Catering boss savours adventure

Profile of Debra Lykkemark, CEO, Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events

Debra Lykkemark | Photo: Chung Chow

Sometimes in catering, everything goes wrong. A snowstorm grounds you in Chicago for 24 hours; the event’s high-profile guest list more than quadruples from 60 to 280; and none of your groceries show up.

That’s how Debra Lykkemark found herself running around Europe’s largest market in Turin, Italy, scrambling to secure a menu for an event at the Canada and British Columbia pavilion, on the eve of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

“It’s like Granville Island, 20 times. There are stalls everywhere and you can buy whatever you want as far as food goes,” said the CEO of Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events, who recalls running around with lumps of cash tucked into her shirt, trying desperately to communicate with just a few words of Italian. “I’m waving my arms around like a chicken and I’m going ‘Grande! Grande!’”

Lykkemark’s company had won the bid to cater the log-house-themed pavilion. As part of a team of four, she had travelled to Italy to cater the pavilion’s grand opening, a special event commissioned for dignitaries and Italian government officials. At the time, she remembered telling her chef that if everything went to hell in a handbasket, it would be her responsibility.

However, owing to some good fortune from the “catering gods” and lots of quick thinking, the event – with its seafood displays, antipasti and arancini – marked the launch of what would grow to be three Olympic catering experiences for Lykkemark and her company.

“It was one hell of an adventure and lots of crazy stuff happened, but we were able to pull it off. And then the problem is you become addicted to the Olympics,” she said. “Next thing you know, it’s Summer Olympics in Beijing.”

Even before Lykkemark’s debut in the industry, her eventual career in cuisine was influenced by her family’s celebration of food.

“Dad would always take us out for a nice steak dinner on Sundays,” she said, and her mom learned how to cook traditional Danish celebratory multi-course meals (Lykkemark’s father was Danish).

“She would throw big parties with her fancy silverware and beautiful china, and I, being the eldest, was always allowed to stay up and hang out with everybody. I really, really loved that,” she said. “I think those two things really influenced me, and getting involved with the restaurant industry at such a young age.”

Her first industry job was at 13, as a bus girl for Dunaway’s Double D Steak and Pancake House in Calgary. It wasn’t glamorous, nor were the jobs that followed: part-time work in cafeterias, at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and eventually as a hostess then waitress in restaurants.

“I was supposed to go to business school at the University of Western Ontario, but I told my mom, ‘No, I’m going to be a cocktail waitress instead. They make lots of money.’ So she cried for a few days,” said a laughing Lykkemark, who did make enough money to move herself away from what was “pretty much steak-and-potato land” at the time to Vancouver, where she really discovered food.

The next several years were spent experiencing different cuisines, learning to cook through a 12-month course at Dubrulle International Culinary School and apprenticing.

Eventually she managed to persuade a few friends to join her in opening up a coffee shop from which Lykkemark began catering corporate lunches.

That was 30 years ago. Since then, Culinary Capers has catered: an exclusive dinner on the Great Wall of China; a gala for the world’s first Formula One race for electric cars in Beijing; a 4,500-person gala for an NHL all-star Game; events for the Russian athletes and sponsors during the 2010 Winter Games; and eight days of events for the 2015 opening of Nordstrom in Vancouver.

Her career also includes having opened a catering company in Beijing, which Lykkemark eventually chose to close instead of battling changing regulations and industry uncertainty. A year and a half ago, she also opened up a waterfront venue on False Creek to host events catered exclusively by Culinary Capers.

“The fact that I landed in catering I think is a good thing. If I had gotten a restaurant like I wanted to [and] end up with a really good Italian restaurant with 80 seats, you can’t decide you want to cook Thai food one day,” she said.

From corporate lunches to mega-events, catering offers no shortage of challenges and excitement for Lykkemark.

“You have those stories for the rest of your life. It’s pretty fun,” she said.