By Donna Cornelius
Ashley Tarver’s eyes light up when she talks about her new business. The Vestavia Hills native recently launched Domestica, which offers meal prep, kitchen reorganization and even grocery shopping.
“I’m a private chef without the expense,” she said.
Tarver isn’t one to shy away from new adventures. Before starting Domestica, she sharpened her culinary skills in exotic places, worked at a restaurant on a private island and at nationally recognized Highlands Bar and Grill and owned her own olive oil company.
Recently, she had to take a journey of a different sort – one that was so emotionally tough she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep on cooking.
Traveling the World
Tarver didn’t always plan to have a culinary career. She is a graduate of Rhodes College, which she attended with the intention of going on to law school. A semester abroad in Spain led her to get a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature, and she studied Greek and Roman art history and philosophy at the University of Oxford in England.
“I moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at a literacy nonprofit,” Tarver said. “It was the best and easiest job I’ve ever had. We were done by about 10:30 in the morning, everyone was young, we had fun in the city – and I realized I didn’t want to go to law school.”
When she returned home to Birmingham, Tarver decided to follow a new path.
“I told my parents, ‘I’m going to Argentina to cooking school,’” she said. “I had spent a summer in Argentina in college. I was 24 or 25 at the time and didn’t want to do a three-year culinary program, and this was an intense program that was for one year. I packed my bags and went.”
A Dutch friend she had made at the cooking school had gone to Spain to work at high-profile restaurants. Inspired by his experience, Tarver got out her suitcases again.
“I went to San Sebastián and worked at two different three Michelin-starred restaurants,” she said. “That was an incredible experience. We worked 16 hours a day. We got room and board, and I lived with nine guys above a mechanic’s shop. We had bunk beds and no other furniture except what we found on the street.”
Despite the hard work and no-frills living quarters, Tarver said she’s grateful for the experience.
“It taught me a work ethic that I never would have known,” she said. “It was hard, but it was fun. I made lifelong friends from all around the world.”
After that, Tarver worked at a restaurant on a private island in the Florida Keys and then at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, where she said she “learned so much” from owners Frank and Pardis Stitt. She then catered for about a year – which is when her first company was born. Copper Pot Kitchen offered infused olive oils in flavors that Tarver had learned to love during her travels and that she often used in her own cooking.
Alabama Goods in Homewood was the first store to carry Copper Pot Kitchen products.
“I grew the business from being in one store to 200 stores across the Southeast,” she said.
Heartbreak and Healing
Tarver said that, up until that point, her career had been going in an upward direction.
“Then I fell off a cliff,” she said.
The most trying experience of her life started with an offer to invest in her olive oil business.
“I was approached by this gentleman and sold a percentage of the olive oil company to him,” she said. “He was very gung-ho about opening a restaurant. I was a little reticent at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. Pepper Place was where I wanted to be, and we found a space and signed a lease. We did a ton of work – and by ‘we,’ I mean ‘I.’”
Tarver chose the name Za’atar for the restaurant because she intended for it to highlight Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors with a focus on world spices.
“We were 90 days from opening,” she said. “The furniture was in a warehouse, the kitchen equipment was ordered, the paint was picked out, and we had the design completed. I even had people making reservations.
“When it came time to choose who would do the build-out, my business partner became very hard to get in touch with.” When she did get in touch with him, she said, “He told me he was out – with no explanation.”
Because her business partner had invested in the olive oil company, Tarver lost that as well as the restaurant.
“The most difficult moment was when I had to go and sit down with a table full of lawyers and sign away our space,” she said. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
Tarver said she had to make tough decisions about her next step.
“I didn’t want to be consumed by this,” said Tarver. “So I let it go.”
Tarver said she was devastated by the experience and “spent a lot of time trying to heal.”
“I was fairly certain I would never cook again,” she said. “My heart was broken.”
During that time, friends and family tried to lift her spirits.
“There were some amazing people who supported me, who were there for me,” Tarver said. “There are really good people in this town.”
A New Direction
A friend’s request for help gave Tarver the idea for Domestica.
“She was taking care of her mother and asked if I’d do a week’s worth of food for them,” she said. “Of course, I said yes. I put on music, cooked in her kitchen – and knew I still loved cooking. I started cooking for people again privately.”
She said Domestica is “a result of what that friend asked me to do – to come to her house, organize the kitchen and cook.”
“It occurred to me that a lot of people might need this kind of thing,” Tarver said. “It’s fun to create a menu, cook and organize kitchens so they’re efficient.”
She thinks her business will provide valuable services for a variety of people, including busy families, those taking care of older relatives and parents with a new baby.
“I’ll clean out the fridge, freezer and pantry,” she said. “Everybody has that 8-year-old jar of jelly in their pantry.”
Her services are customized, so she can make dinners for a week, follow dietary restrictions and food preferences, shop for groceries and even handle small parties. She’s partnered with Classic Wine Co. in Homewood to offer the service of pairing wines with meals and to host private events.
She said one of the perks of Domestica appeals to her love of hitting the road.
“I have a couple of families I travel with,” she said. “That’s awesome. I did a long birthday weekend at the beach with different themed menus, like Mexican night with homemade margaritas.”
Despite the heartache of her experience with the restaurant, Tarver said she has no regrets.
“I learned about empathy and kindness as well as failure,” she said. “You can be bitter and angry, or you can choose to laugh and find joy. That’s why the simplicity of being in someone’s kitchen and making food for them is so appealing right now. Most people who cook don’t do it for money or fame – they do it to show love, to take care of other people.”
Tarver has another project in the works, too. She’s working on a cookbook proposal and said it’s been accepted by an agent, who will market it to publishers.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said. “That book will be my tribute to Za’atar and what I would have done there.”
For more information about Domestica, call 641-3621 or send an email to Tarver at firstname.lastname@example.org.