Blue Door: Young chef launches career in a former Holyoke mill

  • Blue Door Gatherings owner/chef Laura Bowman outside her industrial kitchen in Holyoke. Stephen Fay

  • Blue Door Gatherings owner/chef Laura Bowman prepares for a busy week of holiday catering. On the counter behind Bowman is a photo portrait of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who was both an inspiration and a fellow alum of the Culinary Institute of America. staff photo/Stephen Fay

  • A Blue Door offering. Laura Bowman

  • An employee puts the finishing touches on a dish. Laura Bowman

  • A dish made at the Blue Door. Laura Bowman

Published: 12/9/2019 12:11:16 AM

HOLYOKE — Something’s cooking in the lower level of the former Wauregan Paper Mill on Dwight Street.

Crispy polenta. Mushroom and thyme risotto. Pork shoulder tagliatelle.

The menus are many and varied. And should you be fortunate enough to be a guest at a gathering where this kitchen’s culinary creations are served, you might observe a focused young woman orchestrating the concert of courses.

Smashed olives with feta and chilies; house-made focaccia with rosemary and olive oil; chicories, pomegranate and sheep’s milk cheese followed by braised beef with white bean ragu. With each course, a complementing wine from Napa County or maybe Sicily. The grand finale — dessert — might be honeynut agnolotti or chocolate olive oil cake with sea salt.

Exotic as each dish sounds, they are as homegrown as the chef, Laura Bowman, whose namesake great-grandmother worked in a Holyoke paper mill back in the day.

Bowman, 25, is a South Hadley native. Hers was a family of capable cooks going back to her great-grandmother, whose fruit trees and vegetable garden brought her close to self-sufficiency. As a young girl, Bowman became a fan of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, watching his TV show and following his career.

Along with an interest in cooking, Bowman had an entrepreneurial streak. And she was pretty sure that when she grew up, she would work for herself. In middle school, she fashioned and sold greeting cards.

“I did OK. I loved the idea of making something and selling it to someone at a profit,” she says.

After high school, Bowman enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, for two more years in the kitchen. It was, she said, “rigorous.”

“We were in the kitchen every day. Up at 5 a.m., it was like going to work. If you were 15 minutes early you were late.”

Part of that training included a stint at a Michelin-rated restaurant in New York City. But the experience left her “uninspired.” She decided to investigate the wine side of fine dining, driving across the country to Napa County, California, where she found work at a high-end winery that served three- and four-course lunches to visitors.

She returned to the Culinary Institute, graduating in 2018. To her great delight, Anthony Bourdain, Class of ’78, presented her degree.

It was now time to get down to business, literally. With her parents encouragement, she set up an industrial kitchen in the former Wauregan Mill. Why Holyoke? The rent.

“It’s a big perk and attraction for young people: low start-up, low point of entry. Lower overhead,” she says.

By February 2019, Bowman was open for business. She dubbed her endeavor Blue Door Gatherings. The inspiration for the name was travel in France where doors painted blue are the norm.

“It’s an inviting color, the color of hospitality,” she said.

She got off to a modest start, catering birthdays, retirement parties and memorial services. But the word got out and soon she had corporate clients, a steady business in wedding receptions and, at the moment, Christmas parties. Pricing is on a case-by-case basis, depending on the location and venue, style of service, menu and time of year. The average client pays between $60-120 per person.

As Blue Door Gatherings grew, Bowman decided to act on an awareness she had gained during her training: too few opportunities for women. Both students and faculty were mostly male at the Culinary Institute. Her class had four women and 16 men. Only one of her instructors, who also was a chef, was a woman. But that woman, who did not need to raise her voice to be understood, was “the best.”

“She was revered and feared,” Bowman recalled.

Bowman makes an effort to hire young women as servers and kitchen workers. She hires men, as well, but she’s committed to empowering young women by giving them an opportunity to advance, encouraging them to finish school and move forward. Related is Bowman’s effort to do business with women farmers and suppliers, among them the Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, Wingate Farm in Hinsdale, New Hampshire and Many Graces in Hadley.

The hours are often long. Weekends and holidays are prime work days. And the challenges are many and constant — finding locally sourced vegetables in the middle of winter, catering a vegan/gluten-free wedding, coping when a server walks off the job. Bowman has been, and occasionally still is, the head chef, prep cook, planner and dishwasher.

“You have to love it,” she said.

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