'Plain and good' caterer develops a loyal following

JACQUES KELLY

February 22, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

She never advertises. Nearly all her business comes from someone who's had a spoonful of her lemon mousse or a crackerful of her crab dip.

Yet Ollie Richards is the caterer the old Baltimore families in Roland Park, the Greenspring Valley and Ruxton call upon.

Her kitchen is in the parish hall of an old Episcopal church in Waverly, St. John's Huntingdon. She pays the church for the use of its space and also caters its functions.

Each afternoon, a group of women and a few men enter through the parish hall door. Within minutes, someone is taking the stems from jumbo mushrooms. Someone else is making a cheese-chutney dip that Ollie has made one of her trademarks.

"I feel lucky that I'm surrounded by good people," she says. Her people are the part-time staff she uses to produce everything from a small dinner party for four to a huge Falls Road wedding for 600.

This is her slack season, but in a few weeks she'll be in full production for the annual timber races held around Butler. Then come the spring weddings.

Richards was one of eight children who lived in Gaston, N.C. As a young woman, she was making $12 a week there. She arrived in Baltimore in 1958 to work as a dining room server for a family in Ruxton.

"I made $30 a week on a sleep-in job and I thought I was rich," she recalls.

Her greatest cooking inspiration was Gertrude Jackson, another Carolinian whose cooking skills were famous throughout Ruxton.

Richards went out on her own 12 years ago by establishing Ollie Richards' Personal Catering. For the first four years she worked in her own home's kitchen, then moved to St. John's in Waverly.

She has developed a strong following for her dishes tailored to Baltimore palates. She describes her food as "plain and good," but her silver platters are filled with a special crab dip, or soft crabs when in season, grilled lamb chops, seafood casserole, a special fruit mold, fresh fillet of salmon and fillet of beef tenderloin. The beef fillet is her signature dish.

"I only use what is fresh and what is in season. Asparagus is coming in now so that's what will be turning up at my parties. In a few weeks it will be the shad and the roe," she says.

Her cookbooks might be found in any home library. But Chef Ollie is particular.

"Martha Stewart doesn't show me too much," she says.

On the other hand, her copy of a cookbook the Walters Art Gallery's women's committee first printed in 1973 is well worn from years of use.

She likes its recipes for lacy oatmeal cookies, frozen Grand Marnier mold, oyster casserole, scalloped oysters and lemon cheese squares.

"I'm not a dessert person. You don't have to worry about putting on five pounds at one of my parties," she says.

Just mention trendy cooking or exotic dishes and she turns up her nose and waves her hand down dismissively.

She is always surrounded by her beloved family -- daughters Patricia Diggs and Althea Watson, son Ronald Richards, and a sister, Velvet Moody.

But just ask Meredith Watson, her granddaughter, what dish is the best from Ollie's kitchen. Without thinking twice, she says, "Grandma's chicken and dumplings, fried apples and biscuits. The only trouble is, she only makes it about once a year."

"There's nothing like going home after a bad day and the phone will ring and it's one of your kids," says the master chef as she looks around her kitchen.

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