Finding Her Life’s Passion
For most of the year, Old Northeast resident Margaret Ann Burtchaell is hard at work in her commercial kitchen on 4th Street, where she and her team are busy creating everything from specialty cookies to gourmet comfort food.
But in the summer, her kitchen is in a villa in Italy, where she teaches cooking classes to guests enjoying a week-long vacation in the Sabine hills just outside of Rome. The villa is part of a 150-acre estate that includes orchards full of cherry, fig, orange and lemon trees, olive groves, and rosemary bushes.
“It was one of those unexpected blessings in life that come along,” says Burtchaell. “You wouldn’t believe the kitchen. It’s enormous, with beautiful Italian tile.”
The villa is owned by her friend and Snell Isle neighbor Mike DiGirolamo, a retired Raymond James senior vice president who, with a business partner in Italy, converted the estate into a luxury vacation experience, complete with cooking lessons taught by both Margaret Ann and local chefs.
Can she share a favorite recipe that she’s taught? “When the cherries are in season, I might serve cherries sautéed in rosemary with arugula and pork tenderloin pancetta with lemon orzo,” says Burtchaell. “I use the freshest local produce in everything I can.” For anyone who loves Italy and Italian food, it sounds like a dream come true.
Until Covid put the brakes on everything and made travel to Italy out of the question, Burtchaell didn’t miss an opportunity to spend a week there every summer. Now, finally, after a two-year hiatus, she was able to return in June. This time, she had the good fortunate to teach cooking not just for a week in the Sabine hills, but also for a week in Umbria. In addition to the villa just outside of Rome, DiGirolamo and his business partner have added all-inclusive culinary and cultural vacations to villas in Umbria, Sicily, and Tuscany.
Burtchaell is, of course, the owner and founder of Margaret Ann’s Catering & Gourmet Cookies, a fixture on the St. Petersburg culinary scene since 1983. Over the years, she’s catered hundreds (maybe thousands) of business meetings, office parties, cocktail parties, weddings, and special events. Her made-from-scratch cookies are locally famous.
That’s why it was hard not to do a double-take when she said that she’s never had formal training as a chef and didn’t cook at home because the family had a full-time cook. However, she says, food and entertaining were an important part Burtchaell’s childhood. She grew up in Jasper, a small town in north Florida, and her mother would think nothing of making the three-hour drive over to Flagler Hotel in St. Augustine for lunch or dinner. “My mother would plan trips around what we’d eat,” says Burtchaell.
Becoming a professional chef was not the path she initially took after college. She taught high school English for 10 years and was a reading specialist with a master’s degree in reading education. She moved to Alabama, Tennessee, and then Texas, where in her spare time, she decided to make specialty deserts for a local caterer and taught the occasional cooking class for her church.
In 1982, a friend in Texas typed up all of Burtchaell’s desert recipes and assembled them into a cookbook, still in print today. Looking through the table of contents of Margaret Ann’s Elegant but Easy Deserts is dangerous if you’re watching your calories. Sinfully Rich Apple Pie, Aunt Mildred’s Caramel Pie, Cream Cheese Pecan Pie, and Viennese Mocha Torte are just a few of the recipes you’ll find there. “I love pastry, especially almond pastry, and pie,” she says.
In 1983, Burtchaell moved to St. Petersburg with her son and former husband, who was getting his Ph.D. in psychology and had taken a position at the Bay Pines Veteran’s Hospital. She needed to work, but found it impossible to get a teaching job. So, she turned to the next best thing – cooking. “It was meant to be,” she says.
Burtchaell launched her cookie and catering business from home, but after about a year she decided to “become legal,” and signed a contract with a local restaurant to use their commercial kitchen. “It was across the street from Haslam’s Bookstore and not in the best of neighborhoods at the time,” she says. “The restaurant opened at 11 am, so I would go in a 3 am, lock myself in and leave before they opened in the morning.”
In 1986, Burtchaell signed the lease for her own commercial space on 4th Street North, where she’s been ever since. She gives credit to her team of loyal employees, some of whom have been with her for more than 20 years, including Marlene Anderson, who cooks alongside Burtchaell, Dennis Bender, who serves as the delivery guy, and Danielle Rasmussen, who “does everything but cook.” There is also Bill Burtchaell, her husband of more than 21 years, who makes sure she has the specialty items she needs for certain recipes, like the six heirloom tomatoes I saw on the counter when I stopped by for a visit to the commercial kitchen.
First and foremost, Burtchaell is an optimist and an entrepreneur. As Covid ramped up and the entire world came to a halt, every scheduled catered event that she had on the books was cancelled. “Literally overnight all catering orders were cancelled,” she says. “I thought, I’m not interested in retiring. I have got to do something about this.”
Instead of taking a break, Burtchaell plunged forward and launched a new line of business offering a different “gourmet” home-cooked meal every day for people stuck at home. “Customers responded immediately,” she says. “It was unreal. I was never slow.”
Now that life has returned to normal, she’s continuing to serve daily home-cooked meals. Her catering business is back on track, too, and this summer, cooking classes in Italy resumed.
After cooking all day for customers, it’s easy to imagine not having much of an appetite left for dinner at home. But Burtchaell says she and Bill cook every night, sometimes with friends. “I couldn’t imagine being married to someone who didn’t appreciate food and cooking as much as I do,” she says with a smile.