June 25, 2006 | Sarasota, FL
It is a tick or two before 4 in the afternoon, a Monday in early May, and Larry and Jamie Barrett are chasing the tail end of a break.
They've finished the morning's activities: Larry, hustling through the food prep for an upcoming banquet as he plans courses for several pending events, and Jamie, sweating the details of lining up tables, settings, servers and just about anything else needed to round out the galas.
Seated side by side at a small, round, glass-topped table in the cozy dining area of their Simply Gourmet eatery, they have worked their way through a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water recounting the tale of how an actor from Brooklyn and a dancer from Seattle wound up, well, sharing a bottle of sparkling water in their Sarasota restaurant.
The short version, as Jamie tells it: "So many people don't find a passion. We've found this."
What 'this' is
For the Barretts, "this" is a thriving catering business operating from the kitchen of a small coffee bar/sandwich shop/cookie house on Swift Road, a world removed from the theaters of Manhattan and the dance studios of Washington state.
No, that's not quite right.
Oh sure, it's removed, in that life now involves cooking and accounting and such, the basic ingredients to make a go at catering. But for this highly energetic couple, "this" is connected to the stage, still.
Because "this" is entertainment; just with food, not actors, choreographers, agents and their like.
"At the end of a meal, if you get an 'oh, my God,' that's like this ..." says Larry, 51, pushing his chair back from the table, standing up and breaking into hearty hand-clapping.
Ah, the standing ovation. That was the carrot at the end of the stick that set this whole journey in motion, the lure that pulled Larry and Jamie separately to New York City in 1979 and brought soul mates together.
Larry had been teaching dialects and other acting techniques at the University of Illinois, tucked amid the cornfields and soybean plots of east-central Illinois. He had moved into the instructor's office after earning a bachelor's degree in theater at the school.
And Jamie had been stepping and swaying in the dance studios in and around Seattle, not far from Olympic College, where she had picked up an associate's degree in dance and theater, and not far from the Peninsula Dance Theatre owned and operated by her mother, Lawan Morrison.
Both had visions of bigger and better, though -- dreams of hitting it big in showbiz.
Broadway beckoned, and they bolted for the bright lights.
"We were kids," says Larry.
"We were bold," adds Jamie.
Yin and yang
They were different, personality-wise. Still are.
Larry, a solidly built man with black hair frosted white at the temples, is an extrovert. He's quick to jump into a conversation, eager to drop into character and serve up anecdote after anecdote about his life, about Jamie's past and about their shared time.
Jamie, four years Larry's junior and still sporting the petite frame of a dancer, is more reserved. She often cedes the stage to her husband but does chime in with a yarn or two upon prodding, and, with a dot-the-I's-and-cross-the-T's personality, can't resist filling in the detail or two that may fall victim to Larry's storytelling.
They are, together, much like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, North and South Dakota or any of countless other duos that individually would draw praise but transcend when paired.
"It's a really good team that they have," says comedian Les McCurdy, a family friend for a decade-plus. "They complement each other so well."
That's something Larry and Jamie learned in that first year in New York, in a chance meeting at Cantina, a Mexican restaurant in the city's Hell's Kitchen district, as they were working to build their careers.
Well, Larry was "working" on his career in the way many an actor must on occasion.
"At that time, I was actually waiting tables," Larry says, his blue-gray eyes gliding to his left to gaze at Jamie.
Jamie came in for a bite to eat, he says, and they "hit it off immediately, and wound up going to a party afterward."
To which his wife of 21 years queries: "And what'd we talk about?"
A pause, a shared look, and they respond in unison: "Food."
Entering the race
Not surprising, given Larry's background.
"I've always loved cooking," he says. "I don't know where it started."
He does know how the feeling was fed, however. By reading every cookbook he could get his hands on; by gobbling up any and every news item or TV show about cuisine; by learning at the apron of his grandmother, Minnie Weingarten.
And by finally jumping into the fire at the age of 17, in the fast-paced kitchen of the Oceanside Country Club on Long Island, N.Y. He was grilled by a crusty old chef, Joe Roberts, as he and the kitchen staff daily whipped up a host of dishes for a buffet.
"It would be like you were in a race," Larry recalls. "All of a sudden, it became 16-hour days, six days a week, and you'd look up and say, 'What happened?'"
Then Larry drops into character to finish the story, affecting an imitation of "Ol' Joe" and adds: "We'd get a phone call for me back there and he'd take it and say, 'Larry, he can't come to the phone now; he's busy getting some experience.'"
He survived the experience; learned from it; liked it, even. Still, he left the kitchen to chase that acting career.
But, as they say, you can take the boy out of the kitchen ...
"At 17, 18," he explains, "when I had dreams of being on Broadway, I always knew I'd get back to the kitchen. And not in a bad way."
There would be other avenues to explore, first. He and Jamie would build their relationship, marrying in 1985. They both would find some success in New York's showbiz world, landing roles on shows and in productions here and there.
They'd even take a first step into the world of cuisine, with Larry organizing the "We're In Something" actors showcase. The showcases pieced together eight 8-minute skits for actors and actresses to display their talents for agents, and Larry plied the talent scouts with wine and cheese.
It was going well, but New York's grittiness and craziness were wearing onthem and eventually broke their desire to stay.
"I'd tell people I'd had the best five years of my life there, and they'd tell me, 'You've been there 10,'" Larry says. "Right."
So, not ready to give up on the show-business dream, in 1989 they jetted out to the other coast, to Los Angeles, another mecca for entertainers.
Well, really, to Northridge, a suburb.
Again, the Barretts found some success, landing a role here, a gig there. Larry even popped up on a couple of popular TV soap operas: "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives."
But they weren't finding the kind of success they'd hoped for. And they didn't like the prospects.
"With acting," Larry explains, "there's always something 'wrong' with you. You're always too fat, too skinny; too young, too old. Your eyes are the wrong color. You're too bald. It's always something."
Meanwhile, in the kitchen ...
But Larry had his hands busy elsewhere. He had stepped back into the kitchen and started catering meals for the Hollywood crowd on movie sets and in studios.
And it was at one of his catered meals that he ran into some old friends, a couple of actors he'd met and pitched a play to while in New York: Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito.
This go-round, Douglas got his first taste of Larry's cooking. And he was so impressed by the food, Larry says, that he hired Larry as his personal chef.
Larry expanded that gig to take on duties as personal chef to others in the Hollywood crowd. He and Jamie settled in, even had a son, Dylan, in 1992.
Then, in 1994, a devastating earthquake ripped through Northridge and the surrounding area. The Barretts survived but had no desire to test another temblor.
That quake, the on-again, off-again nature of the actor's life, and a well-timed phone call or two from friends back East convinced the couple it was time for a change.
"We were corresponding with them on the phone at the time," McCurdy says, mentioning his wife, Pam, and Ken Sons, his partner at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre in Sarasota. The latter two had befriended the Barretts in the New York theater world.
"We said, 'You're out in L.A. to be actors, but that's not what you're doing. You haven't been doing that for some time. Maybe you ought to think about leaving L.A., going someplace where you would be happier.'"
"We moved here sight unseen," Jamie says. "I just needed a body of water."
Even before he arrived here, Larry picked up an unusual endorsement.
"Ken and Pam were like, 'Man, we used to have these dinner parties up in New York, and he will blow you away with his cooking,' " McCurdy says.
And McCurdy was.
After a handful of dinner parties, McCurdy says, he told Larry his meals were as good as anything any chef had prepared for him in top restaurants in Sarasota, New York, Chicago or anywhere.
"I told him, 'Buddy, every day you are not cooking, you are losing money,'" says McCurdy, who now hires the Barretts to cater meals at the comedy club.
Not bad for a chef with no formal training, other than that from Ol' Joe at the country club.
These days, he turns out items from Alsatian tarts and asparagus wraps to roast salmon balsamico and smoked chicken penne, from sesame-crusted chicken to Sarasota bouillabaisse to chocolate fondue Grand Marnier.
Barrett credits his acumen to voracious reading, frequent kitchen experiments and simple genetics -- Grandmother Minnie, he says, was a fabulous cook, although trips with her to the "chicken store" pushed him into vegetarianism for two decades.
So, in essence, McCurdy was preaching to the choir. Larry and Jamie already had taken to the idea of cooking for a living and attempted to resurrect the personal chef idea here. The Sarasota set was a little different from L.A.'s, though, and the idea foundered.
After a year or so, they revised the approach, shifted it to a broader audience by moving it into the catering world.
Still, once an entertainer ...
"We always look at food as theater," Larry says.
"We themed foods with events. We had a 'Titanic' dinner, based on the menu from the ship, when the movie came out. We had a (John and Jacqueline) Kennedy menu to go with a recent book about the Kennedy White House.
"It didn't work 100 percent. But we'll try to get back to the idea sometime."
Talk with the Barretts about the catering business, and they'll break it down largely into showbiz terms.
"What we do is so similar to preparing for a role, it's weird," Larry says.
That is, Larry searches for the character behind each dish, looks for ways to expand on that, and then finds the best way to bring all the different dishes together into a coherent and enjoyable scene.
And Jamie carefully stages the movement of staff and props at wedding receptions, festivals and a host of other events, working closely with clients to ensure the end product pleases everyone.
Or, as Larry describes it: "She's the producer; I'm the director."
"They do a wonderful job," says Leigh Patmagrian, private events director at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, a Simply Gourmet client since the catering business opened a decade back.
"I have a very short list of preferred caterers, and they're on it. They don't make mistakes."
Well, other than that acting thing.
No, that's not quite right.
Even that worked out, since it brought Larry and Jamie together, provided them a path to Sarasota, and still serves as a foundation for their catering business.
And they get to have the best of both worlds.
"We really consider ourselves," Larry says, "an incredibly lucky couple."
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