Brown M&M’s (featuring Deconstructed Butternut Squash Soup with Za’atar)

The client and I set up a phone consult after playing email tag for a few days. She sounded pretty in her emails, though I don’t know how. She seemed busy and organized and thin. I felt eager to do a good job because I haven’t felt very pretty or organized or thin recently and maybe a bit would rub off if I dazzled her.

She got right down to it on the phone. She said two of her eight guests were vegan. I jotted 2 vegans in the margin of the notepad on my lap and drew a box around the words to highlight their importance.

“No problem,” I responded calmly as I sipped my coffee and doodled in the other margin.

“But one of them eats eggs. And meat.” I snorted quietly, smiling.

I drew an X through my marginalia and wrote 1 vegan.

I sat silent for a second. It doesn’t serve me well to negotiate language with prospective clients. It’s a bad business plan to tell them that they don’t understand the meaning of the words they’re using. 

“Sounds great. So no cheese?” I waited a moment. “And no butter?”

“That’s right. She’s gluten-free too.”

“Of course she is,” I whispered to myself. “That’s not a problem. We’ll take care of it,” trying to keep my vocal tone level and accommodating.

I scribbled on the notepad next to 1 vegan– 1 gf no dairy meat-eating vegan (because it was clear that the vegan title was important to someone regardless of them not being vegan at all.) My eyes focused on the center of my notepad where I had written the menu this client had chosen.

“I see that you’ve ordered our Manchego stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. What we can do is serve those to 6 guests and serve one with no bacon or cheese to the vegan and one with no cheese to the vegan who eats meat.” I felt a bit dizzy.

“Oh no no no! She wouldn’t like there to be cheese at all! She wouldn’t want other people eating cheese right there in front of her at the same table! No. No. No.”

Unpacking this trigger point felt like more effort than I cared to expend, so I redirected.

“What would you think about spring rolls!?! They’re gluten-free and vegan and so delicious that even people who don’t have food issues love them!”

“That sounds perfect.” I could hear her relief.

A lot of times the special requests people make with food aren’t about allergies or intolerances at all. It’s like the famous Van Halen brown M&M’s story where the legal rider outlining the band’s requirements to play each gig included a clause that stated if any brown M&M’s were found backstage they would cancel the show. No one in the band actually cared about brown M&M’s. That clause in the rider was there so that the band could make sure every promoter was reading the fine print – because there were many items on that same rider that involved safety precautions for the band and the audience. If brown M&M’s showed up, they knew the promoter had not read their rider and people could be in danger. I think it’s a similar thing for catering. Clients are putting a lot of trust in me—that I’ll show up, that I won’t trash their house, that I won’t humiliate them, that I won’t serve them food that’s unsafe or inedible. They challenge me—either consciously or subconsciously—to pay attention. Because in the end, outstanding food and service are all about attention to detail.

“Oh, one more thing,” she said. I scrunched up my nose waiting for the next clause/condition.

“I requested the butternut squash soup because that sounds delicious, but I can’t stand pureed soups. Can you do something about that?”

“Yes, ma’am, yes I can.” Nodding and grinning, I wrote decon butt sq soup in my notes.

Of course I can.  Not a brown M&M in sight.

The party went off perfectly, except for the gorgeous, slim, busy hostess, who became ill earlier that day. She sat poised but green in front of her beautiful and untouched bowl of soup. The meat-eating vegan, however, said it was the best soup she’d ever had.  


Here’s my deconstructed recipe.  I actually think it’s better than my pureed butternut squash soup, which gets a lot of yums from anyone I serve it to. Za’atar is the key. And sweet potatoes. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend made from cumin, sumac, oregano, coriander, sesame seeds, aleppo pepper, salt (the ingredients vary slightly in each Middle Eastern country).  You can find it at your local Middle Eastern shop.  I love La Bouffe here in Portland or order it online here:


Another important thing about this soup is that the butternut squash will lose its essence after sitting in the soup for a long time.  Sure, the essence goes into the soup, but the morsels of squash become tasteless after a while. My recommendation is to put the butternut squash into the soup right before serving or, if you’re interested in having the soup last for a few days, roast all of the butternut squash but don’t add it all into the soup on that first day.  You can save the cooked pieces to add every time you heat the soup and they will retain their sweet taste perfectly.


Deconstructed Butternut Squash Soup with Za’atar

Serves 4 


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion chopped into ½ inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 butternut squash, preferably on the small side, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces (about 3 cups worth)
  • 1 tablespoon za’atar
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 sweet potato, preferably on the small side, chopped into ½-inch pieces (about 2 cups worth)
  • 1 teaspoon ground fennel
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 10 fresh sage leaves, cut into a chiffonade
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. In a stockpot, heat the olive oil, onions, and salt.  Saute over a medium flame until the onions are soft and translucent. 
  3. In a bowl, toss the chunks of butternut squash with a splash of olive oil and all of the za’atar.  Place the butternut squash on a parchment-lined sheet pan and roast for 30 minutes.
  4. Add the chicken stock into the stockpot with the onions and then the chopped sweet potato.  Salt and pepper to taste and let simmer.  Add the ground fennel and the lemon juice and stir.
  5. When ready to serve, stir the cooked butternut squash and the sage (holding back a few strands for garnish) into the soup.  Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.









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