Every night’s a new menu: The art of culinary innovation and orchestrating extraordinary events with Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events’ Executive Chef Daniel Capra

Food Entertaining

June 26, 2024

Ellie Lowenstein

Imagine a world where every meal is an event: a symphony of flavors, textures, and beautiful dishes orchestrated to create a lasting memory. For discerning California residents who value both exquisite food and the art of entertaining, this vision becomes reality thanks to Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events, a local institution synonymous with culinary excellence. 

Founded in 1980 by visionary Paula LeDuc, the namesake company has risen from a startup into a full-service industry leader. Their dedicated team of chefs, bartenders, designers, and event managers consistently delivers exceptional service and sublime events, earning them a prestigious niche in the industry. Today they are celebrated for a 40+ year legacy as pioneers in fine food and beverage, trusted by a diverse celebrity clientele, alongside esteemed luxury brands like Tiffany & Co. and Cartier, tech titans such as Apple, and events like the San Francisco Ballet and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Their unwavering focus on quality extends beyond the plate, reflected in their dedication to seasonally sourced, sustainably grown produce and provisions. This philosophy is championed by Daniel Capra, who is a cornerstone of Paula LeDuc’s success story.

Starting as a sous chef at the company 24 years ago, Daniel’s passion and tenacity have propelled him to become the Executive Chef and Partner. He now stands at the helm of the Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events team, developing unforgettable and unexpected culinary experiences that surprise and delight. Beyond extraordinary cuisine, Daniel embraces sustainable culinary practices, sourcing local produce and leveraging food as a powerful tool to build community, and weaves these values into his cuisine and business practices.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Daniel and exploring his background, inspirations, and approach to crafting memorable events and bespoke menus. Daniel’s constant exploration is evident in his experimentation with exciting flavor combinations and creative presentations. This spirit of innovation, coupled with his commitment to excellence, environmental stewardship, and community engagement, transcends the culinary world, inspiring us to embody these principles in every aspect of our lives.

Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Could you introduce yourself and give us a sense of who you are? 

First and foremost, I strive to be Daniel. I don’t want to be solely defined by my career and position. I believe that individuals are multifaceted, with various layers shaping them in all aspects of life. So, I present myself simply as a regular guy. Professionally, I am the Executive Chef and Partner at Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events. I also like to tell people that my strength lies in effectively recruiting to build a cohesive team at Paula LeDuc, one that can support, trust, and inspire each other. So, I prioritize hiring well to create the best food and experiences possible. I also do a little cooking here and there. 

Give us insight into your roots — what aspects of your upbringing shaped your relationship with food? 

Growing up, I was exposed to both great food and not-so-great food. I was always the skinny kid in class, so I began experimenting with cooking different dishes to help my cause. I made some terrible smoothies with raw eggs and protein powder, among other attempts to put on weight, but unfortunately, I didn’t yield much success. Additionally, I spent some time as a latchkey kid because my parents were separated and had their own responsibilities. During this period, I tried to learn some cooking skills from my parents. My dad was a decent cook; he mostly grilled, but he also made the best meatballs ever. My mom had a more frugal style of cooking, her specialties being cream of mushroom soup, instant rice, and Stouffer’s frozen lasagna. Although simple, these dishes were delicious to me at the time. I definitely grew up learning that different foods stimulate my mouth. Eating became associated with good times, and many of my fondest memories revolve around a particular dish or a memorable food-related experience.

Photo credit: Lacie Hansen
Photo credit: Lacie Hansen
Photo credit: Lacie Hansen

How did you start your professional journey in the food industry?

I always like to tell people that I had kind of a “Karate Kid” moment with cooking. When I was about 15, I was in a band and needed a way to make money to get replacement bass strings. One of my friends from the band had a half-brother who owned a movie theater, and he hired me to work in the kitchen. It was actually a cool spot – they played older release films and had a full kitchen with pizza ovens and about ten fryers. While working there, I was learning to do many things at once. This is where the “Karate Kid” part comes in. I had to listen to what was happening at one end of the kitchen while I was manning the fryer, all while the waiter was yelling at me – everyone yelled at the time. And while the food at this movie theater-restaurant spot wasn’t very good, there was a lot happening at once. We served a lot of people, and I learned how to multitask, a skill I had no idea would be so important throughout my career working in a professional kitchen. At the time, I was very focused on music and visual arts, and working in a kitchen was just something that funded my passions. I didn’t realize at the time that it was where I would end up.

My introduction to the world of culinary arts really came when I moved to New Orleans. I had moved there with the band, but we ended up breaking up soon after arriving. I took on more bussing shifts at an Italian joint to pay the bills. The owner of the place was a character; he would fire people left and right. He promoted a guy from the Culinary Institute of America who was about my age — we were 19 or 20 at the time. He and I became good friends, and he had me come into the kitchen with him to help him prep. He was not only a skilled cook, but also a genuinely great person. Working alongside him made me realize how little I knew about working in a kitchen though. Eventually, we became roommates and often cooked together at our house. I had the opportunity to get to know his mentor, whom he had worked under in Washington, D.C., and who visited every year for Mardi Gras. I ended up moving to D.C. for a brief period to cook with him. I learned a lot during this time and began to understand that there was much more to food than I had previously known. When I got back from D.C., I started working in higher-quality restaurants in New Orleans and then eventually moved out to California.

Photo credit: Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events

What led you to work at Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events? 

When I was living in New Orleans, I met an amazing woman named Ashley, who eventually became my wife. She had worked for Paula LeDuc for a couple of years before moving to New Orleans. We met, started dating, and worked at a catering company together in New Orleans. Ashley was being wooed to come back to work for Paula LeDuc, so we moved out to California. While she was working there, I was interviewing at different restaurants, but I ended up just filling in a few prep shifts at Paula LeDuc. Eventually, I became the sous chef here in November 2000. So, I actually started working here accidentally!

The journey Ashley and I had here at Paula LeDuc, over the 20 years we worked together at the company, saw many highs. It must be said that without Ashley’s council and support that this company, and I, would not be where we are today. I am proud to be part of her legacy that lives on here.

Over the last 24 years, significant evolution must have occurred within the company and in your role. What has that evolution looked like, and what has motivated you to stay with Paula LeDuc for so long?

Since joining Paula LeDuc in 2000, our company’s evolution has been substantial, particularly in the types of events we handle and our operational methods. Going through experiences like the financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as painful as they were, taught us valuable lessons in adaptation each time, leading to improved organization, especially in the kitchen. Each team member now has a specific focus, be it creativity, production, or finances. Personally, I’ve become more adaptable, entrusting more control to my team, which has improved efficiency. However, in my position as a company Partner, I still wear many hats throughout the day.   

In my early days at Paula LeDuc, we handled a wide variety of events. In a typical week, we catered around four sit-down dinners for 10-30 guests and a dinner for 500, alongside a couple of events for over a thousand guests each month. The pandemic promoted a shift in event style, so there’s now a focus on more intimate sit-down gatherings, which I personally prefer. Although big-buffet and large-serve gala events are more profitable, we host fewer of them these days. 

Unlike a restaurant where customers come in and choose from a fixed menu, we understand that every event is like opening a brand new restaurant with the client as the ‘owner.’ 

Our approach prioritizes client preferences, ensuring their unique vision is realized. It’s not about what I want to showcase at your event – it’s about what you want to see at your event. What is it that you can’t eat? Maybe you can’t have dairy, or maybe you’re vegan. What is it that you absolutely have to have? You might be obsessed with a restaurant in Hungary where they make this specific dish from your travels long ago – it is my job to figure out how to make that exact dish. While that can be stressful at times, the enjoyment never diminishes. That’s largely because of the people and the familial atmosphere within the team. It is, and always has been, a wonderful place to work. I’ve always loved the amount of freedom and flexibility that we are given to create as well. Even before I became a Partner and was just working in the kitchen, the ethos of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events as a company has always supported and encouraged culinary creativity and exploration.

An event catered by Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events. Photo credit: Jose Villa
Photo credit: Jose Villa

I’d like to learn more about your event planning process. Could you walk me through how you develop a menu? Do you discuss this with the client first?

It’s kind of a formula for me, and I used to be somewhat ashamed of that. But I think that’s just the way I learn anything in general – I need to have a certain structure to things. I need to create parameters for myself. The process begins after I’ve either spoken directly to the client or received background information from another team member. I like to start out by thinking about when and where the event will be taking place, as this is crucial in determining the availability of seasonal and local produce. 

Next, I consider the parameters and logistics. What are my restrictions? Whether I’m on the 61st floor of a building in San Francisco or cooking on a beach, each circumstance presents different considerations. Can I have an open flame, or am I in an office building where I don’t have that luxury? After that, I identify the absolute must-haves that the client wants to see on their menu. Then, I consider the menu style. Is it family-style or plated and served? How many courses will there be? With all of these factors in mind, I select key ingredients to develop each course around.

An event catered by Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events. Photo credit: Laura Gordon Photography
Photo credit: Jose Villa

I tell people I’m a meat-eating vegetarian. I love working with in-season produce and I’m a big fan of using fruit in savory dishes. So, I always start a menu with what produce I definitely want to feature. For instance, if the event is in the summer, I might want to feature peaches or tomatoes that I’ve grown at our private estate in Napa Valley, Beaulieu Garden. Once I select those key items, I assign them somewhere on the menu, beginning with the plated dishes and then working backward into the small bites, the hors d’oeuvres, etc., to ensure all the courses are cohesive. 

One way we maintain our certification as a green establishment is by producing as little waste as possible. We utilize everything and strive to repurpose items that would otherwise be discarded or composted, turning them into additional elements for dishes. For example, when peeling carrots, we’ll dehydrate the shavings and crush them into a seasoning for fish. Similarly, if we have leek tops, we might burn them to create ash for an aioli to accompany the hors d’oeuvres. We aim to maximize crossover within the menu to minimize waste. These practices often lead to spontaneous creations within the menu – new aspects of dishes naturally emerging, enhancing overall creativity and sustainability.

Photo credit: Lacie Hansen
Photo credit: Lacie Hansen

You mentioned Beaulieu Garden. Tell us about that property and what makes it special.

Our company manages the property nowadays, but our original founder, Paula LeDuc herself, got that ball rolling years ago. Over the past dozen years, we’ve had a couple of different gardeners, each contributing something special to what is grown there. However, it’s the unique combination of soil and microclimate that truly sets it apart. While I would love to describe in more detail the specifics of what exactly makes it such a special garden, I’d have to defer to Aaron Keifer, our current gardener. My strength lies in knowing what tastes good, but his strength is understanding the intricacies of gardening. He’s like a magician in the area, operating several farms and gardens. There’s still a lot about gardening I don’t know, but Aaron’s explanations make it clear that what we have going on there is pretty amazing. 

Currently, our spring crops are coming in, including peas and fennel, which happen to be two of my personal favorites. However, when it comes to standout produce from Beaulieu Garden, nothing compares to our summer tomatoes. I believe we grow the best and I’m eager to conduct taste tests with others. I just think they’re absolutely special.

Growing up, we had tomato plants in our backyard, and I was responsible for watering them and helping pick them. Strangely, though, I had an aversion to eating tomatoes. I’d see my dad eat a tomato over the kitchen sink like an apple, and it just did not appeal to me. But now, I get it; I love tomatoes. (And it gives me a bit of hope because right now, my son won’t go near a raw tomato, but I believe he’ll come to enjoy them someday.) 

Many people claim they dislike certain foods, whether it’s tomatoes, brussels sprouts, or beets – simply because they’ve never tasted a well-prepared version or haven’t given it a chance in a while. Not to get too symbolic, but every time I get excited about the tomatoes in Beaulieu Garden, I remember how I used to hate them, reminding me of the importance of being open to change. It is a reminder that stubbornness can inhibit growth. It is important to be open to change, knowing that everyone’s taste changes, whether it’s music, fashion, or food. Embracing change has been pivotal in my personal growth, including my career journey to reach where I am today. Not to mention, without giving tomatoes another chance, I wouldn’t experience the amazing ones we grow in Beaulieu Garden. 

Photo credit: Jose Villa
Photo credit: Jose Villa
Photo credit: Jose Villa

How did your passion for sustainability, seasonality, growing things from the earth, and incorporating them into your cooking develop into the ethos that guides your culinary approach?

Moving out to California from New Orleans to work in the culinary world was a big educational journey in itself. When I was in New Orleans, I wasn’t aware of what was truly in season or where it came from. That was something that I had to learn the importance of. I underwent a boot camp of sorts during my first couple of years here, especially as I was tasked with writing menus and sourcing ingredients according to their seasonality and origin.

Visiting farmers’ markets has allowed me to connect with many local farmers and growers. Dedicated to sustainable and ethical practices, these individuals take immense pride in their craft. Every piece of produce, from the rancher we source from to countless others, carries a story of care and responsibility – a story worth celebrating. This newfound understanding becomes even more crucial when contrasted with large grocery chains’ sourcing practices (or lack thereof). Their focus on using chemicals to enhance appearance often harms the environment, diminishes the food’s nutritional value, and feels like a shortcut we simply can’t endorse. Whether we’re growing our own or sourcing from responsible vendors, we take great pride in our food and the stories of where it came from, and this fosters a great sense of community.

Photo credit: Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events

Photo credit: Meghan Mehan Photography

Photo credit: Meghan Mehan Photography

Can you share a bit more about that – how food fosters community? 

I am on the board of Food Wise, formally known as CUESA (The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture). This organization manages the vibrant tri-weekly Farmer’s Markets at the San Francisco Ferry Building. They also coordinate a variety of outreach programs that promote education and food sustainability. While contributing to their fundraising efforts has been rewarding, and I’ve especially enjoyed participating in their events, the core mission of Food Wise remains firmly focused on strengthening the connection between food and community.

At Paula LeDuc, we embrace a similar mission with a cherished tradition of creating care packages for colleagues experiencing significant life events. The strength of our community truly shone through when the pandemic struck, leading to layoffs and reduced staffing. We initiated support for our own staff by sending out email alerts inviting them to pick up essential food items. A few of us would then gather and distribute items from our inventory, including dry goods, pasta, potatoes, or whatever we had on hand. We later expanded this to include frozen food items as well. Regularly sending these emails ensured a personal touch, and the heartfelt gratitude from colleagues receiving essential food items during challenging times was truly rewarding. Food holds a powerful ability to comfort, something many of us overlook in our daily lives. Even as I occasionally indulge in an eight-dollar latte, I recognize the value of those dollars and how far they can stretch for many people.

Photo credit: Melanie Duerkopp Photography

Speaking of coffee, where do you enjoy grabbing a meal when you’re not in the kitchen or cooking? Do you have a favorite dish you like to get when out?

That’s a great question! I definitely enjoy going to friends’ dining room tables or backyards. I love having others cook for me, especially when so many fantastic cooks surround me, whether they do it professionally or not. I also love exploring the restaurants and eateries in the area. I recently moved up to Petaluma, which is about 40 minutes north of San Francisco. It’s an amazing agricultural area with a tight-knit community, and there are a few favorite spots of mine here. There’s a place called Street Social, which has maybe 10 or 20 seats, it’s really intimate and so good. It’s not pretentious at all; just really, really great food. There’s also a great sandwich shop in town that I go to, Stellina Alimentari. There are also so many great restaurants in San Francisco. Even though I haven’t been going into the city as much in the last few years, I love to go to Blue Whale when I can. It is so incredible. 

Do you have a favorite recipe, whether personal or one that you’ve made for a Paula Leduc event?

Not a recipe per se, but one of the things I enjoy cooking at events the most is when I get the opportunity to prepare a whole animal, like a pig, lamb, or goat. There’s something cathartic about seasoning it, hanging it, or stuffing it a couple of days before the event, and then bringing it onsite much earlier than any of the other food. We start a fire and slowly cook it rotisserie-style, taking our time and nurturing it with respect. I really enjoy seeing that entire process through from beginning to end, with it being beautifully presented on the plate. I’d love to do more of that. 

Photo credit: Laura Gordon Photography
Photo credit: Laura Gordon Photography

Where do you find inspiration for creating new dishes or innovative presentations? Is there a particular idea or concept that you’re particularly excited about exploring or trying out that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

I draw a lot of inspiration from the people I work with. As I mentioned earlier, it was such an ‘aha’ moment when I realized my idea wasn’t always the best one in the room. Everyone has something you can learn from, and being able to lean into that is crucial. 

Max Ford, our Chef De Cuisine, always amazes me with his creative culinary endeavors and is a big source of inspiration for me. But I find inspiration anywhere I go. Anyone who claims they don’t borrow ideas from other people or restaurants is mistaken. I’m always keeping my eyes open, and sometimes it’s just an intriguing flavor combination, like vanilla bean with chicken – and I think, “Oh my goodness! I am going to try that.” Or using English peas in an ice cream. It’s all about trying, failing, experimenting with different combinations, and staying open to new ideas.

Photo credit: Melanie Duerkopp Photography


Written by Ellie Lowenstein | @ellielowenstein