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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 02:56 am

Gourmet comfort food, and life with a full plate

AUBREY CAITLIN BARKER Jan. 17, 1985-Sept. 12, 2011

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“Would you like a box?”

Aubrey Caitlin Barker would have appreciated how many folks said yes to doggie bags at a sold-out dinner at Lincoln Land Community College on Dec. 6 to raise money for a scholarship in her name.

Big portions were a hallmark of Caitie Girl’s, the restaurant founded by Barker that succeeded against all odds. Forget fancy sauces artfully dobbed around tiny portions. On this night, Lincoln Land culinary students piled plates high with Barker signatures such as macaroni-and-cheese with pulled pork, braised collard greens and fried chicken.

“Caitie had this great Midwestern tradition of making sure that people got their money’s worth,” recalls Jay Kitterman, director of hospitality and culinary programs at Lincoln Land. “I told her, ‘You’re putting too much food on the plates.’ She never listened to me.”

If Barker had listened to people, she would never have opened a restaurant, certainly not in 2007, when the economy was in a tailspin, and certainly not in downtown Springfield, where more than a few restaurants have fizzled.

Not Caitie Girl’s, where success came from hard work by Barker, who died in a Sept. 12 traffic accident at age 26.

She had never run a business when she convinced her father to loan her $15,000. Illinois National Bank loaned an additional $85,000. It wasn’t nearly enough to open a restaurant with seating for 150 in a once-glamorous hotel dining room that had been turned into a gym, but Barker did it anyway, enlisting friends and family to paint and clean and install flooring and stay up all night long when building inspectors were due.

“I told her she was crazy,” recalls her father, Colin Barker, who was certain that he would never see his money again. “She was determined she was going to do it.”

Colin Barker says his daughter started cooking when she was 12 or 13.

“I made a chef salad one time,” he recalls. “She came up with her own ideas after that.”

Caitie Girl’s was the culmination of a life spent working in the food industry, starting with a Subway in Havana, where she grew up. Alongside Patricia Silva, who joined her in a civil union last summer, Barker made sandwiches for two years while attending high school. She became a chef at La Sorella, which closed in 2007, while attending culinary classes at Lincoln Land. After a stint as food and beverage manager at an assisted living facility, Barker opened Caitie Girl’s, betting that her version of Midwestern cuisine – what she called gourmet comfort food – would be a hit.

Silva says that Barker knew exactly where she was headed when she was just 15 years old.

“Probably the second time I met her, I asked ‘What do you want to do for a living?’” Silva recalls. “She said ‘I want to open a restaurant.’ I was like, what? I was taken aback by someone that young knowing what she wanted to do.”

Through it all there was tragedy. Her mother died five months after she opened Caitie Girl’s. She lost her older brother in 2010. A younger brother died before she was even born.

“She didn’t take time to grieve,” says Mary Schmidt, her maternal grandmother, who called her Sunshine and scoured rummage sales and thrift stores to supply tablecloths for the restaurant. “You just can’t imagine.”

If life outside the kitchen wasn’t always easy, Barker’s culinary career soared. After opening her restaurant, Barker began popping up on television, giving how-to lessons on making such dishes as beef tenderloin and ham loaf, making her case that food from the heartland deserved as much respect as French or Italian cuisine. In front of the camera, she came across as genuine, completely relaxed, as if she were alone with the viewer in the comfort of a home kitchen.

There were some setbacks, including an expensive stove repair – all of her equipment was secondhand – and a tax bill that required help from her dad, but probate files show that Barker was repaying her debt. Colin Barker says that his daughter foresaw a life beyond Caitie Girl’s.

“She wanted her own show on The Food Network,” Barker says. “That was her dream. We talked about it many times.”

Barker finally took a vacation a few months before the tragedy. She and Silva had saved some money to buy a house. Instead, they went to Italy for 10 days. The highlight, Silva says, came on the island of Capri, where a tour guide invited anyone who wished to take a trip to the top of a mountain on a lift with wooden-slat seats that looked like porch swings.

“She was the first one, taking off running to get on,” Silva recalls.

The day before she died, Caitie went to her grandmother’s house to pick up tablecloths and homemade napkins. She was upbeat about her business, which had landed firmly on Springfield’s culinary map.

“She said ‘Grandma, I’m just about on top – it’s been a good year,’” Schmidt recalls.

–Bruce Rushton
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