Susan Mendelson: culinary legend

She’s a culinary legend in Vancouver, known first for her 10 cookbooks, her fantastic dishes at the Lazy Gourmet take-out and bistro, and her catering company that carries the same name and continues to wow locals with innovative cuisine.

Susan Mendelson has been cooking since 1975, when she started selling Nanaimo bars to pay her way through a social work degree. It quickly became obvious to the Toronto native that her true calling was food.

“I thought I’d be retired at this stage of my life,” the 58-year-old confesses in a recent interview. “At one point, I gave away all my famous recipes for honey cake, kugel and the like, because I didn’t think I’d continue being in the business much longer. But when I tried to slow down a bit, I realized that I love my work too much. It makes me feel good and gives me a strong sense of my own value. So I just want to keep doing it.”

Mendelson closed the 26-year-old Lazy Gourmet take-out and bistro in 2005 to focus exclusively on the more profitable side of her business: catering. The catering company has a staff of up to 60 working at events, though that number jumped to 200 during the 2010 Winter Olympics, which Mendelson describes as one of the highlights of her career.

“We did all the catering for PricewaterhouseCoopers, General Electric, the French government as well as events for the Russians, the Polish government and a large party for the British with Princess Anne, among myriad other parties,” she says. “We were literally catering for thousands of people, preparing three meals a day for 18 days. It was a riot!”

She recruited her brother, Fred Mendelson, who lives in Toronto, to project manage the entire operation. The result? “The business ran like a Swiss clock – it was extraordinary,” she says. “Fred was able to work out all the scheduling and delivery of goods and services 24 hours a day, as many events had to be delivered between midnight and 6 a.m. due to the tight security of the event.”

These days, Mendelson has recruited others to prepare her famous Nanaimo bars and come up with new culinary ideas. She oversees the development of recipes and ideas three days a week.

“My general manager, chef, sous-chef, pastry chef and director of operations are the fresh, new faces of the business,” she says. Her chef has been with her for 14 years, and many staff have worked for over a decade for the company.

Jewish events “from womb to tomb,” says Mendelson, constitute up to 20 per cent of the business, and Lazy Gourmet is still known as a “Jewish caterer.” But the focus of the company is food that’s sophisticated, chic and elegant, with exceptional presentation and taste. “We want to be on the cutting edge of what’s ‘in’ and trendy,” she says.

On her days off you’ll find Mendelson doing yoga, gardening at her retreat on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, hiking and reading with her husband of 21 years, Jack Lutsky.

“He’d like me to be slowing down in the business even more,” she says. Lutsky is a big fan of Mendelson’s achievements, and has stated on the record that she “introduced a whole new way of eating to Vancouver.

“I think she’s one of the most influential people in the cultural and business industry,” he said. He nominated her for the Influential Women in Business Award, which she received in 2001.

When she reflects on her culinary success in Vancouver, Mendelson is characteristically modest. “I think I surround myself with people who are smarter than me,” she says. “My advice to others is to not be intimidated by anyone who is smarter than you. Rather, get them in your circle.”