Last March, when COVID-related shutdowns began in full force, Forest Park caterer Ashley Simone saw events she was scheduled to work canceled, one after another. With in-home and corporate parties and meetings no longer happening, business and income Simone was counting on suddenly evaporated.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Simone said.
She had been working out of a shared kitchen space in Chicago, but because of social distancing she didn’t want to go back there. Not to mention nobody was holding events at the time.
Although she attended culinary school, she didn’t train specifically in pastries but said she’s always loved baking. (She calls herself “bi-culinary,” embracing both the savory and sweet of food creation.)
And just to stay busy, as the pandemic swept the world, she started baking at home for friends and neighbors.
“Let me see if anybody wants to buy some bread,” Simone said to herself.
They did. On March 16, 2020, she posted on her personal Facebook page that she was baking and selling bread, and the response was bigger than she’d expected.
Demand and interest grew, and soon after, she started a Facebook group, Ashley’s Daily Breads and Sunday Suppers, specifically to keep customers up to date on what she was making.
As the number of people in her Facebook group grew, so did her business, and she began to add to her offerings. No longer was there only bread. People could order homemade cinnamon rolls and cookies. Scones, in different flavors, became her most-requested offering. Rustic bread and quick breads sold out.
She added a Sunday Supper to the menu. On one Sunday last month, for example, she offered a Thai dinner, with pad thai and green and red curry available (meat or protein optional), cucumber salad, a variety of spring rolls and rice. An upside-down mango cake and blueberry lemon frozen yogurt were the dessert. It sold out fast.
For holidays, Simone sells what she calls “everything but the meat.”
“I make a bunch of sides and breads and rolls and dessert, so people can make their own main dish and I supply the rest,” she said.
As COVID restrictions ease up and events are once more on the horizon, Simone’s looking for a commercial kitchen space. She grew up in Oak Park and has lived in Chicago, but now a Forest Park resident, she said she’d ideally like a spot in town.
“I want to keep my business here because I love this community,” said Simone. “I love the people.”
She wants to cook out of that space for her business, Zesty Catering, but she’d also like to potentially offer cooking classes.
Simone has done cooking demos before. During last summer’s garden walk, she showed masked and socially distanced visitors how to make tabbouleh. But her experience with cooking shows is much more extensive than that.
On her website afoodgasm.com, which she describes as “sassy and saucy,” Simone has posted recipes and cooking videos. The website, and Simone, have a vintage pinup look, and the videos were shot professionally with the help of her mother, Etta Worthington, who as a writer and filmmaker working at Columbia College at the time, had access to a full crew and good equipment.
It’s obvious that Simone is comfortable in front of an audience. She has a background in performance, working professionally as an actor and dancer into her late twenties. She studied dance at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park.
She also toured with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, where she began working as a dancer at the age of 22. She lived on the circus train, visiting 45 states between 1997 and 2000.
“They had professional dancers that would come out between the acts, and we’d do kick lines with lots of fancy costumes and big makeup and headdresses,” Simone said. “It was a really great part of my life. I missed the traveling, but it was great because I got to perform in front of the biggest audiences I think I’ve ever seen.”
After touring, she did some acting but didn’t enjoy the upkeep of going to auditions, although she loved being on stage. She worked in restaurants, both front and back of the house, and started culinary school in 2010, around the same time she launched her catering business and started afoodgasm.com.
Simone said her dream is to build a food empire that includes catering, a cooking show and cookbooks, but with an environmental and social consciousness behind it.
“The basis of it would be finding ways to feed people and take care of food waste and food insecurity. People being hungry is frustrating and saddening to me,” Simone said. “Food waste in our industry is huge. I mean, it’s just rampant working in some of these catering companies. I’m not blaming them, but it’s the way it’s set up.”
Big jobs include big amounts of food and little time to cook, serve and clean. Sometimes, said Simone, there’s just not the time to wrap up the extras and take it home, so a lot ends up in the trash.
“It’s a frustrating thing, seeing so much good food go to waste,” she said. Oftentimes, in addition to not enough time, it’s a matter of not knowing where to take the food or store it, how to get it to people who need it.
“I want to grow my business, I want to be successful, but how I do that is so important to me. I mean, how can you be on top of being successful if everybody else is hungry?” said Simone.
Environmental issues are important to her as well, so she tries to avoid single-use containers or wrapping for the products she sells as much as possible.
During the week, Simone offers one or two days of baked goods, such as rustic and sandwich bread or rolls. She’ll usually have quick breads and muffins available as well, and sweeter items like cinnamon rolls, biscotti and cookies. On Sundays, she prepares a supper, and on holidays, she sells side dishes. She offers gluten-free and vegetarian options, and though she calls her food “veggie forward,” she prepares and offers meat-based dishes as well. For more information visit Ashley’s Daily Breads and Sunday Suppers on Facebook.