She is the creator of countless stunning country weddings and caterer to some of Canberra’s most glamorous soirees, but Tessa Schwarz is also perfectly happy in a pair jeans and riding boots at her historic property overlooking Coila Lake, 10km south of Moruya.
A caterer for almost 30 years, Tessa is bringing her brand of simple, stylish food to Region Media‘s readers in a new monthly recipe feature.
Her food philosophy is simple: use the highest-quality ingredients – often sourced from her own garden or from local farmers – to prepare unfussy, yet delicious food.
This is the food you will prepare over and over for your family and friends. No hard-to-source ingredients, just healthy and fresh deliciousness.
You will find her recipe for crispy lemon chicken, fetta, risoni and chickpeas below.
Tessa’s career in food started straight after finishing school at Narrabundah College in Canberra. Intending to study hotel management at Billy Blue College of Design in Sydney, she took a job at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra tea lounge.
“Working there as a tea girl in the 1990s was great fun, but I also realised a career in hotel management required a commitment to working long hours,” says Tessa.
So she changed her plans and headed to Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) to study small business management and catering while continuing to work at the Hyatt.
On graduating, Tessa returned to teach at CIT but it was a job with highly regarded Deakin caterer Mary Snodgrass where she found the work she truly loved.
“There was something special about Canberra parties in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Tessa. “In those days, ambassadors, defence attaches and high commissioners would host some amazing events, but of course things have changed during the years.”
Tessa moved on to run the cafe at Beaver Galleries, in Deakin, but she says she realised that cooking the same menu day in and day out was not where she wanted to be.
“I prefer to be away from the daily grind, to be a problem solver, and I love a good challenge,” she says.
“So when Mary retired and some of her old clients started approaching me to cater for them, I took the leap and started my own business.”
Tessa soon found herself catering for events for the likes of Dick and Pip Smith, and Terry and Ginette Snow, and soon her business took off, with Terry Snow providing kitchen space for her business at the old Fairbairn RAAF base.
“There were some fantastic parties in the hanger,” she says. “Although I admit I was a little perplexed when Pip Smith once sent me the GPS coordinates rather than a street address for an event we were doing. Maybe she thought we were going to fly in.”
Tessa says meeting her now husband, Peter, was “a bit of a McLeod’s Daughters moment.”
“He lived next door to my mother’s property down on the coast and came riding over one day to say hi across the fence,” she says.
These days, Tessa lives on the South Coast with her husband, Lakeview Lamb producer, Peter and their three daughters, but her catering business, Tessa Kitchen & Catering, is still in high demand for weddings and events in the ACT and the surrounding regions, when not in lockdown, of course.
“I have had the privilege of catering for hundreds of weddings and corporate events and I still love it,” says Tessa.
“I love going out to all the lovely farms and gardens across the whole region. It is exciting working with people and bringing their ideas to life.”
Tessa is a master strategist who can effortlessly coordinate and cook a gourmet meal for hundreds of people in a paddock, shed or marquee, with no water or power and not miss a beat.
“From cocktail parties on the beach to elaborate three-day marquee weddings, we have done it all,” she says. “One of my favourite memories was a wedding in Harden where we had hail on the marquee and the power went out. While the guests were waiting with drinks in hand, we knew we could fix it so we went into town, sourced a generator and got the party going again.”
Crispy lemon chicken, feta, risoni and chickpeas
Tessa writes: As the weather warms up, our family gets very busy either being out on the farm, in the garden or at the beach. I love to have a meal to serve for dinner that has a few different parts to it all on one platter.
The kids can serve the bits they love and dodge the bits they aren’t keen on. I like to make enough to have leftovers for lunch the next day – they always get eaten. There are a few components to this platter, but you can pick and choose which ones you add.
Chicken and/or fetta
6 or 8 chicken pieces (choose your favourite piece – I like to joint a whole chicken)
1 block of feta, patted dry and sliced into 1cm slices
3 tablespoons cornflour
Pan-fry chicken pieces with thyme and salt and pepper until slightly golden, place into 180-degrees oven for 15 minutes until cooked.
Gently toss the feta in the cornflour, add a little more olive oil to the pan if needed, and cook until golden.
200g Greek yoghurt
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove crushed
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, season with salt and pepper. Pop aside.
1 tablespoon butter
Handful basil leaves chopped
Cook the risoni as per box instructions, drain, add butter and basil, season with salt and pepper.
Drain 1 can of chickpeas (I like to blot them on paper towel so they don’t spit in the pan)
1 clove garlic
1⁄2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1⁄4 cup olive oil
Heat a pan, add olive oil and pan-fry chickpeas, season with paprika, salt and pepper. Fry until slightly crispy. Pop aside.
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed
2 zucchini sliced
Pan-fry vegetables until slightly crispy, season with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. Pop aside.
A handful of your favourite soft herbs such as parsley, basil, dill, microgreens or mint
In the pan after the chickpeas come out, fry vegetables until slightly crispy, season with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. Pop aside.
To serve, spread the yoghurt at the bottom of a large platter, add the risoni, chickpeas, vegetables, chicken and feta. Top with fresh herbs and a couple of lemon wedges.