Smokin’ with Kevin VanderMeer

KJ Catering helps Grand Rapids celebrate.

Kevin VanderMeer has been in the culinary business for more than 36 years. Today, his catering business is smoking.

When his older brother began cooking at Vitale’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, VanderMeer thought the job was “really cool.” At 15, he wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and got his start at Big Boy, where he worked his way up the cook’s line.

Four years later, VanderMeer landed at Vitale’s where his passion for cooking boiled over.

At 20, VanderMeer began culinary classes at Grand Rapids Community College while also working at Pietro’s Restaurant, where he moved from prep cook to sous chef, becoming the chef while also helping to open two new Pietro’s locations.

Now 52, VanderMeer owns and operates KJ Catering, a blazing success that has landed him on Grand Rapids Magazine’s Best Of Grand Rapids list multiple times.

His love of cooking has given him the focus to provide outstanding cuisine for weddings, family gatherings and other events since 2001 — all with a simple philosophy.

“If it’s not on the menu and it’s what you want, we’ll make it anyway,” VanderMeer said. “It’s your day. If you want sushi, we’ll do sushi.”

“To me, our staple food is our beef brisket, that’s what our customers talk about the most. People will want prime rib or filets, then we take them to a tasting and they always choose the brisket.”
Chef Kevin VanderMeer

KJ Catering offers a variety of foods with appetizers ranging from beautiful fruit or vegetable displays and bruschetta to chicken wings and stuffed mushroom caps.

KJ Catering’s entrée menu includes jambalaya, kielbasa, baked chicken and vegetarian dishes, although the menu reflects VanderMeer’s obvious love of barbecue.

“To me, our staple food is our beef brisket, that’s what our customers talk about the most,” he said. “People will want prime rib or filets, then we take them to a tasting and they always choose the brisket.”

VanderMeer’s interest in barbecue began when he tagged along with a friend to several competitions, where he watched and learned until he was ready to try cooking at events like the world-renowned American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri.

“The American Royal is really cool,” VanderMeer said. “It’s like controlled chaos but everyone is really friendly and helps each other out.”

VanderMeer’s culinary creations have won him recognition several times. In addition to being voted the Best Catering Company of Grand Rapids for 2020, he also has won the Reserve Grand Champion at Taste of Grand Rapids & Barbecue Competition held at John Ball Park.

VanderMeer and crew also placed 32nd out of 400 entrants at the World Series of Barbecue.

“We were happy to be in the top 50,” he said. “Everyone’s happy to land in the top 50 at the American Royal.”

Barbecue hits the road

Stacy Feyer-Salo
Chef Kevin VanderMeer with his towable smoker trailer.

With the rise in popularity of barbecue foods, catered outdoor events and fierce national competitions, towable smoker trailers now are their own industry.

Available in every size imaginable, the big, towable trailers used for catering — and for competition — have become high-tech masterpieces, which sometimes use nothing but wood as the fuel necessary to accomplish their task.

Professional smoker trailers use a variety of fuels to cook with, including natural gas, charcoal, wood pellets and more.

Many of the companies offering larger towable smokers create designs made to ensure the smokey flavor is carefully circulated and the meat inside is evenly cooked by using battery-powered fans to distribute the heat.

Smaller trailers often are priced at $2,000 or more, while larger towable trailers, some of which resemble steam-powered locomotive engines, command prices of $40,000 to $50,000.

Although they serve the same purpose — feed hungry guests delicious, barbecued meals prepared with all of the care and attention of a master craftsman — one thing is for certain: these ain’t your grandaddy’s barbecue grills!

As his interest in barbecue grew, he hand-picked vendors for meats and other supplies, and developed his own sauces and rubs.

“Our barbecue sauce is very unique, no one else in the area has anything like it. It’s sort of a cross between Kansas City and Texas, and all gluten-free,” VanderMeer said. “So many people have issues these days with allergies or celiac, we just want our food to be available to everyone.”

KJ Catering’s smokers run on hickory and cherry woods, which creates a unique but consistent flavor.

“We work with local farmers to find the wood, then let it sit for a year and age,”
VanderMeer said. “That way, the hickory burns longer, and the cherry flavor really comes out.”

Asked what sets his company apart, VanderMeer replied, “People talk about our service. Friendliness, consistency, knowledge of the event and knowledge of the menu are important. And all of our people are on board with that.”

He also feels presentation is very important.

“Our appetizer displays are kind of over the top, but I don’t want just a round display of carrots and celery. I want people to walk up and say, ‘Oh, my gosh!’”

Asked how COVID-19 impacted the business, VanderMeer explained how the company adapted.

“COVID impacted our in-person events, but we had the opportunity to change up our business plan and picked up a few corporate clients that we are serving every day,” VanderMeer said.

“We have committed to serve them until they can safely have their employees return to their campus.”

KJ Catering is based in the old Burt Surplus building in downtown Grand Rapids; his crew has renovated the space, installing new kitchen equipment, freezers and more.

Asked about the future and any plans for expansion, VanderMeer replied, “We
are definitely looking to grow. Part of why we picked this building is to have room
to expand.”

With a business this hot, growth has got to be on the menu.

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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