Irish Caterer Ursula O’Neill Celebrates 20 Years of Cooking for Santa Barbara

Catering Connection Celebrates Anniversary Just in Time for St. Patrick’s Day

Ursula O’Neill
Paul Wellman

Compared to European counterparts like France and Italy, Ireland is much better known for great stout and whiskey than any particular cuisine. But growing up in county Tipperary as one of six children of grocery-store-owning parents, Ursula O’Neill learned a lot about cooking, as each of her siblings had to start making Sunday dinners for the family as teenagers. In the summers, O’Neill would also bake apple pies, sponge cakes, and other pastries. “That was my little side business,” she recalled. “And it was my mother’s idea of keeping me out of trouble.”

She turned those duties into a career, attending culinary schools in both the Emerald Isle and London. Then, 22 years ago, she followed the sunshine and a chance for a green card to Santa Barbara, where she cooked for the Dako Company in Carpinteria and simultaneously built a catering company. This year, O’Neill’s Catering Connection — which is today housed in the former Laguna Store and Deli, a building she purchased a couple of years back — celebrates 20 years in business. “We’re very diversified,” said O’Neill of the cuisine she serves. “My chef is from Boston, and my event manager, who is also a chef, is from France. So we have a little bit of everything.”

Though Santa Maria–style tri-tip is quite a popular option for her wedding clients, O’Neill occasionally fields requests for Irish dishes, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, when she likes to prepare Irish whiskey mushroom sauce on filet mignon, Baileys Irish Cream cheesecakes, and seafood pies topped with mashed potatoes. But she has no clue where America’s fascination with corned beef comes from, as she grew up eating bacon with cabbage, and considers lamb or beef stew as more traditional dishes. Ireland’s cuisine is experiencing a bit of a rebirth, she explained, but more so because diners are adventurous these days, willing to try smoked haddock and blood sausage. “Most people don’t fancy blood sausage,” she admitted, “but that’s become a little more acceptable and encouraged now.”

She’s planning a private bash to celebrate her 20th year and is happily getting a lot of support from her colleagues and friends in the food world. “I’ve been lucky, and a lot of people in the industry are going to come and make this spectacular,” she said, explaining that there will be plenty of Irish beer and whiskey but that the menu will be more Californian in style. “It should be a fun party.”



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