Bold Plated

After 10 years of bringing restaurant-style experiences to catered events, and opening a chic party space in the West Loop, Boutique Bites only gets better with age.

By Marissa Conrad

Photos by James Gustin for Fig Media

September 07, 2018 1:15 AM

featured image

It’s an uncharacteristically quiet afternoon for Elaina Vazquez, the owner of Chicago catering company Boutique Bites. Saturday’s party, a 1920s Paris theme, is over. Takedown is done. She finally has a few minutes to reflect on something that seems crazy: It’s 2018, which means she’s been running Boutique Bites for 10 years.

“Some days I feel like I took a long nap and when I woke up, I had this fully functioning company,” Vazquez says. “Other days I remember every crazy thing that I’ve done to get here. But the good thing about starting a business at age 26 is that I didn’t realize how scared I should have been. I was just like, I have this great idea, I think I can do it, let’s see what happens.” 

Her idea: a catering company that operated like a restaurant, ditching hot boxes for real ovens and hiring chefs who would make everything—even the time-consuming stuff, like risotto—on-site. Vazquez, then a chef at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, was tired of going to weddings that served lukewarm potatoes and reheated steak. Catering doesn’t have to be this way, she thought. She also wanted to move back to Chicago, where she had worked at both Tru and Avenues, the Michelin two-star restaurant in The Peninsula Hotel. So, before she could talk herself out of it, she quit her job and launched a fledgling business with one employee—herself.

Patatas bravas (mini potato cups filled with chili-tomato puree and garlic aioli)

Ten years later, Vazquez has catered parties for Gucci, Burberry, Tod’s and Kate Spade. She has hundreds of private clients. In 2014 she opened Brique, a 4,000-square-foot event space on Ada Street, just a few blocks from the West Loop condo she shares with her rescue dog, a Cavalier named Charlie. She now has eight employees, and rarely has a weekend free.

Brique is stunning, with lofted ceilings and a show kitchen featuring white marble and floor-to-ceiling white shelves, typically filled with cookbooks, though you can display anything—say, photos from a couple’s engagement shoot—by request. “I didn’t want a space that felt like a big, empty box,” Vazquez says. “I wanted it to feel like someone’s home. Cozy.”

The venue can host seated dinners for 150, or accommodate 200 for a standing cocktail party. Vazquez hosts birthday parties, bridal showers, corporate events and even full weddings. She also still does plenty of off-site events. Recently, a longtime client hired her to host a dinner at their farm in Michigan. “That was a cool experience because we were using a lot of the produce they grow there, and eggs from their chickens,” she says. “We have clients who hire us for parties three or four times a year, so we always need new ideas.” 

She loves to travel, and gets her inspiration from visiting as many restaurants as she can on the road, taking obsessive notes on her phone. Her team is crucial in brainstorming new menus, she says. “I don’t like to think of trends in terms of what’s popular everywhere, like doughnuts,” she says. “I like to think, ‘What haven’t we done before and how can we do it in such a way that people are like, Oh, this is so cool.’”

Brique / Photo by Jennifer Lawrence Photography

At a party last year, she covered a 6-foot-long table in butcher’s paper and laid out all of the fixings for salad, meticulously arranged so it looked more like artwork than produce. “Picture a pile of heirloom tomatoes here, avocado slices over there, shaved carrots there and lettuce everywhere, with little bowls nestled in holding cheese and dressing,” she says, trying to recreate the scene.

Signature items include a series of extra-small bites: a lobster taco in a miniature wonton shell, tuna tartare on a tiny cake of crispy rice, and a burger that’s the size of a quarter. But over the years, Boutique Bites has moved from serving just bites to offering a range—everything from teeny-tiny short ribs in custom-made casserole dishes to full-size entrees for traditional plated dinners. And in order to focus more on business development, Vazquez recently brought on an executive chef—Seychelle Lapuz, who did her culinary training in Florence, Italy. 

But no matter how much Boutique Bites grows, Vazquez wants to keep every event personal. “We’re not ever going to do four weddings in one day,” she says. “That’s not us.”

Boutique Bites and Brique, 224 N. Ada St., 773.313.3211