His Latest Trick: The Catering Outfit’s Walter Slawski Dazzles With Private Dinners
It all started in a fraternity house kitchen in early 1999. A UVa student left his restaurant job to launch what would become one of the most successful catering businesses Charlottesville has ever seen. Initially just one person in the Delta Tau Delta kitchen, Walter Slawski’s The Catering Outfit now has 30 full-time employees, and can do as many as five weddings in a day.
How? By evolving. Maybe it’s his economics degree. Maybe it’s the entrepreneurship in his family’s blood. But, it’s always been Slawski’s way. Evolve. Expand. Become more efficient. While Slawski’s initial clients were fraternities and sororities, he soon saw a chance to grow: a contract to cater the UVa football team’s preseason practice each year. Though he had never done anything like it, he made it work. All of August, Slawski would set up a remote kitchen near the football facilities each day and feed an entire football team three meals per day. From there, he was off and running.
When he outgrew his fraternity house kitchen, Slawski moved to the old dairy building. Next came another innovation: opening a restaurant and using its kitchen for his catering business as well. While Slawski’s The Shebeen was a success in its own right, beloved by Charlottesville diners, it also was a great asset for his catering operation. Two businesses operating out of one kitchen. But, as catering continued to grow, in 2016 he moved to the current location on Carlton Road. With two decades of hard work and innovation, Slawski has achieved his vision: a hospitality business that can offer employees something restaurants often cannot: salaries, benefits, paid vacation, and a quality of life that won’t take years off their lives.
But, he can’t sit still. Always something new. During the pandemic alone, his team built a drive-thru restaurant in their parking lot, started a take-home family meal service, created a curbside market for essentials like hand sanitizer they made themselves, launched pop-up food stands, catered “elopement meals,” and even operated a food bank providing free groceries and pantry items to restaurant workers in need. Other innovations have included things like artisan barbeque, where he brings his smoker to you, and gourmet bagged lunches to upgrade work meetings.
Most recently, Slawski has another project: repurposing the catering facility’s seating area where clients preview menu items for events. It’s a great space, Slawski says of the Foodbar, but underutilized. Broadly, his vision is for it to be “culinary resource” – whether for private events, food classes, workshops or other uses. He even plans to operate a daytime café, where guests can grab meals-to-go or sit and enjoy lunch while watching chefs at work. It’s like The Shebeen plan, but in reverse. Instead of using a restaurant kitchen for catering, he’s using a catering kitchen for restaurant-like services.
Ultimately, he envisions the space equipping customers with everything they need to entertain. “Someone could come in and pick up oven ready canapés, a dressed tenderloin, and an amazing cheese and charcuterie spread, meet with an event coordinator about rentals and design, and a chef about execution of the menu, and go home and throw the most amazing dinner party,” said Slawski.
If that sounds like too much work, one of his best ideas for the new space is hosting custom private dinners. Part of the idea’s appeal is the space itself – a comfortable dining area not unlike a small restaurant, with a long bar overlooking the kitchen.
Another is that it gives his kitchen a chance to let loose. Sure, The Catering Outfit’s reputation is built on crowd-pleasing menus for large events. But, chefs like to flex their culinary chops every now and then. And, these private dinners provide just such an outlet.
Private Dinners at The Catering Outfit
Serendipitously, Slawski’s idea aligns with the spirit behind a regular gathering of some friends of mine. Every so often, we hire a chef, and meet for kinship, conversation, and great food. Our one rule? The chef may make whatever they like. We view it as a win-win. A great evening for us. And, carte blanche for the chef. Slawski seemed to see it that way too. “This is exciting!”, he said more than once. “I am just going to do the things we like to eat.”
On arrival, we were greeted with a choice of two cocktails they had created for the occasion.
With the cocktails, guests snacked from a stunning board of Virginia cheeses, charcuterie, house-made jams, pickled walnuts, and eggs that Slawski’s kitchen hard-boiled, pickled in a brine, sliced in half, and topped with housemade black garlic aioli.
As guests helped themselves to plates of food from the board, staff passed canapes on toast. One was topped with slivers of raw tenderloin curled atop grilled crostini with truffled artichoke tapenade, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, and fennel. Another featured a slice of housemade kielbasa named after Slawski’s great uncle Isadore, who once operated a Brooklyn butchery.
Next, we all sat down for dinner, which began with a riff on a lobster roll: lobster salad presented atop a circle of brioche toast. When staff noticed how effusive one guest was about the lobster, they offered him a whole container of it.
Salad was endive with fresh mission figs, compressed strawberries, Castelvetrano olives, Edwards surryano ham, simple hungry hills honey lemon vinaigrette, smoked Maldon salt, and manchego cheese.
The evening’s main course was a mixed grill inspired by “braais” that Slawski fell in love with in Zimbabwe, where he lived as a teen. What Slawski calls “the epicenter of casual entertaining in Zimbabwe” and “live fire cooking at its best,” a braai is typically a mixed grill of meats with accompaniments like vegetables, maize porridge, relishes, and sambals. “Often they occurred on the banks of the Zambezi River in mana pools National Park,” said Slawski, “with Buffalo in the distance, hippos grunting at sunset and a setting closer to heaven than is imaginable.”
Though The Cure’s Just Like Heaven was on the playlist we created for the evening, our setting may not have been quite as near to heaven as Slawski’s. But, it was spectacular nonetheless, with a wood fire set up just outside the space to grill meats, prawns, and vegetables.
Slawski’s team brushed racks of lamb with olive oil, then seasoned them with salt, pepper, garlic, and lots of fresh herbs. A light pan spray helped the crust adhere before the racks hit the grill. Semi-boneless quail, a standout dish for me, were marinated in Alabama White Sauce, skewered on swords, and then grilled while basted with more sauce. And, U10 prawns also got the sword treatment, in a fiery peri peri sauce.
Accompaniments included wood-grilled vegetables, blistered peppers, samosa mash, and a seemingly endless array of housemade sauces. Attention to detail abounded, like flatbread cooked in a pizza oven set up outside.
Finally, dessert was lavender lemon short cake, with compressed strawberries, Meyer lemon glaze, and whipped sweetened Honduran cream.
Typically our gathering allows friends to catch up with one another on life topics like family, work, and well-being. But this evening, another topic dominated. The meal from Slawski’s team was so impressive that it permeated conversation, with friends describing favorite dishes to one another. One guest who before the meal said he was “so f-ing hungry” afterwards reported that was no longer the case.
So what to make of Slawski’s newest idea? What a night. What a meal.
All I can do, is hand it to him. And his latest trick.
The team behind the evening:
Wine. We brought own, which Vincent Derquenne of Crush Pad selected for our feast:
assorted local & artisan cheeses
assorted house-made seasonal jams & chutneys
local vegetable crudités, truffled white bean puree
italian cured meats
mariebette baguettes, house made pasta crackers
pickled eggs, black garlic aioli
pickled walnuts, white anchovies, marinated castelvetrano olives
PASSED HORS D’OEUVRES
sweet grass dairy green hill camembert, local apple butter, toasted mariebette buttered brioche round
thin sliced tenderloin, truffled artichoke tapenade, shaved reggiano, fennel, grilled crostini
great uncle isadore’s kielbasa, quick pickled cabbage, sweet bavarian mustard, toasted pretzel round
maine lobster, dukes mayo, fresh lemon, chive, marie bette butter toasted brioche round
fig & strawberry
fresh mission figs, endive, compressed strawberries, castelvetrano olives, edwards surryano ham, simple hungry hills honey lemon vinaigrette, smoked maldon, manchego cheese
STATIONED MIXED GRILL DINNER
rack of lamb
semi boneless, wood grilled, alabama white sauce
wood grilled, peri peri sauce
mixed grill accompaniments
local corn tortillas
house made wood grilled flat breads, maldon & garlic oil
shallot, fresno, garlic, red wine vinegar, cilantro, flat leaf parsley, oregano, evoo
cilantro, parsley, garlic, toasted cumin and coriander, sweet paprika, cayenne, fresh lemon, preserved lemon, saffron, evoo, black pepper- should be red
dukes mayo, roasted garlic
toasted cumin and coriander, plack pepper, green cardamom, garlic, thai birds’ eye, parsley, cilantro, evoo
fresh garlic, grapeseed
oil, fresh lemon juice, maldon
blistered pepper salad
mixed charred peppers, evoo, maldon
wood grilled vegetables
marinated grilled seasonal vegetables, lemon, oregano, shallot vinaigrette
smashed yukon golds, heavy cream, butter, smashed pea, onion, garam masala, turmeric, cumin, garlic, cayenne
compressed strawberries, lavender lemon short cake, meyer lemon glaze, whipped sweetened honduran cream