Catalyst Cooks

Make. Food. Happen!

An Ode to the Wedge Coop (or, the retraining of my Old Brain) January 11, 2012

Last fall, I was challenged by a new client.  She’d jump on the Catalyst Cooks wagon if I could commit to:


My approach to grocery shopping was built around some corner cubicle, engineer- and process-loving corporate principles.  I could stop at my local big box, Urban Cub, and be out of there in 25 minutes with $200 worth of food.

I’ve been shopping at Urban Cub since I moved to SW Minneapolis (14 years ago!) and I know the layout of that store like the back of my hand.  I bet I could do it blindfolded.  No Six Sigma, Kaizen, Process Improvement needed for my grocery shopping- I’ve got that bad boy so streamlined there were no improvements to be had.

Plus I always thought I was getting such a great deal.  While I wasn’t any “Extreme Coupon”er, and I’ve always spent more time in the Produce and Meat sections than the cookie and cracker aisle (meaning there were fewer coupons available- much of my Sunday coupon inserts went straight to recycling); I did frequently use that enticing $5 off coupon Cub sent to my doorstep.  Cost Savings!  Yay!

What could possibly trump a Fantastic Process with fantastic Cost Savings?

I was reticent when I met with this new client, DeAnne, to ask “what organic and natural” meant to her.  Reluctant to adjust what has worked for me for years and years.  Rebelling against change.

But I wanted her business.  I went to the Wedge.  Decided to try this new way of grocery shopping on for size.  Worst case, I could go back to my old ways.

I’m a convert.  Why?

My Process is just as easy.  Where Cub is 20 blocks to the south, Wedge is 20 blocks to the north.  Getting through the store is time neutral.  The Wedge is probably 1/10th the size of Cub- less real estate to cover- with less of the processed food that I never purchased anyway.  I don’t wait in line at the Wedge- lots of cashiers and baggers are at the ready to help- always.  And on big food holidays (Thanksgiving for example)- the Wedge has cops helping to direct parking lot traffic.  Sweet!

My Costs are a bit higher (to the tune of about 5%- a manageable number in my budget).  This includes the $80 investment in a membership, which may have some additional financial benefit that I haven’t yet taken into account.

More compelling is how my Philosophy, and what’s important to me, has evolved:

  • I avoid Antibiotics and Hormones in meat, and therefore my money doesn’t perpetuate their effects (For more on this topic, read Food Matters by Mark Bittman- or check this out, just published today).
  • I choose bulk (oils, vinegars, grains, produce, flour/sugar, meat) – I buy exactly the quantity I need, without packaging – which results in more turns and less waste.
  • I buy fresher, brighter and yummier food (think citrus flavor in zest or juice, the green/grassy taste of meat, the crisp and color of produce).
  • I am drawn to local food and providers.  More of my money is going to the local economy… and less is going to transportation costs or mass production agribusinesses.

It’s definitely easier to buy within these parameters at the Wedge than it would be at Cub.

Thank you for challenging me, DeAnne.  I’m learning more about food, I’m changing my philosophy, and the new Catalyst Cooks out there will benefit!


Catalyst Cooks ® January 10, 2011

Happy New Year!

One year ago, in January 2010, I….

  • said goodbye to my old way of life: rise, try to shine, feel less than sparkly, go home, sleep, repeat.
  • said hello to feeling shiny – and happy, and joyful! – by doing what I love.
  • figured out what ‘doing what I love’ means

(What are you doing in this new year to celebrate you?)

That soul-searching led me, of all places, INTO THE KITCHEN.  Who knew that the quest of happiness would take me from cubeland to the kitchen??!!?

Four months later, in April 2010, I had an idea and a name.  Catalyst Cooks!!!

You may have noticed a few changes to the website… little Rs with circles and such….

that is because, over 8 months after applying for a trademark for Catalyst Cooks ~



Anyone out there have a trademark, or know someone who does?  Is there anything I should be doing next?

Woo hoo!!!


Catalysts at Christmas December 10, 2010


You know it’s Holiday Season when:

        • You trade shoes for slippers (and out for in)
        • You trade Steak for Soup
        • The browns and golds of fall turn into greens and reds of Christmas (or blues and whites of Hannukah)

I love this time of year too! 

Neighbor Dave and I broke out the Egg Nog (or, at our house, Soy Nog- fewer calories).

We decorated the tree over the past couple of days.

Neighbor Dave gets to hear the stories behind the two boxes of ornaments that I have collected over my lifetime.


  • The Snowflakes.  “Snowflake” Stephanie wraps a beautiful gift, and most years they come with a beautiful snowflake attached.  They end up on my tree!


  • There’s the Fish from Alice, my college roomie.  The Tree from my high school French teacher.  The snowman from Santa.


For one of my favorite traditions, we got together with mom/Pam and sister/Molly and brother-in-law/Terence to shop for our adopted family through

Some years ago, gift-giving to each other transitioned from being a real joy to being a little bit hard.

As we sisters got married, it got harder.  All of our households were full and complete, and it was so much more difficult to find “the perfect gift.”

When that happened, I started a campaign to end the gift-giving. 

We found a great solution. 

We adopted a family to buy for… and every year since, instead of finding that obscure kitchen gadget, perfect book, or special outfit…. we get to buy winter coats, boots, mixing bowls and spoons, and toys. 

It feels great!

And better yet, we get a specific list, so it make shopping easy.  And fun.

We always make sure to tie in dinner and a beer at the Fireside Lounge in West St Paul, to cap off our shopping night.

While the shopping is great (and I don’t even like shopping that much in the first place), the best part for me is dropping off those gifts.

First we package them in beautiful bags.

Then drop them off at a warehouse in Minneapolis.

It is so darn awesome to see the generosity, present in the rows upon rows of bags, bikes, wrapping paper, and tables full of gifts!

I love this tradition.

I love this season.

What is your favorite story, memory or tradition?


Hanging with Friends, Making Pasta August 27, 2010

I’ve been on a pasta kick. 

It’s no wonder the Italians have it so good.  Their food can unite just about anyone.

I wanted to share some of my pasta stories of late… pasta is love.

In spring, I visited my friend Rachel, her hubby Paul and their kids Grace, Vera and Peter in D.C.  Rachel is kicking cancer, and I felt a little helpless from Minnesota.  Besides thinking about her, what could I do to show I care? 

I felt compelled to visit, so I called to clear some dates, signed up to “deliver dinner” for two nights on her online help site, and booked a ticket.

Instead of delivering dinner, I wanted to make it.  With the kids.  In their own kitchen.  From scratch.  But what could I possibly make that would be fun for a two year old and an eight year old?

I know: PASTA!!!

Picture us (since I didn’t break out the camera)- Gracie and Vera kneading dough at the kitchen table.  Peter using it like play doh (and then eating it).  Making unique shapes of pasta.  Then using our creation to make an Orecchiette pasta dinner.  I hope the kids enjoyed it half as much as I did– I’ll remember that burst of creativity and losing ourselves in cooking and creativity rather than thinking about the other C-word- for a few moments at least.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to spend some time with my friend Kristen, her hubby Brett and their beautiful Margot in San Francisco.  Again, pasta was on the menu.  We all sat down at the table to make it, and then entertained another family with our pasta dish.  A family meal- spending time together for a couple of blissful hours- celebrating old friendships and creating new ones.  Making pasta was the centerpiece of a great dinner!

Yesterday, my friend and old neighbor Megan (who is on the verge of 14) visited.  We decided to make impromptu bow tie pasta for lunch.  We hung out, chatted, made and ate lunch together, reminisced about the old days- when Meg was 3 or 4, just tiny- and she joined me in my kitchen next door to cook.  At first, she’d watch and help a little, back in the day.  I had a kids cooking set and she’d use the small spoons, bowls, and cookware to make her mini versions of what I was doing.  Eventually we graduated to homemade noodles, one of her favorite foods, and she still remembers those early sloppy attempts even now, some years later.  We created long lasting memories over pasta.

Ah, the joys of sharing kitchens and food.  I love it.  Nothing says caring more than cooking.


Kendall’s Favorite Paris Memory: Donuts April 13, 2010

As Kendall mentioned in her comment from a couple posts back:

Live in the moment. (especially if, in that moment, you really want donuts).

Learn all you can.  (since, in the aforementioned moment when you wanted donuts, they aren’t readily available.  Crepes?  Oui Mademoiselle.  Donuts?  What are donuts?)

And enjoy it with friends. (Donut recipe, preparation, and final product: made up as I went along.  Make sure a friend is there to verify that it actually happened, and to remember the donut as better than it was.)

In summary: when life gives you crepes, make yourself a donut

Not sure what that means, but it sounds good.

Oil? Small Saucepan? Flour, sugar, and milk? Check!


Jen the Catalyst Cook’s first Dinner Party April 12, 2010

SO…. there I was in Paris with a kitchen, a cookbook, and some hungry friends.  I had ZERO cooking skills but I did have the seedling of desire- and a phone card.  I called Pam from the telephone booth on the street (probably after having partaken in some cheap table wine, and for sure after having finished my second box of instant potatoes) and asked:

“How do I make mashed potatoes?”

Knowing me, I may have been thinking ahead to the third Thursday in November and was contemplating Thanksgiving.  It was my first time away from home for the holidays and I didn’t want it to feel like just any other ordinary day in Paris (if there is such a thing.)

Her answer: “Bake it for an hour, put it on a plate, and mash it with a fork.”

End of first cooking lesson: things are usually much simpler than you think they are.

With that, I committed to hosting Thanksgiving for 8 of us from the Institut d’Etudes Europeens.  Believe me, it was a hot ticket.  When word got out at school that I was having a turkey, stuffing, corn, potatoes, bread, and even cranberry sauce (from a can, from the very very expensive American food store I found)- there was high demand to be on the guest list.

My first order of business was to find a turkey.  At the time (not sure if it’s still true today), French people didn’t eat a lot of turkey.  I must have gone to a dozen “Boucheries” before I found a turkey at a Butcher shop near my school- on the opposite side of Paris, in the 14th.  I remember the excitement of this treasure fading fast as I got a glance at this bird.  It wasn’t the Jennie-o frozen, clean, plastic-wrapped turkey we find around here.  No, this turkey was freshly butchered, complete with some feather remnants stubbling its skin.  It had its neck intact and attached.  The butcher packaged the bird somehow and I stuffed it into my bookbag.  I politely declined the innards and organs.  I left to get my hot little bird home and in the fridge.

This involved a Metro ride on the blue line, from Gaite to Brochant.  The turkey was heavy, warm to the touch, molded to my leg as I walked up and down stairs; into and out of the metro; from the Metro station to my destination.  Gross! 

Not unlike other times I’ve had a fantastic idea of grandeur, I dove right in and started with a high level of difficulty.  It’s a good thing I’m not squeamish because that turkey would have done it.  I’d be surprised if they didn’t cut that turkey’s head off 10 minutes before I picked it up.

But boy did it ever taste good for dinner.  We enjoyed quite the feast, our man-made little friend family of stranded students in Paris nostalgic for a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner.  Just look at how thankful we were:

Anxious for Turkey

Lucky for me, the rule was established at that dinner party: the cook doesn’t clean. 

Cutest Dishwashers Ever

And with that- Jen the Catalyst (bringing people together to celebrate) Cook (through food) was born!


How Jen the Catalyst became a Cook April 9, 2010

Filed under: © Jen Antila and Jen the Catalyst, 2010 to present. — Jen Antila @ 10:16 am

My love of cooking didn’t ignite until I got to Paris.  It was fate that brought me together with very unusual circumstances:

  • Unlike my classmates who were staying with families, I was staying with Mlle. Bourgain (a sweet woman in her 60s who had never been married, was a lawyer by profession, and lived in a lovely apartment with a mother-in-law suite which she chose to fill with fresh-faced, excited American students studying abroad). 

Mlle Bourgain and me, 1992, at her apartment in the 18th

  • I found a part-time job. 

I worked with a family whose father, a Frenchman, worked for the French government, and his American wife.  They had three capricious young French-speaking children and I took care of them most weeknights and spoke exclusively English to them. 


As a result, I had my own kitchen space courtesy of Mlle. Bourgain,

an old copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook courtesy of my American boss,

and a bunch of classmates who were routinely subjected to dinner choices of eating with their families, eating at the cheap student cafeteria, or for the same price eating with me at Mlle. Bourgain’s place, in my dining room surrounded by 18th century art and furnishings.

It was easy to find good, cheap beer; but not good, cheap food.

In other words, a great supply-and-demand equation for Jen the Catalyst to make some Cooking happen!


Rollin’ down the River April 8, 2010

Filed under: © Jen Antila and Jen the Catalyst, 2010 to present. — Jen Antila @ 8:19 am

How in the heck did I get here from there?  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

It all started here…

Jenny pondering cooking

Just kidding!  As much as I love giving context or the backstory, I’m not going to start there. 

Do you remember the first big decision you had to make in your life?  My first independent choice was to select where to go to college.  I was smart, but not the smartest; I knew what I liked but didn’t know what I wanted.  After a visit to my friend Missy who was in her freshman year at a very nice and beautiful school, I decided to go here:

It felt good when I visited there.  I didn’t need to rationalize it any further.  I applied for early admission and received my acceptance in November.  No big whoop.

I don’t remember learning to do laundry, but somehow I managed to dress myself presentably after I moved into my dorm.  I had gamed the system at home – let’s just say I learned via observation rather than by doing.  When I arrived at school, the extent of my Suzy homemaker skills was making my bed.  Probably not very well either.

(a sidenote to parents completely exasperated with their children’s contributions at home: all is not lost.  I learned how to manage my household.  and some days I even want to do it.)

In my sophomore year at college, I decided to major in French.  Why?  Because I liked it.  Foreign language was more natural to me than some of the other things I liked.

I guess I like to do what I like and “go with the flow” of my natural talents.  I watched a lot of people fight an uphill battle… stay up all night studying… (I did that too, but only once I think, and it was due to procrastination on my part)… I was sometimes envious of the drive some friends displayed, pulling all nighters 5 of 7 nights a week and aspiring to big, big things.

French majors usually want to go to France.  My gut said, Not me!  When presented with the opportunity, I was scared.  I was pretty comfortable in my college life.  I’d miss Homecoming!  What about the start of hockey season???

Well… I ended up here:

Jen and friends (including Kendall!) in Paris, 1992

The Paris experience kicked me into a new phase of life, appreciation and joy, including my first attempt at making mashed potatoes (and much more!)  I’m looking forward to sharing the story of my first-ever dinner party, which was the first sign of my cooking bug.

What was a major event that changed the course of your life?  What are you doing today that you can trace back to that experience?


And Now for a Break from our Regular Posts… April 7, 2010

I was talking with my mom, Pam, on Monday night.  I updated her on Neighbor Dave’s and my visit to the Upper Peninsula, she talked about her weekend, and somehow that led to discussion about Grandma’s bills and paperwork.  By the end of the call we were both laughing~ I think I suggested she should write a blog about all of the stuff she goes through on a daily basis.  It would be hilarious, if only she could figure out how to turn a computer on.  (This is the woman who brought a laptop home to prepare some client paperwork and ended up calling her boss out of frustration because she couldn’t complete the document.  He subsequently found 11 revisions, unfinished, in her directory.  She couldn’t figure out how to get back to her work after the screen saver kicked in, so she had restarted her work 11 times.  I don’t want to be her helpdesk!!!)

Anyway, if Pam had a blog, here are some possible Post Titles…

The Week I Learned to be Sneaky (because I stole a candy lipstick from the Dime Store after I had crossed a street I wasn’t supposed to and my Dad busted me when I returned home with candy lipstick all over my face and asked me where my Quarter was and I still had it because I was saving it for the movies which cost a quarter so therefore I had stolen the candy lipstick for instant gratification of my desire for sugar.)

Blue Moon (otherwise known as the night that I had the sleepover in the Airstream trailer, and somehow my 13 year old friends and me each had procured a carton – yes, not a pack but a carton– of cigarettes and we had smoked almost all of them and then decided to “take a walk around town” which was the same period of time that my dad came out to check on us only to find a blue haze of smoke but no girls in the trailer at which point he pulled up a chair in wait, and when we returned all my friends scattered and I got spanked for the first and only time in my life which may have happened under, or caused, a blue moon- or both.)

Retribution Sucks (for people who discover their dorm suite filled to the brim with wadded newspaper and empty it to find no furniture left but thankfully all the clothes are still there but oh wait there is only one shoe for each pair and whoops all of the button holes are sewed shut on every sweater and blouse… is this because of that one time I put plastic wrap over all of the toilet bowls and put the black toilet seats down over them and then added black shoe polish for extra color, which may have resulted in the girls peeing on their feet and finding a black ring on their a…. oh yeah I’m an R.A. so I shouldn’t do that stuff.)

Ah Pam.  If she ever discovers how to turn on a computer she’ll be dangerous.


Business Management 101 April 5, 2010

This post is for all of you aspiring entrepreneurs out there.

I’ve been “practicing positivity” – which does require focus and mind control – since I left Big Corporation 4.  When I decided to do this, I remember my disdain or distrust or disbelief when I met overly optimistic people (before I decided to practice it.)  This juicy happiness must be a sham!

My next course of thought was to examine – if I choose to be happy most of the time, does that mean I don’t have to worry about anything anymore?  Will the bills magically stop coming?  Will the house be perpetually clean?  Do I still have to file my taxes?  When I start my business, will the business take care of itself?  How much does practicing positivity = shirking responsibility?

Nope.  That’s not how it works.

The great news –  I’ve found that when I’m happy, those jobs become more enjoyable than they used to be.  I just generally enjoy everything more.  There’s a better end in the means.  I’m more invested and I can use my time how I wish.  I still want to tie up the loose ends.

I set up an Excel file to maintain information about my business, including tracking costs, invoices, profits, expenses.  It’s nothing too fancy.  It’s still business paperwork that needs to be done.  I actually kind of like managing the business!  If you start your own business, know you’ll be the manager, the ideator, the doer, the salesperson.  You’ll do it all.

(if you want any ideas about how to use Excel for your own startup, contact me.  I’m happy to pay forward what I’ve learned both over my years in business as well as recently from other entrepreneurs.)

And, if you’re like me, you’ll like it, too.

P.S.: check out last Friday’s “Tripping on the Ladder” Diary Entry about Saying Hello!


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