Dark to Be Honored at Arboretum’s Fundraiser


One of the first weddings that Peggy Dark catered did not begin on a promising note. It was a hot, September afternoon in the early 1980s, and the bright sun wilted her decorative vegetable arrangement. Dark scrambled to cover the table with a nearby umbrella, but a hired musician admonished her for removing shade for the band’s instruments.
“I was so inexperienced,” Dark said, with a laugh.
Although everything seemed to be going wrong, Dark not only salvaged the evening, the once perturbed band member came back and asked if she would cater her birthday party. It was quite the turnaround for Dark, who never looked
back. Fueled by these types of connections, Dark’s business soon took off, allowing her to open the Kitchen for Exploring Foods in a southwest corner of Pasadena just below the Linda Vista neighborhood where she lived.
Thirty-two years later, Dark will be recognized at the Arboretum’s upcoming fundraising gala, aptly dubbed the “Night to Honor Peggy Dark.” The Oct. 23 event will pay tribute to Dark’s longtime support of the Arboretum and fruitful tenure running the Kitchen, which has seen her evolve into a Southern California gastronomic icon.
“She has become the exemplar of culinary skill and styles through her decades of success at the Kitchen for Exploring Foods,” said the Arboretum’s CEO Richard Schulhof. “There’s such a strong community interest in high-quality, freshly grown food presented in creative and exciting new ways.”
From small luncheons to large benefits, Dark’s unwavering commitment to both the clients and the staff is what has equipped her boutique catering business with the institutional capacity of a large firm, one that now boasts a reach well beyond the borders of Pasadena.
“You have to understand what the client wants and how to best accommodate that,” said Dark, who unofficially retired this year but remains the Kitchen’s matriarchal consultant. “Second, you have to have a staff that enjoys working and that is gracious and kind. That’s even more important than their knowledge of where the forks should be or anything else.”
Dark was born in Iowa one year before her family moved out to California. The migration was largely a result of the Great Depression, which sapped her grandfather of nearly everything.
“Being from Iowa, we were food people,” Dark said. “We loved good food. Whenever we could, practically every summer because my mother missed her Iowa family, we’d go back to Iowa.”
It was during one of these retreats to the Midwest when an 8-year-old Dark found her calling. After dinner at her aunt and uncle’s house, the couple brought out an assortment of 15 different desserts.
“I thought ‘Wow. This is for me,’” recalled Dark, who took a home economics course in elementary school and then taught gourmet cooking classes at Pasadena City College after attending UC Santa Barbara.
“[The cooking class] had a big following. It was very nice; a lot of wonderful people.”
Some of these dining disciples suggested that Dark try catering as a way to further her burgeoning career in the food industry. She liked the idea and spearheaded a grassroots effort to a recruit a staff, simply asking friends around the Linda Vista neighborhood if they were interested. Through this network, Dark connected with high-end caterers in the movie industry, who helped legitimize and expand her operation.
“I think one of the reasons why the Kitchen is one of the most successful catering companies in California or anywhere is because it has professionals working here,” said Gale Kohl, owner of Gale’s Restaurant in Pasadena and last year’s Arboretum honoree.
“I don’t think anyone in our industry has done as much as Peggy has. I think [the honor] is well-deserved. It speaks volumes about the person that she is and how much she’s given all of us.”
Dark and Kohl have known each other for the past 15 years, often traveling overseas together in search of new international recipes for their respective Pasadena establishments. The fresh herbs and vegetables that Dark prioritizes in the Kitchen’s offerings, however, are usually grown locally.
“From the very beginning, I have gone to farmers’ markets,” Dark said. “You can’t run a big business like we have now with just food from the farmers market. But I have always looked to them for inspiration.”
Although Dark sold the Kitchen to Patina Restaurant Group four years ago, the new ownership team has kept her core values intact. Many longtime staffers — some who have been involved for more than 20 years — also remain on board and continue to serve as a driving force behind the successful business.
“Knowing that Peggy started this gives me the chills because it’s grown to be something so tremendous and I think it has even more potential to grow beyond what it is,” said the Kitchen’s general manager Amy Vigouroux.
“Hearing the customers come in and say ‘Peggy catered my wedding 20 years ago.’ It’s amazing that they still come in. It’s nice. I like that type of environment.”
Dark has been a staunch supporter of the Arboretum throughout her accomplished career. She played a vital role in launching the nonprofit’s FRESH Cooking Classes, which she continues to teach to this day. Dark insists that all funds raised from the upcoming gala go toward a new children’s learning patio and youth education programs at the Arboretum.
“I do not feel like I need to be honored for anything,” Dark said. “I loved what I did. I did the best I could and enjoying my work so much was more than enough honor. The honor for me is that all these people have stayed with us so many years. These children who come to these wonderful programs at the Arboretum, it’s a great moment to be able to give learning lessons on what foods are good for you, how to cook, the whole thing, in a beautiful garden. It’s really a very special thing.”