Training for a Columbus woman’s dream career began far before her graduation in the field of science from the University of Alabama.
Starting nearly two decades earlier at about age 5, Paula Piercecchi was getting an education of a lifetime in Farmington Hills, Michigan, where a passion for “making people happy and making people feel loved” began in her mother’s kitchen.
Some of her earliest memories are from that room while seated near an open pantry door, watching her mother cook — and licking any leftover batter.
Today, five months into a new career as a professional caterer, the grown woman — Paula Watson, 60, of Columbus — is having the time of her life.
Next month, the owner of Purely Paula Catering will share her late mother Willie’s recipe for pumpkin pie with cooking class students, helping them build their confidence and creativity in the kitchen.
That’s a clear contrast to business activities during a majority of Watson’s professional life. She worked at Columbus-based Cummins Inc. for 29 years, with assignments in information technology, corporate strategy and quality analytics.
One example of Watson’s ingenuity was helping the global power technology leader launch a program focused on telematics, providing remote connectivity to engines in the gathering of data to improve the customer’s experience.
With her wheelhouse being analytics, Watson became a Six Sigma black belt and then master black belt, recognition for developing an expertise in process-improvement methodology.
But 18 months before her December 2019 retirement from Cummins, Watson — who had risen to a director position — started putting “flesh on the fantasy” of opening a catering business, an idea stored in the back of her mind most of her adult life.
During her June 1984 honeymoon, Paula and husband Bruce Watson enjoyed the atmosphere of a bed-and-breakfast inn and the newlywed started daydreaming of one day running a B&B or other type of business involving food.
But as the idea of making a 24/7 commitment to operating a food business lost some of its lustre, Watson put it on the backburner — until a corporate buyout opportunity arose. In her late 50s at the time, Watson jumped at the chance to follow her heart and try something new.
Purely Paula Catering began informally as the Cummins retiree helped friends celebrate important occasions by providing delicious things for them to eat. While the official start of her catering business was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it ultimately opened June 2 of this year in leased 1,320-square-foot commercial space at The Workshop on Long Road in Columbus.
Watson said the first word in her business’ name — Purely — was selected for two reasons. For one, she gets to operate the catering company her own way. Secondly, the food she prepares is pure rather than pre-packaged.
“If you order sandwiches, I make the bread. If you order pies, I make the crust. Everything is made from scratch,” Watson said.
While full-service catering makes up her core business, Watson also teaches cooking classes and will make her custom-designed kitchen available for other local small-business owners to rent. It’s a more convenient food-preparation option than traveling to Bloomington or Greenwood for a comparable workspace.
Watson spent two years searching for just the right location, finally settling on her workshop suite near other start-up businesses instead of settling for retrofitted office or industrial spaces.
Landlord Tovey-Perry Co. built Watson’s catering kitchen following a floorplan that she designed. Her working kitchen space features a four-foot gap surrounding the food-preparation island in a sea of silver, with nearly everything made from stainless steel. Along the walls, you will find a silver food processor, ware-washing and food-washing sinks, a Sheila oven hood, gas-burning cooktop, electric convection oven and a microwave oven, as well as cabinets to store equipment. The kitchen also has an 8-foot by 8-foot walk-in refrigerator and a small freezer. The only splash of color comes from the KitchenAid mixer in pink, Watson’s favorite color.
In the core catering business, Watson typically prepares food for small events, generally for a maximum of 50 people — such as birthday parties, other family events, a small wedding or rehearsal dinner, as well as baking and decorating cakes. She has also catered several local artist receptions.
Watson’s biggest event so far has been preparing 200 carryout boxed lunches for the Sept. 15 Women in Leadership program sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, of which she is a member.
Most of Watson’s food creations are made using elementary natural ingredients, not poured from tins and boxes. Just steps from her northside Columbus business, Watson tends to a herb garden, which produces ingredients for some of her recipes. She also grows herbs and vegetables outside her rural home.
That doesn’t mean everything she serves is home-grown, however.
“Every event warrants a shopping trip,” she said, whether it’s to local grocery stores, shopping online for hard-to-get local items such as lavender, as well as using a wholesale food distributor for by-the-case meat, vegetables and produce. She steers clear of the frozen-food aisle, unless it’s to buy frozen berries when fresh ones aren’t in season locally.
Watson conducted her first cooking party Oct. 7, when Columbus city councilwoman Grace Kestler invited nine female guests to Purely Paula Catering to celebrate her birthday during a three-hour, dinnertime event.
They made a sweet potato curry with kale, served with coconut rice; Swiss chard with chickpeas and garlic; broasted vegetables with rosemary and parmesan; Caesar salad with homemade dressing, croutons and salad; and blueberry cake with blueberry glaze for dessert.
The guests gathered around a table decorated with lights and watched the sunset while enjoying their culinary creations.
When Chris Price decided to throw a theme party to mark a special anniversary of his own, the United Kingdom native knew Watson — a Cummins colleague in analytics starting in the 1990s — would deliver something special in her new role as a catering professional.
Since Price’s beloved Triumph Stag Mark 1 vehicle was manufactured on June 24, 1971 in the United Kingdom, he chose his car’s golden anniversary — to the day — for a gathering at his Columbus home with about 10 friends.
Price, a portfolio director in quality analytics, asked Watson to prepare English favorites on the party menu, and trusted her with the details.
Watson prepared bangers and mash, an English favorite consisting of sausages served with mashed potatoes, as the main course. She served a cooked chutney made with onions, cranberries and ginger as a condiment for the sausage. For dessert, Watson baked and served a crispy meringue-based pavlova.
“People loved it,” Price said.
Price has been sold on Watson’s desserts since joining Purely Paula’s Dessert of the Month Club, his favorites being triple chocolate truffle pie, a “rhubarb crisp to die for” and derby pie, delivered in time for the Kentucky Derby.
“There’s always a little something different with them,” Price said. “The flavors, the texture and the presentation is always amazing.”
Kathy Oren has known Watson for more than 30 years, starting when their children attended preschool together in Columbus. Beyond that, the two women and their husbands all worked at Cummins.
So when Oren wanted to throw a baby shower for her daughter-in-law with about 30 guests, she wanted Watson, one of her best friends — who also happened to be a great cook and creative meal planner — around to help.
Watson offered several meal options for Oren to choose from, settling on a taco bar featuring homemade ingredients.
“The food was spectacular. Just as importantly was the way she laid it out on my table. It was something I never could have done on my own,” said Oren, executive director for the Community Education Coalition in Columbus.
“I am not a foodie and I really don’t like to cook. I’m not creative in that way,” Oren said.
Watson, on the other hand, came up with the idea of having a Mimosa (champagne and citrus juice) bar. And Watson baked cupcakes for dessert that Oren described as spectacular.
Watson has long demonstrated a strength in analyzing processes — left-brain functions, as shown throughout her Cummins business career, Oren said.
“When she goes into a project, she’s going to think of details that most of us wouldn’t think of,” Oren said of Watson.
But her right-brain abilities, such imagination and intuition, are equally strong and reflected in preparing food that is innovative and delicious, Oren said.
“She loves to cook,” Oren said of her friend. “It’s literally what lifts her up and brings her joy in life. What she’s doing now is honestly what she was meant to be doing forever.”
Watson never tires of preparing food — for catering clients or when hosting close friends or family at her home.
“Cooking is how I show people that I care for them,” she said.
When inviting people over to her home for a meal, Watson strives to make it a sensory experience — even with a simple food choice such as grilled hamburgers.
They will be served on hand-made brioche buns, with build-your-own-burger topping choices such as avocado, brie cheese, apple slices, bacon, poached eggs and the sandwich staples of lettuce, tomato and onions.
“It’s my favorite kind of party: Cook and eat together all night long,” she said.
During time away, Watson even packs a spatula when heading off with husband Bruce to visit state and national parks in their restored 1980 Airstream camper.
After all, “cooking is a big part of camping,” she will remind you.