As a chef at Sheldrake Point Vineyard in Ovid, Luke Szabo said he often had to be creative with his recipes at the old restaurant.
Located along the western shore of Cayuga Lake, the winery didn't have much access to large supermarket chains, but Szabo said there was no shortage of food for the kitchen — the cook just had to know where to look.
"We were kind of in the middle of nowhere and the bigger companies didn't really come out there very often, so we used a lot of good local farms for our ingredients," Szabo said. "So that's really how I learned to cook ... with better, fresher food."
That's what eventually inspired the Ithaca native to open his own farm-to-table catering company, featuring fresh food from the Finger Lakes.
In the fall of 2016, after shuffling between bistros in Auburn, Syracuse and Skaneateles, Szabo founded Scratch Farmhouse Catering in Marcellus. Featuring a menu made entirely from scratch, he worked with local farmers to find the best ingredients.
At first, Szabo said, he had a modest start, catering six or eight weddings his first summer in central New York. But now, his business has grown, as he's already booked more than 20 weddings this summer and is preparing some special events, including a Valentine's Day dinner at the Barnes Hiscock Mansion in Syracuse.
"I had worked in a lot of kitchens for a long time and it was time for me to kind of branch out on my own and do my own thing," he said, noting that he specializes in weddings and personal cheffing. "I've done dinners for two and dinners for 2,000 ... so things are really moving."
The 37-year-old said he focuses on "family-style" meals that provide a warm, home-cooked, fresh feeling. While his menu changes four to six times a year, he said there are some things his customers can always rely on, like his homemade pasta and fresh, raw salads. He estimated 85 to 90 percent of his ingredients are locally grown, harvested and made.
"Everything is made from scratch ... and everything is based seasonally," he said.
Currently, Szabo's menu offers starters like sweet potato gnocchi and traditional Caesar salad followed by a lobster ravioli entree and lavender profiteroles for dessert. He has also been working on some special smoked dishes with Smoke Inc. owner Dick Benedetto for Saturday's Valentine's Day dinner.
"We thought this would be a good year to put our heads together ... combining (Benedetto's) smoking techniques and my fresh ingredients," Szabo said.
Outside of special events, Szabo is the only full-time cook for his company. However, he said, he's never really alone. In addition to his wife, Danielle, Szabo said it's important to recognize the relationships he's formed with local farmers and restaurateurs along the way — people like Bob Horsford of Horsford Farms in Weedsport and Marc and Dawn Schulz of Prison City Pub & Brewery and The Copper Pig BBQ & Taproom in Auburn.
"I've built some great relationships with people over the years," he said. "We're a really great team. ... And food tastes better with better company. It really makes a difference."