“Who are you and what’s with your cheesecake?” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It was CBC Radio’s Anne Petrie calling to inquire about the woman whose baked goods were causing a stampede during intermission at Tamahnous Theatre, the resident company of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1975.
By day, 23-year-old Susan Mendelson was a student at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work, and by night she was the house manager at the cultural centre, putting herself through university and keeping her foot in Vancouver’s theatrical door. “I came to Vancouver to go to university when I was 19 and I studied theatre and English,” says the vivacious Toronto-born co-founder (along with Debora Roitberg) of the Lazy Gourmet. One of Vancouver’s most esteemed and enduring catering companies today, the Lazy Gourmet is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
“I was supporting myself [working at the cultural centre], but I wasn’t making quite enough money so I started selling carrot cake, cheesecake, and Nanaimo bars at intermission.” Her baking became so popular that “people started phoning the cultural centre and saying, ‘can I book two tickets for tonight’s show and could I book two pieces of cheesecake for intermission?’ which, of course, they could not do”. The buzz around Mendelson’s baking piqued Petrie and co-host Patrick Munro’s interest and they invited her to do a New Year’s show on “how to have chocolate cheesecake and champagne in the bedroom at midnight,” she says. “I made it a little bit raunchy and kind of fun and people responded,” which quickly led to her own spot as CBC Radio’s Ace in the Kitchen from 1976–82.
Meanwhile, her knack in the kitchen began to draw pleas for catering; her friend (and former Vancouver city councilor) Darlene Marzari convinced Mendelson to cater her wedding. “And then the calls started coming in,” she says. In 1978, the head of Vancouver’s social planning, Ernie Fladell, recruited Mendelson to feed the 250 international performers he was about to bring to town for a new eight-day event he was planning, the Vancouver International Children’s Festival. “When it was over I almost collapsed into a coma from total exhaustion,” says Mendelson, “but I was bit, and I was passionate,” she says.
Mentorship and philanthropy are two of Mendelson’s starring roles. She pays it forward by sharing her business savvy, as a mentor for the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs.
Her CBC radio show became so popular that listeners begged for a compilation cookbook and were curious to see the face behind that familiar voice, creating buzz for what was about to come: the Lazy Gourmet. “We opened our doors on December 14, 1979. And on December 1, 1980, my first cookbook came out,” says Mendelson, whose focus on fresh, local ingredients was ahead of its time. Mendelson’s rise to culinary kingpin was shaped by winning lucrative catering and conference contracts, like the Molson Indy Vancouver, conference services at UBC and Simon Fraser University, and Lululemon’s Seawheeze half marathon, plus the French House at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She has cultivated a loyal clientele, too, for life cycle events—“we call it womb to tomb”—and giving back by dedicating her time to numerous philanthropic collaborations.
Mentorship and philanthropy are two of Mendelson’s starring roles. “For my own credit, I’m really good at hiring people who are smarter and better than me, and creating a culture of people who are passionate about what they do,” she says. She pays it forward by sharing her business savvy, as a mentor for the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. “We’re a big part of the arts community. My goal is to give back, and I certainly got my opportunity through the arts,” she says, of her involvement with the Vancouver Playhouse, the Arts Club Theatre Company, the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, and Big Sisters.
In 2012, the arts gave Mendelson another opportunity. Nicola Cavendish, an award–winning Canadian actress Mendelson knew from her school days at UBC, “approached me to see if I wanted to be in a show called Love, Loss and What I Wore by Nora Ephron. It was going to be a fundraiser for Dress For Success,” she says. “I had the time of my life, I just absolutely loved it.” Partners, best-selling authors, and Mendelson’s Hawaii-residence neighbours John Saul and Mike Sack, came to see Mendelson perform and, impressed, asked her to star alongside Lee Meriwether (the first televised Miss America, and Catwoman in the 1966 version of Batman) in a play they were writing, which she performed in Hawaii in early 2014. “So, I’m back!” she says, of her return to the stage. “Here I am, 62, back on stage again. I’m able to step back and not have to work at the pace I used to work but I’m able to live my dream. I would be bored and crazy and not a happy person if I wasn’t working, so I’m sticking with it!” says Mendelson, who now squeezes her work week into three days when she’s in town.
“I never thought I would still be working at 62 but here I am!” she says. “That’s the thing that surprises me the most, that I’m still working, that I’m still passionate about it. There are so many hilarious, wonderful, fun and delightful stories that have occurred from the Lazy Gourmet, there are just so many stories that come out of 35 years,” she says. “The ride’s always been fun.”
Food photos: Shannyn Higgins.