After touring with the hit band Bad Company for four years, Paul Cullen worked as a personal assistant, a mortgage loan officer and a wine merchant.
Nothing worked quite the way Cullen wished until he hit upon his current one-of-a-kind business.
“I partied with everybody. David Gilmore of Pink Floyd, Boy George, Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden, Tom Jones,” Cullen said. “I lived the dream when I was in Bad Company, so I was up here and then went way down. The higher you go, the harder you fall.’’
Now Cullen has a hit on his hands with Paul Cullen: Tune Your Palate.
His sing-for-your-supper business has delivered him a whole new set of fans, including actor Ryan Phillippe, who hired Cullen to cook for 14 when Phillippe vacationed in Bethany last summer.
Here’s how it works: Cullen and his assistant arrive on doorsteps from Delaware to Coral Gables, Fla., with everything he needs to prepare and serve a four-course Italian meal with wine pairings. And he packs his guitar for an intimate après-dinner jazzy guitar concert. Before he leaves, the kitchen is spic-and-span.
John Lagrotteria, a shoe company sales rep who hired Cullen to cook for 14 in his Annapolis home, said it was the most stress-free party he and his wife have ever thrown because they didn’t have to do a thing except talk to their guests.
“It was absolutely delicious. Each course was better than the last. He was incredibly professional and very good with the crowd,” Lagrotteria said. “He kept people entertained even while he was cooking. He explained every dish. He’s a party in a box.”
Cullen, a certified sommelier who learned Italian cuisine standing next to his Grandma Tagliaferro from the time he was 10 years old, isn’t resting on his laurels. He started interning in Jeff Michaud’s kitchen at Philadelphia’s Osteria last month.
Cullen’s clients describe him as knowledgeable, enjoyable, really down-to-earth, professional and, invariably, the kind of guy you instantly feel you’ve known for years.
The tab for a dinner for 12 starts at $1,170, and the company has taken off. Now Cullen and his wife Bonnie are also taking guests on the road. They’ll travel to a Tuscan villa for seven days in October. The $2,688-a-person trip is already sold out. Next March, he’ll be strumming his guitar aboard a tall ship in the Caribbean as he and his guests island hop to spots like Nevis and St. Barts.
Cullen recently traveled to Chicago to do six dinner events in seven days. He’s booked three events in Pittsburgh next month.
It all started four years ago when Seacrets owner Leighton Moore heard Cullen cooked Italian cuisine. Moore hired him to entertain and cook for 12 at the philanthropist-entrepreneur’s home. “He told me I didn’t charge enough and gave me an astronomical tip,” Cullen said.
With Moore’s encouragement, Cullen minted himself as a chef-entertainer. Now he cooks for about 150 people per month at 12 to 15 events. He averages $1,200 a night cooking for groups of four to more than 44.
Dot and Ron Latini have hired Cullen to cook in their Garnet Valley, Pa., home four times, and they’ve booked three of his vacations.
“We’re kind of Paul Cullen-addicted,” said Ron, who works in manufacturing in New Jersey.
“He’s always changing things up,” said Dot, who works in insurance.
He told them where to buy the best Marzano tomatoes and introduced them to speck – a spiced, salt-cured, cold-smoked cousin of prosciutto. He showed them how to make delicious appetizer combos like pears and honey.
Ron’s brother was wowed that he was invited to dinner with a rock star. They’re friends on Facebook now.
Dot thought it was cool that Cullen made up a song especially for their little granddaughter.
“He’s very good at explaining what he cooked and how he did it. People really enjoyed hearing the origin of the food. And the wine pairings, since he’s a sommelier, he pairs the region of the wine with the region of the food. He shared a lot of meaningful information. It wasn’t just serve it and walk away,” Ron said.
Scott Carey, owner of Wilmington Amusements, said Cullen overdelivered: “He promised us X and delivered XY and Z. He’s very good at what he does. It was awesome. We had one person who was very skeptical initially and they were like ‘This is the best time we ever had.’ It’s just such a great business idea.”
Cullen recently began meeting with Jim Rivette, a volunteer with the Service Corps of Retired Executives. “He’s trying to get me to focus on what I need to do to take this to the next level,” Cullen said. “He’s like my sounding board and my mentor. We meet a couple times a month to make sure I’m on task.”
On deck: Selling Paul Cullen pastas and pestos and spreads in local farmers markets and gourmet groceries by the end of summer.
“I’m having way more fun than I deserve probably because I’ve already had a lot of fun in my life,” Cullen said. “I don’t know where it’s going. I’m just riding it.”
Cullen, who didn’t really appreciate wine until he drank a lot of it, became an expert who can pour you a glass and tell you the back stories about the vineyard and the region.
Of course, he’s not the only rocker to have an unlikely second act.
Vanilla Ice now flips houses. Dan Spitz, guitarist for Anthrax, is a master watchmaker. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who played guitar for the Doobie Brothers, serves on a NASA missile defense advisory committee.