“It’s in my blood,” says Anne-Marie Million of her passion for bringing joy and comfort through food.
The owner of A Million Mouthfuls catering company vividly recalls cooking with her mother and grandmother as a child.
The extensive garden at her grandmother’s house on Andrew Street in Newmarket — “where everything was about cooking and gathering and having seasonal foods” — ingrained a love of cooking from scratch with local ingredients that burst with flavours.
Just prior to the pandemic, Million launched her catering business following retirement as director of hospitality and sales at Cardinal Golf Club in King after 27 years.
As lockdowns upturned the food and beverage sector, Million “pivoted” her freshly created business by catering to online events with “social distance boxes” that she and her staff delivered locally and in Toronto.
Customization has always been a part of her business, she added.
When lockdowns ended, A Million Mouthfuls flourished as events got underway again.
Her clients included the Inside Out LGBTQ film festival, and seven events in 10 days at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
As well as catering corporate and private events, including weddings, creative gift boxes and baskets remain a feature of her business, she said.
“I want the food that people have, or share, to identify them,” Million said. “I work the foods they love, or that have meaning to them, into it. I always start with, ‘What food do you love?’”
“We really try to incorporate themes, and to collaborate with local vendors to support their products,” she added.
When catering an announcement at Mulock Park last year, for instance, she created a menu that acknowledged the Indigenous people who once lived on the land by sourcing trout from the Franklin Fish Club.
“I really love to create things from scratch, starting with good-quality ingredients and seasonal products, and having the flexibility to accommodate dietary needs,” Million said.
“I like my food to look really beautiful, I love that artistic side of it, but honestly there’s still a bit of a comfort food piece to all that I do, going back to cooking with my grandma and my mom."
Cooking “fall from the bones” spare ribs with her mother for special occasions remains one of her favourite memories.
Her love of savoury food and vegetables is linked to her grandmother, who was the cook at the residence for doctors and nurses at York County Hospital, and her garden.
“I like foods that have multi-layers of flavours, that are new experiences,” she added.
The roots of her passion for food and her business are deep in Newmarket.
When she was 13, she began working part time as a waitress at the iconic Annie’s Lunch, a diner that was at the corner of Main Street and Davis Drive for 57 years until 1990.
She attended Huron Heights Secondary School, then moved to Toronto at the age of 18, where she credits her job as a server at Mövenpick for advancing her training in the culinary arts.
That was “an eye-opener” for a “small town girl,” Million said.
That “European training” that stressed the neatness of uniform, knowledge of the menu, and high respect for the consumer and staff remains important to her today.
The experience at the international restaurant also underlined that her career would be in the food and beverage industry.
She attended Seneca College, for a tourism industry administration program, before returning home to Newmarket in 1984, knowing she wanted to raise a family here.
Her father, Brian, whose name she kept after marrying, first came to Newmarket from Toronto when he was scouted at 14 to play hockey for the Gorman Smoke Rings — he never left, met her mother, Melva Stickwood, and eventually they established a company that installed most of the local pools in the 1970s, she said.
Her parents were active in the community; her father as a longtime coach for the Newmarket Redmen and Newmarket Flyers, and her mother as a volunteer with local organizations, including helping to raise funds with Whipper Watson for the rehabilitation pool at York County Hospital.
After returning to Newmarket, Million married her brother’s best friend, Paul Osborne, and they had four children.
“I was always a bit of an entrepreneur, I did what I felt I needed to do for my family, but also still earn,” she said.
She worked part time, started a gift basket business, consulted, and did some catering, until joining Cardinal in 1992.
“I wanted to work part time, evenings and weekends, but that quickly evolved. They wanted me front of house, interacting with customers,” she added.
She realized she wasn’t ready for retirement after she left there.
“I always knew that I wanted to have my own business, maybe a restaurant at first, but the pandemic highlighted the flexibility of catering,” she said.
And she hasn’t looked back since.
She is “blessed” to have three full-time employees, and a pool of 15 to 18 part-time staff, some of whom worked for her at Cardinal, she said.
Million added that she goes out of her way to let her staff know how much she respects and appreciates them.
Friends and family help when needed at large events.
Local remains her priority, whenever possible, including vegetables from Holland Marsh, and meats from an Italian family on Highway 27 near Cookstown, Million said.
“We really try to give people a local experience.”
Her love of “natural” and creating new experiences is also evident in the presentation of her food, with displays that include greenery and live-edge boards and planks that are made locally.
“My artistic ability is making food look pretty,” she added with a smile.
“It’s about food that makes people just feel good… My style is about making food look beautiful, having great flavours and making people feel very satisfied when they’re done eating it, almost giving them a connection to their own family or a memory.”
Million said she is always learning, from friends who are chefs and cookbooks, and researching online to incorporate new trends and experiences.
“I’m always trying to evolve and re-invent, it’s important to me, but also for keeping my staff engaged. Especially on the culinary side, you always want to be learning, you always want new opportunities.”
She intends to continue to grow her business, and while currently her firm is based in her home near Bradford — they always wanted to live “in the country” — she is looking for a separate, larger location in Newmarket.
“This is my core,” she added.
If she can “find the right place,” she is envisioning not only a kitchen, but a place for pop ups, brunches, private events, cooking classes and team training.
But no matter how her business grows, you will always find her in the kitchen, her “happiest place” — making everything from scratch.