Ciao Thyme: Welcome to 'the restaurant without walls'

‘We’re not going to wear little bow ties. We’re going to bring the restaurant experience to you’

Mataio and Jessica Gillis, owners of Ciao Thyme Catering, are trying new angles on the old catering niche, including opening a cooking school and a facility for restaurant-style events and special dinners.

Heidi Schiller
   Seven months pregnant and recovering from pneumonia, a pixie-haired Jessica Gillis maneuvers her small frame around knee-deep construction clutter.
   Wielding a plate of half-eaten, homemade cherry-rhubarb galette — her 9 a.m. breakfast on the go — the co-owner of Ciao Thyme Catering micro-manages the remodel of her business’s new home on a recent weekday morning. She has coined the Unity Street space a “Culinary Epicenter.”
   Ciao Thyme, known for the past six years to devotees as a restaurant without walls, is finally getting some structure. But owners Jessica and Mataio Gillis are thinking outside the chafing dish — like they’ve always done — about what those walls will hold.
   The space, called In The Kitchen, is not a restaurant, per se — it has other ingredients in store for its future patrons. It will include the catering company, a cooking school offering classes and workshops, and a few restaurant-style events and private dinners.
   With a month or two to go before opening, Jessica is intrepid on one point: She doesn’t want her business to be easily defined. She wants to have her savory tart, and eat it, too.

A restaurant without walls
   Jessica and Mataio met in Portland after Mataio graduated from culinary school (what is now Portland’s Le Cordon Bleu) and while Jessica was on break from Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment.
   From the beginning, their relationship centered around a table, with friends and family mixed in. On their first date, Mataio took Jessica out for Thai food with his mom and several friends.
   On their seven-month honeymoon to Europe, mainly Italy, the couple worked on two organic farms in Sicily and Tuscany and took language and cooking classes while living in Florence in an “eensy apartment with a single bed,” Jessica said.
   “While we were there, we’d eat at these amazing restaurants and think, we could do this in Bellingham,” she said.
   As the two ate their way through Europe, they discovered one of their favorite cafes, called Le Pain Quotidien (Our Daily Bread), which brimmed with locals eating at large community tables.
   “That whole European feel of ‘we’re all sitting together and we don’t know each other and that’s okay’ was something we loved, and felt like Bellingham might handle,” she said.
   While there, they also discovered International Slow Food, a movement Jessica describes as an effort to bring people “back to the table.” It emphasizes eating communally and focusing on food celebrations and traditions. They have since founded Bellingham’s local Slow Food chapter.
   “What Europe reinforced for us is that we didn’t want to lead a typical United States lifestyle. We didn’t want to be in a 9-to-5 kind of job. We didn’t want to be tied to one week of vacation a year,” Jessica said. “Travel, lifestyle and family was important to us, and Europe reinforced those feelings. Catering seemed to also line up with those values.” The two have a one-year-old son, Luca, and another on the way.
   They started Ciao Thyme when they returned home in 2001.
   The business braids Mataio’s culinary skill, Jessica’s environmental background, and the couple’s European experiences into a catering company focused on using local, organic and sustainable food for communal events.
   They call themselves a restaurant without walls, partly to dissociate from the common catering stigma.
   “We’re not going to be a chafing-dish caterer; we’re not going to make a bunch of food ahead of time and hotbox it to your place and serve it to you out of a metal dish, we’re not going to serve you asparagus all year round just because you think you like asparagus when it’s coming from Chile, and we’re not going to wear little bow ties,” Jessica said. “We’re going to bring a restaurant experience to you.”
   During summers, Ciao Thyme buys 80 percent to 90 percent of its produce from local farmers. Their busy spring and summer routine involves first visiting the Wednesday Farmers Market in Fairhaven to survey what’s fresh, place orders with the farmers and then pick up their produce at Saturday’s downtown Farmers Market.
   They do a rough prep at their kitchen, usually washing the produce or marinating ingredients, and then bring the food to the event to prepare, cook and serve. Jessica credits Mataio’s talent at timing for their ability to cook off the cuff like this.
   Using fresh produce is their other secret weapon.
   “People are always saying about our food, ‘It’s so healthy and so fresh,’ and it is, because it really did just come out of the field yesterday. We really are just slicing it this minute, so we sometimes say we fool people with fresh food because you don’t have to do a lot to doctor up great fresh food,” she said.
   Charlotte Archer, president of Archer FS Inc., has hired Ciao Thyme for about eight events, including private parties and her daughter’s wedding. She said she appreciates their personal touch in catering a menu to clients desires, as well as their emphasis on fresh ingredients.
   “What sets them apart is what they do with seasonal ingredients, unlike anybody else. You can hand it over to them and not think a second thing about it,” she said. “I like their philosophy and their enthusiasm, the way they treat their employees and the way they connect with you. They are very good business people, but you wouldn’t say that about them the first time you met them because they are so personal.”
   Archer said Ciao Thyme’s menus are so fresh and unique, guests talk about the food years later.
   The emphasis on fresh makes winter menus difficult because of the dearth of produce; they typically end up using root vegetables extensively. Fortunately, spring and summer weddings are their forte.
   Weddings account for about 65 percent of Ciao Thyme’s business, which means they are working most intensely May through October. The seasonality allows the Gillises the flexibility to pursue their original lifestyle goal of focusing on family and travel, and they typically take November off to do so. Past November excursions have included Thailand, Western Europe, Spain, culinary trips to Napa and San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C., New Orleans and Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
   But in the last year, Jessica and Mataio have craved expansion, and are now feeding it with a new home.

In The Kitchen
   In September, the Gillises purchased the former Ace Carpet building at 207 Unity St. and have been renovating the space since February. The 2,400-square-foot building is a far stretch from the 780-square-foot basement kitchen they have been renting until now — both in terms of size and scope.
   “We’re doing as much as we can ourselves. The project has gotten astronomically expensive,” Jessica said. “It’s probably four times what we imagined.”
   Jessica is still unsure what form the center’s restaurant element will take — perhaps tapas night on the first Friday of every month or during gallery walks, or possibly random 40-seat dinners announced by e-mail.
   “There’s a part of us from that Portland restaurant world that still yearns for that, even though it didn’t quite line up with our ideas,” Jessica said. “In the same way we find that we don’t often fit in a mold or a box, we’re drawn by the Las Vegas lights of a restaurant, but not by the hours of it.”
   The center will also have a small retail section, called the Ciao Thyme Pantry, offering cookbooks in collaboration with Village Books, and their favorite food items such as salts, oils and utensils. The section will be open only during events and classes.
   “So now we’re a restaurant with walls, but we’re not a restaurant,” Jessica giggles. “We don’t have to be what everybody thinks of as a restaurant … we want to do all of those things, and do them well.”
   Their eventual dream is to turn the building’s upper floor — a large, domed room crossed by wooden ceiling trusses — into an event space for 150 people. But Jessica said that likely won’t happen for another three to five years, due to funding issues, and for now they will rent out portions of the upstairs as an artist studio and yoga center.
   Ultimately, Jessica is excited about how the new digs — walls and windows and all — will offer Ciao Thyme a new buffet of business options.
   “It will allow us more flexibility to play with food in a new way. We’ve been able to bring equipment on site and all that, but at this site we’ll have everything available to us, our whole culinary arsenal of things we can throw at people. We’ll be able to feed that side of ourselves that’s drawn to that restaurant life without being sucked into it,” she said. “Our family is important, and our travel is important, so we want to be able to have the best of all of it.”

Ciao Thyme favorites:

First course: Drinks and appetizers that could include a savory tuille — a French pastry cone filled with either smoked fish mousse, avocado mousse or date-orange chutney; endive and radicchio salad; calamari; potato fries with farmer-five catsup (made from the juiciest of farmers market tomatoes).
   Second course (Usually served either family style or buffet style): Cedar or alder-smoked salmon with fruit relishes, savory tarts or galettes, fresh fruit and vegetables like tri-color beans; roasted beet and peach salad; and grilled apricots with goat cheese and prosciutto.
   Dessert: Fresh berries, individual summer tarts, a desert buffet with cakes and candies, local berry pies and Mallard ice cream.

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