When the plates of food began appearing along the table at our FP Me Camping Trip, jaws were instantly floored. Each dish was not only beautiful, but full of whole healthy ingredients. Bamboo cones of kale salad, goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, chickpea-dusted white fish with cucumber yogurt mint sauce – is your mouth watering yet? The menu was undoubtedly one of the best I’ve tasted. To learn more, I sat down with Lisa Wagoner (owner) and Antonio Ramos (Executive Catering Chef) of Iva Lee’s catering. To start, tell us about your background and why you decided to get into the food industry? Lisa: I am the first on my mother’s side not to be born in a Southern state since 1640. My ancestors originated from Holland and were mainly farmers. I was born in Walnut Creek, CA. As a child I spent many days with my beloved grandmother, Iva Lee. She taught me how to cook homemade dishes and we made everything from scratch. Our family dinners were comparable to a Thanksgiving feast. We had a farm stand down the road that we got ingredients from, and we would make homemade jellies and pickles. Although I was born in northern California, I was raised on Southern foods such as grits, gumbo, and fried okra. As a child, I loved cooking and entertaining, just like my grandmother. I started working in a restaurant at 15 and loved to observe the internal operations. At 19, I opened my first catering business. Antonio: Some say they become Chefs for their love of food, while others say for the daily challenges of running a crew and what the job entails. For me, it’s about bringing people together. Eating a meal affords the opportunity to connect with friends and relatives, and to enrich relationships. Every time there is food around, eventually music starts to play, and drinks start pouring into memories that last a lifetime. I’ve been working in the industry professionally since I was 16. From mom-and-pop restaurants, to resorts, to catering companies, theme parks, and upscale dining establishments – every one of these places has helped me grow as a chef. It’s also the simple fact that we all need to eat. So why not make it not just about staying alive, but living and enjoying life to its fullest? The menu for our beach trip was out of this world – where did you pull inspiration from, and how did you come up with the dishes? Antonio: Whenever I come up with a menu, my ﬁrst questions are always: When? Where? Who? From there, the menu starts making itself. It ends up being a reﬂection of the host and their guests. For this particular event, the “when” was spring into summer. The “where” was on the beach, and the “who” was Free People. So when you see ingredients that are local and fresh in a variety of colors, textures, and ﬂavors, you see exactly where the menu came from. At Free People, we believe in healthy clean eating, but southern creole cooking doesn’t always get a good rap. How do you meld the two in order to stay true to Iva Lee’s roots? Antonio: Many popular Southern dishes are considered to be indulgent. You name it – it’s been fried or cooked in butter. But when you look at the South as a whole, it’s been inﬂuenced by many different regions: from local, to French, to African cooking. There is a big slate of ingredients and cooking techniques to choose from. I live in California where we are lucky to have an abundance of choices, year round. Even though Iva Lee’s has done many “bad rap” dishes, there are so many more healthy versions that have been created, and will add to the ever-growing list. It’s fun to recreate classic Southern dishes and add a modern California twist. Some of the most popular (and my personal favorite) dishes have never been touched by a heavy spoonful of butter – although a big bowl of gumbo and some warm cornbread with honey butter is always delicious. What are some of your favorite healthy ingredients and how do you like to cook with them? Antonio: There are many healthy ingredients being used today and it is modern times that have made them more accessible. We used quinoa, squash blossoms, kale, avocados and whole grains for Free People’s event. Most of these ingredients don’t require much cooking. I was always taught to keep things simple. Every ingredient has its own unique ﬂavor. You don’t want to overpower that. Using quality oils and vinegars brings out those proﬁles. I love me some avocado. I don’t need to smash it, cook it, or combine it with anything. There is beauty in its simplicity. It has a nice, earthy taste and smooth texture and comes in biodegradable packaging. What more could you ask for? The food presentation at our camp-out was absolutely stunning. Can you talk a little bit about its design and how you created it? What role does presentation play in one’s experience with food? Antonio: When the location is the beach, under a teepee, on a beautiful day, my work is halfway done before I even get there. The Free People atmosphere provides an environment that makes you stop and enjoy the moment. We used copper and earth-toned serving pieces, with biodegradable bamboo plates and cones for the salad. We brought natural, whole ingredients to place alongside wheat grass displays holding the salad cones, and let the food do the talking. And lastly, what does “free” mean to you? Antonio: “Free” represents a lifestyle. It’s the concept that we have an opportunity to make our life and the ones around us better. To build upon what was done before while encouraging a better tomorrow. We have one life to share with others so don’t waste it. Thank you Iva Lee’s for being a part of our event! Check them out online here. Check out some healthy recipes from the BLDG 25 Blog.