photography Josh Gruetzmacher
By 5 a.m., Daniel Capra is already out the door and headed to the gym. Once there, he warms up on the speed bag and gets his heart rate pumping with a few skips on the jump rope before starting his daily 90-minute kickboxing routine with his personal trainer. After a quick shower and breakfast, the clock strikes eight,and Capra’s day officially begins in the kitchen. The in this space practicing culinary techniques that required continuous repetition with a high degree of precision—under pressure-mounting conditions—has given Capra a definitive edge in mastering his craft. From his humble roots in New Orleans, where he started out as a busboy at an upscale Italian restaurant in the French Quarter, to his time in the kitchen of the James Beard House in New York City, Capra has garnered a reputation for exhibiting the utmost level of discipline that he puts forth in creating each and every dish. As the Executive Chef of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering in the San Francisco Bay area, Capra is leading the charge to elevate
Along the shorelines of Virginia’s tributaries that lead to the Chesapeake Bay, there exist waterways home to an expansive ecosystem of life teeming with the freshest seafood imaginable. As a young boy, Capra remembers always being surrounded by good food – a luxury he admittedly took for granted. “I grew up in the southern part of Virginia. Sweet potatoes were in everything, not to mention collard greens and Smithfield ham. Being so close to the Chesapeake Bay, I became hooked on blue crabs, crab soup, and fried clams. I would go fishing with my dad and we would catch mostly bluefish, spot fish, and flounder. I used to dream about fried spot [fish] – I haven’t had that in 30 years!” recounts Capra, as he nostalgically thinks back to his childhood in which nearly every meal was accompanied with a version of the day’s catch.
Given the artistry involved in the plating of a dish, it comes as no surprise that Capra has always immersed himself in the arts; he attended the prestigious Governor’s Magnet School for the Arts, a hub for innovation and creativity, where the young Capra studied Visual Arts and became a musician. By the time he turned 19 years of age, he set out to New Orleans, where he gained a firsthand understanding into the culinary world of restaurant chefs. His first stint bussing tables at a high-end restaurant quickly made him realize that the only way to actually “study” the fine dining scene was to go out to eat the food himself. He did that, albeit a bit more than he had originally intended. “After I had been [at the restaurant] for about a month, the chef got fired, the third one in three months. The new chef, who was about a year older than myself, was quickly overwhelmed, so I volunteered to move into the kitchen. From there, I kept my eyes open and wrote everything down,” notes Capra. Capra continued to refine his art by working under the tutelage of culinary giants such as New Orleans’ very own chefs Gerard Maras and Susan Spicer, before relocating to Washington, D.C. to work at chef Greg Hill’s former restaurant, New Heights. There, he witnessed the tireless work ethic characteristic of so many great chefs.
Since then, it has taken years for Capra to develop his personal culinary style, which he continues to refine to this day. He will be the first to tell you that he owes much of his success to his predecessors. “You have to be willing to admit that you have been influenced by many [who came] before you. You also need a heavy helping of humility,” he professes. During his time in New Orleans, he was instrumental in opening a specialty store in town that happened to have an on-site demo kitchen. “I got to support [chef] Rick Bayless one night. I thought he was a gem of a guy. He was educated, well spoken, and his Mexican food was like nothing I had ever tasted. I also used to ‘ooh and aah’ over a Charlie Trotter cookbook. I was blown away by his plating and found it to be a true art [form]. The biggest game changer was when [chef] Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook came out; I realized right away that I was just a guppy and I had a lot to learn,” admits Capra. “Recently, the biggest impact for me would be chef Tyler Florence. I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with him on a dozen or so events, and watching his creative process is really unbelievable.”
Capra is a self-professed “vegetarian meat eater” – if such a label exists. “I believe that the ‘sides’ on a plate are much more than that. In order to achieve a balanced dish, everything on it must be deliberate and important,” notes Capra. “When I am writing a menu, I begin with the fruits and vegetables. I plan each course around those ingredients and build from there by adding complementary flavors and textures,” he explains. Despite his focus on preparing healthier dishes, Capra does have a weakness for ingredients from the other end of the health spectrum. “I won’t shy away from butter, duck fat, or lard,” he confesses. While flavor will always trump presentation in his kitchen, many would agree that Capra’s distinction is that his plating does not appear to suffer one bit. “If it doesn’t taste good, you’re not fooling anybody. But at the same time, people eat with their eyes first, so it’s all part of the experience,” he emphasizes, thinking back to the moments he literally salivated over picture-heavy cookbooks until he experimented with certain recipes and realized that the taste did not measure up to the seemingly flawless presentation.
Before joining the team at Paula LeDuc Fine Catering over fifteen years ago, Capra admits that the concept of fine catering was still a novel idea to him. “I had a very naïve understanding of what catering meant, let alone ‘fine catering’,” he confesses. But it was not long before he began to understand the genius behind the company’s success: a keen focus on quality. Driven by an unwavering commitment to create a culinary experience on par with the highest standards of any fine dining establishment, Capra leads a culinary team that produces fare that is far beyond the typical perception of “catered food.” Whether you are planning a celebration in the company of 10 or 400 of your closest friends and family, quality and service should never be compromised. This philosophy is what makes Paula LeDuc Fine Catering’s wedding services an unparalleled experience. Clients also have access to exclusive, coveted venues, including Durham Ranch and Beaulieu Garden in the heart of the Napa Valley wine region. According to Capra, “We strive to provide a fine dining experience… filled with a sharp attention to detail. From the moment a guest arrives and is greeted with a smile and a glass of sparkling wine or a [handcrafted] cocktail, to the moment they head to their car with a box of our signature Bourbon truffles, the evening is filled with a quiet pampering [paired with] exquisite food and beverage service.” As part of the process, clients also attend a tasting where they are presented with a menu that has been personally crafted by Capra based on the client’s preferences. After the tasting, Capra listens to the feedback his clients provide for him. He realizes that it takes a certain degree of humility on his part, but the process only fuels his determination to ensure his clients are pleased and thoroughly satisfied with his work. He also notes that clients often want to accommodate each guest’s preferences. In the end, however, he emphasizes the need for clients to think about what is important to them. I would rather grow organically as we have done up until now.