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City People

Catering perfection

Food has been Joan Mickiewicz's life; perfection, her desire. With her struggles, not every day is good, but her parties are.

By KIM DeFALCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2003


PALMA CEIA WEST -- Fueled by the adrenaline of an impending 4 p.m. deadline, chef Joan Mickiewicz sweeps through her kitchen in search of perfection.

She follows her nose to Jose Bagulho's roasted, red pepper sauce.

She focuses on the 10 hands of five full-time employees, including the nimble fingers of culinary assistant Clara Hurtado, who crafts creatures from vegetables.

Mickiewicz is the calm in a culinary tempest, never mind that it is a three-party Thursday at Joan's Catering on Henderson Boulevard, or that two parties await preparation.

All in all, it's an easy day.

She knows how to recognize the hard ones.

Two summers ago, she lost the roof and most of her building's contents to a tornado.

Two months later, in September 2001, her husband, Raymond, died of cancer, amid plans for their daughter's October 2001 wedding.

"Growing up, my mother and grandmother taught me that you never know what tomorrow will bring," Mickiewicz says.

It was true. Her tomorrows brought even more struggle.

In May, she learned she had multiple myeloma -- cancer. December brought a stem cell transplant and a 21-day hospital stay, all amid her peak catering season.

Mickiewicz, undaunted, directed her staff from Room 317 of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.

"Yes, I would have to say the diagnosis was one of the biggest shocks of my life," Mickiewicz said.

"The only thing you can do is to try and be strong and do the best you can for everyone around you. I feel as though there are a lot of people counting on me."

And she has let no one down. Not every day was good, she says.

But every party was.

She helped coordinate as many as six in a single day. Afterward, several clients rebooked her for this year.

Bank of Tampa President Jerry Divers, an 18-year client, uses words like "dedication" and "elegance" to describe Mickiewicz.

Her employees -- who hail from Spain, Colombia, Venezuela and Portugal -- tend to be loyal. Bagulho has been there 16 years; chief server Fran Salvo, 12 years.

"I feel as though they've all had good training and are very capable," Mickiewicz said. "They probably think I nitpick a lot, but I just want everyone to learn the right way."

At Hillsborough Community College, Mickiewicz earned the nickname "eagle eye" from educator George Pastor.

"She was one of my best students ever," Pastor recalls. "She doesn't miss a trick and pays attention to every little detail.

"I really think she has eyes in the back of her head."

She grows her own herbs.

She irons her own linens.

"That is how I relax," she says.

"Ironing is soothing, and I've always grown things since I was a child."

Mickiewicz's earliest memories of her native Jamaica revolve around food.

Tucked under her grandmother's kitchen table with a hand-held mixer, the small-framed Mickiewicz would spend hours creaming butter and sugar. Fruit, picked from the back yard, turned into pastries and jams. Herbs and vegetables were her playthings.

After moving to the United States in 1961, she found plenty of palettes to please.

She wound up in the South Tampa neighborhood of Sunset Park.

"I used to pass casseroles over the back fence to my neighbors," she says. "I guess they encouraged me."

And they still do.

"I think it pleases me to gratify someone with something we've created," she says. "To see people happy is such a joy for me."

Although doctors consider Mickiewicz's long-term prognosis to be very good, she dwells more on the present.

Leaning over to pinch off a piece of thyme, her favorite herb, she turns toward the final van as it rumbles out of her parking lot.

"I hope they remembered to bring toothpicks for the cheese platter," she says, as she hurries to make a phone call.

She returns with a smile and a look of satisfaction.

The toothpicks were packed. The details are under control.

Joan Mickiewicz

AGE: 62

FAMILY: Son, Christopher, 30; daughter, Courtney, 27; mother, Madeline, 86.

FAVORITE FOOD: Jamaican jerk pork.

FAVORITE RESTAURANT: Charlie's Steak House.

PET EXPRESSION: "Don't swap a dog for a monkey."

MEANING: Don't change just for the sake of change.

CHEF SHE ADMIRES: Jacques Pepin.

SECRET PASSION: Pastries and breads.

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