson: At that time, Vancouver was a meat-and-potatoes town. I didn’t eat meat, so everything I made was with fresh vegetables and a whole different approach. It was an era when people just weren’t into food. And I was thinking that you can get a lot of pleasure and enjoyment out of food, and I can make that happen. Also, there were no places in Vancouver where you could go buy pre-made food. There were some bakeries, but I had quiche, lasagna, fettuccine— all these different foods. People would come in and go: “I’ll take one of those, and one of those, and one of those…” On weekends, they would line up at the door all the way down the street. My partner and I could only do so much at the time, because it was just the two of us and we did all the cooking, the cleaning, the shopping and the selling. It took a while to establish ourselves.

 

A.M.G.: The taste for good food, did you get that from your family?

 

Susan Mendelson: Absolutely. I also got a lot my inspiration from New York, the Silver Palate and Balducci’s. There aren’t too many people who have been around for 35 years in the business; certainly not here, in terms of reinventing yourself and changing constantly. You keep your core values, but you always have to stay fresh and innovative and try new things, otherwise you can just say good bye. That’s why I surround myself with people who are better than me at everything. It keeps my business going, for sure!

 

A.M.G.: I read about an Italian restaurant in Vancouver, Iaci’s Casa Capri, which was open from 1939 to 1983. I understand that its appeal was that everything was homemade.

 

Susan Mendelson: For sure, I know that place. And I think that’s it. My food, that’s how it’s always been, even though now we have to fight to be chi-chi and edgy. But, I think, bottom line is that people just want food that is made with really good ingredients and cooked really well.

 

A.M.G.: You saw and took part in a food revolution. How did immigrants impact the restaurant landscape in Vancouver?

 

Susan Mendelson: There were many Italian people who made phenomenal food. In the early ’70s, the first innovative restaurant was Umberto that started right before me, and the Japanese restaurants were starting to emerge, and then there was Aristides who started a fabulous Greek restaurant on Broadway. Greek cuisine was huge. The Chinese cuisine that had typical traditional dishes pretty much stayed in Chinatown and did not emerge for a while.

 

A.M.G.: East Vancouver was a multicultural place even then, but, from the stories I read in this project, it was pretty segregated in some ways in the ’40s and ’50. It was more “We have our culture, our cuisine, maybe I’ll go to a restaurant once in a while that’s different, but I’m not going to integrate it in the way I cook at home.” When did that start to change, when did the revolution make it from restaurants into people’s kitchens?

 

Susan Mendelson: For me, it started when I was in my early teens, because I had a great Home Economics teacher in grade 8 and 9, and she would ask us: “What would you like to learn how to make?” We’d do Chinese food one day, Italian food another day, or Greek food… And what I discovered was that anything I had eaten in a restaurant, I could learn how to make! If someone else could make it, I could make it!

 

So what I did in my first cookbook, and with all my ten cookbooks, was to take traditional recipes and simplify them so that they’re not intimidating. That was the key to the the success of all my cookbooks, no question. When my first cookbook, Mama Never Cooked Like This, came out, people were saying: “Oh my God, I’m cooking for the first time! I’ve never cooked in my life, and I can do it!” And I would reply: “Of course you can do it, anybody can! But why haven’t you ever cooked before? You’re 35-40 years old, how come you’ve never cooked?” And a lot of people would say: “When I was a kid, my mother would never let me in the kitchen.” So my next cookbook was called Let Me In the Kitchen which was a cookbook for kids and first-timers who wanted to learn the basics. I wanted to take the intimidation out of cooking and make everybody feel that they could do it. Even if it didn’t look exactly like mine, it would still taste delicious, and they would feel so proud!

 

A.M.G.: I think that is the key even today. When you look at the big cooking sites like allrecipes.com, the best rated recipes are the simple ones.

 

Susan Mendelson: Absolutely, because those are the ones that work and that everybody wants. Also, another revolution that was happening in Vancouver then, in the early ’70s, was the health food revolution. The Naam was there on 4th Avenue and it survived. People embraced it, because it was a hippie culture when I moved here.

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The Naam Natural Foods store in Kitsilano in the 1970s
Image credit: Copyright City of Vancouver

A.M.G.: What about food trends and fads? We see them around all the time, cupcakes, cake pops and so on. Did take part in launching any food trends?

 

Susan Mendelson: My former partner and I worked together for 7-8 years. She was very funny, and we always wanted to do everything with a sense of humour, and we created new things. So we started mixing smoked salmon and cream cheese together to extend the smoked salmon, and we called it “lox mousse,” because lox is another word for smoked salmon. We made up the name and it was our thing, but now you see lox mousse everywhere and nobody knows where it even came from!

 

Another thing I made in the early days, something I took from Toronto, was what is called a caviar pie: you take avocado and you press it down at the bottom of a pie plate, then you put in a sprinkling of sweet onion, then a layer of egg salad, and carefully put caviar on top. It’s used as a spread to put on crackers. That was huge back then, in the early ’80s, it was huge! People would ask for caviar pie all the time. It was a very Vancouver thing. And now people are asking for it again, so we brought it back.

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Lox mousse is now a popular party food
Image credit: Annie, CC, Flickr

A.M.G.: How did you find East Van to be as a neighbourhood when you moved here?

 

Susan Mendelson: I loved East Van. I loved Commercial Drive; I did all my shopping there, because I didn’t have time to go anywhere else. Then I’d go and have a coffee at Joe’s. There was something very comfortable about the East End, there was this totally unpretentious thing about it. There was also Mr. Grippo from Continental Coffee, who used to roast his coffee in the back alley, in a garage. So I used to smell my way to go buy the coffee, and I remember he was a wonderful, wonderful man.

 

A.M.G.: See, if that happened now, we wouldn’t trust it; we would think it’s just a marketing ploy.

 

Susan Mendelson: Yes, but that was the real thing! You’d drive around, you’d smell it, then you’d go in, buy the coffee and drink it, and you would think you’d died and gone to heaven.

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Sign for Continental Coffee, a popular cafe opened by Theo Grippo on Commercial Drive in the 1970s

There was also Britannia School, which had become a community school, and I had worked there as a social work student. At that time, I did a project for my thesis, which was to create a multiculturalism forum. It was basically an all-day conference where we looked at what the government policy for multiculturalism really meant. So I met all the stakeholders in the multicultural program, Mosaic (which was a translations service back then) and SUCCESS, and that was very exciting.

 

The Cultch had become a real destination; people would come from all the way across town to go there. And then there was the York Theatre, and right next to it was the fabulous Nick’s Spaghetti House that’s still there. You could get a big spaghetti dinner for next to nothing!

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Nick’s Spaghetti House still stands on Commercial Drive
Image credit: Kelly Constabaris, CC, Flickr

A.M.G.: Tell me a bit about Expo 86 and what that meant for you.

 

Susan Mendelson: That was an extremely exciting time! It was about the world coming to Vancouver. The world didn’t know Vancouver until Expo 86, so I’m glad I bought my house before the prices exploded. My first book, Mama Never Cooked Like This, was a compilation of all the recipes I did for CBC Radio, and that came out in December 1980, almost a year after I’d gone into business. And it sold out. 8,000 copies sold out on the first day; it became an instant national bestseller. So I went on tour of the country—I was a nobody!—and it kept selling and selling! The publisher printed another 15,000 copies, and it sold out in 6 weeks. After that, he made another 25,000 copies, and that sold out in a year.

 

After that, I wrote Let Me In The Kitchen, and then, together with my partner, I did two books of dessert recipes, Nuts About Chocolate and Fresh Tarts, because we were quite well-known for our desserts. One day, Simon Fraser called and asked me to do a workshop on writing cookbooks, for people who wanted to self-publish, so I went to Simon Fraser and I did an evening on how to write a cookbook. There was a reporter from The Vancouver Sun present, and he started asking me about how many cookbooks I’d sold and what percentage I got. I said it was 10%, and, if you were lucky, you could negotiate up to 15%. And he started adding up the numbers, then wrote this big article about my success story, in which he said I had made hundreds of thousands of dollars—which wasn’t true, and I was extremely embarrassed, because I had all these people working for me, and we all worked hand in hand. It was very uncomfortable, because it just wasn’t true.

 

Three days later, I get a phone call: “Hello, this is Ron Meyers from Expo Souvenirs. I wonder if you would be interested in writing a cookbook for me. ” I thought it was B.S.—who was this guy? And I phoned back, and they answered “Expo Souvenirs”! So I raced down with a tray of Nanaimo bars and copies of all my books. He’d just read about me in that article in the paper. It was between me and Umberto (who was a much more famous person than I was, and had one cookbook). But I think he just thought I was the personality that they wanted.

 

I was dating a lawyer at that time, and he negotiated my contract, so I was able to get the money out by September. It was not a huge amount of money per book, but they sold so many—50,000 copies. As soon as the Expo was over, I bought a house in the West Side. It was an unbelievable story!

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The best-selling official Expo 86 cookbook written by Susan Mendelson
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View of the Expo 86 grounds Image credit: Copyright City of Vancouver
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