Life in Technicolor

by Liz Schick

Barb Bardin turns fantasy into cash, with a lot of spectacle along the way

Barb BardinBarb Bardin, the founder and now “chief fantasy officer” of Let’s Pretend catering in South Burlington, peppers every moment of the special events she creates with wit and whimsy.

Barbara Bardin never thought that catering would be her life’s work; but every time she attended a party or went to an event, she would think, “I can do this better.” Now, many delighted customers later, she’s proved herself right.

Bardin is the founder and “chief fantasy officer of Let’s Pretend, purveyors of fine catering and special events.” It says so on her business card, and she says so when introducing herself to prospective customers.

A native of Manchester, Bardin spent her 20s working in a ski shop, teaching skiing at Bromley Mountain in the winter, skiing in Colorado in the spring, and in summer, lifeguarding at Murray Hill and acting or designing at the Dorset Playhouse. Along the way she began baking what she calls “rustic” wedding cakes for fun and extra money.

Following John Prasch, her “smoochy-smoochy true love,” Bardin moved to Montpelier in 1979, where she continued baking and expanded to other catering services as people tracked her down at Tom and Jeanette Racine’s store, Bertha Church, her place of “legit employment.”

To celebrate her 30th birthday in 1981, Bardin threw herself the kind of party she thought every event should be. “I rented a school bus, put a band on the back, had splits of my favorite champagne — Veuve Clicquot — and hors d’oeuvres, and took everybody to Zach’s on the Rocks for dinner.” Guests loved it, she says, and people wanted more of her wild ideas.

Bardin had no culinary training, but she did have a vivid imagination and thought it would be great fun to incorporate food with theater at special events.

“Even though it was before my time, I had heard about the children’s radio program ‘Let’s Pretend’ [aired 1943 to 1952]. I thought it was a great name for what had grown into my catering business,” Bardin says.

Liane Mendez and Daniel SamsonNew England Culinary Institute grads Liane Mendez and Daniel Samson, the founders of Fresh Market Catering, came to Bardin’s aid after a devastating fire decimated her business two years ago. They worked so well together, Bardin sold them Let’s Pretend.

She and Prasch moved to Burlington in 1990 so she could manage Kinderhaus, a children’s shop the Racines were opening. She continued to cater on the side, and people who were planning events continued to find her at the store. “It didn’t always sit well with the owners,” she says with a laugh, “but they were incredibly patient.” She worked for them for 12 years.

In Burlington, the catering was doing so well, she was trying to figure out how to make it her full-time gig. “At that moment,” she says, “a perfect stranger, Paul Bahan, walked into Bertha Church after attending an event I had done and said that if I ever wanted to get serious about doing this event-catering as a business, I should call him. Well,” she continues, laughing at the memory, “I said there was no need to call him, I was interested, and there, amid the lingerie, we became partners.”

During the next nine years, she and Bahan, who was in charge of one of the cafeterias at IBM, created some of the most unforgettable and delicious entertainments the area ever enjoyed.

As far as Bardin is concerned, the stand-out event was a Dickens-themed Christmas mixer for Chittenden Bank in the early ’90s. “We had everything from fog rising up out of the street when you entered to the rattling of the chains when people came up to Scrooge’s bed, where the hors d’oeuvres were. We had real candles burning on wreaths and everything. It was true theater, and to this day I run into people who remember it.”

One of Bardin’s funniest memories is of a Heart Association fund-raiser that she didn’t cater, but she was responsible for selling seats for a table of 10. Too busy to do that, she bought all 10 tickets and took nine mannequins with her.

“I dressed them up and bought them cocktails and sat and talked with them all through dinner. People kept coming closer and closer to see who the crazy lady was, and it was me. I loved it!”

She and Bahan also catered a Heart Association event, this one with a Frankenstein theme. “Paul was laid out on a flat table dressed as Frankenstein, and I was Frankenstein’s wife. There were beakers with foam bubbling over and a castle, to boot. “ I just love to play,” Bardin says, rubbing her hands together gleefully.

While she was catering in various spaces around the town, she lusted after the “jewel” that was the space upstairs at the Burlington Community Boathouse on the waterfront. She decided that if Bev Watson, then owner of Isabel’s restaurant and Whitecaps café, would ever give up the lease, she would take it, even though she would also have to run the café. Five years ago, after Bahan had moved on to other ventures, she did just that.

Running a restaurant isn’t as sure a business proposition as catering, says Bardin. “Catering is wonderful because your numbers are guaranteed. The café, on the other hand, is so weather-dependent that you never quite know what your income is going to be, or how many you will serve on any given day.”

Kandice Vuozzo and Chef Amelia BriggsLet’s Pretend recently moved into a new, state-of-the-art kitchen and office building on Commerce Avenue in South Burlington. Kandice Vuozzo (left) does prep work, and Chef Amelia Briggs, a NECI graduate, is part of the year-round team.

Unschooled equally in business and catering, Bardin has thrived, in large part, because of her philosophy of keeping business simple. “I always believed in not having a great deal of overhead. I never spend what I don’t have; I’d rather spend it all than owe, so I’ve never taken a business loan.”

She learned to trust her instincts. Over the year, hiring waitstaff and other help, she chose people she met in restaurants who might want to work on the side. “They are people who look great and are fun to be around,” she says. “I always figured that if I felt good being around them, then I knew the rest of the planet would, too.”

When it came to running the restaurant, now known as Splash, she says she was “going to do it as right as I possibly could.” During summer, Splash is the place to meet and greet, see and be seen for lunch and early dinner. This year, Bardin says, new umbrella lights will allow the restaurant to stay open later. “It’s a tricky space,” she says, “but I keep imagining how to turn it into fun.”

Along the way, her longtime relationship having mellowed into friendship, she was open to opportunity. It came three years ago, whe she walked across the ice to the lighthouse in Burlington Harbor, after distributing hot chocolate to the frozen hordes at the Penguin Plunge, and “met a man who was already there.”

Three months later, she and Patrick Irish put friends and family on a plane and flew off to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands to be married at Caneel Bay.

Into every life, even one so “effervescent and filled with constant celebration,” as a psychic once told her, some bad stuff must happen. Two years ago, on a busy June weekend, her catering kitchen burned out.

“Talk about a disaster,” says Bardin. “I had a couple of weddings and some reunions scheduled, and I couldn’t imagine how this would play out. Then the telephone rang.”

It was chefs Liane Mendez and Daniel Samson, who told her, “Whatever you need, whatever we can do, we are here to help you.” Bardin says they made everything happen, and it didn’t take her long to realize she wanted to work with them. “That’s when the big idea came: I would like to either merge with them or I would like them to become the owners of Let’s Pretend.”

Mendez and Samson were thrilled. Graduates of New England Culinary Institute who had worked together at various places around the area, they had formed a partnership, Fresh Market Catering, in 1999. They were already modeling their business after Let’s Pretend because, Samson says, “We wanted to get involved with the total event design just as Barbara was doing. We didn’t just want to show up with the food.”

After hearing about Bardin’s fire, says Mendez, “The first thing we thought was, ‘What if that happened to us?’ So we had to call and see if we could help. It was great for us to be able to work with her again.”

Indeed, it wasn’t the first time their paths had crossed. As newbies, Market Fresh Catering was stationed next to Let’s Pretend at a Vermont Tent mixer. “You can imagine how intimidating it was for us to be in with the legendary Barb Bardin,” Samson says. “What you can’t imagine is how thrilled we were when she walked over and told us, ‘I love what you have done.’”

“About a month later,” says Mendez, “Barb called to hire us to cater a party for a client who was giving her a party. She wanted to be able to enjoy her own party. It just seemed as though destiny was drawing us closer and closer.”

For the record, Mendez and Samson want it to be known that they are chefs and co-owners of Let’s Pretend; they are not life partners. Samson’s wife, Brandi, runs the office at Let’s Pretend, and Mendez’s husband, Johnny, is a photographer who rents space in the company’s big, new, state-of-the-art kitchen and office building at 57 Commerce Ave. in South Burlington.

One of the things Bardin liked, and still likes, about the new owners is that they are “both Old World about what they do. They believe in making everything from scratch. They do not take short cuts. The integrity of these two young people is exquisite, and I’m proud to be with them,” she says.

Make no mistake. Bardin, who insists that she lives “in Technicolor,” is definitely still “chief fantasy officer” of Let’s Pretend. She says that she can’t imagine not doing this food-as-theater thing, although she hopes to be able to indulge a little more in her favorite pastimes — reading, and drinking Veuve Clicquot with her husband while they are off on a trip. That is, when she has time. •