Private World of a Private Chef

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO COOK FOR THE RICH AND/OR FAMOUS? EAST REPORTS FROM BEHIND CLOSED KITCHEN DOORS

The life of a private chef can be lucrative, gratifying, and creative. It can also be crushingly lonely, stultifyingly boring, even absurd. 

A lot of private chefs come from the restaurant world, having burned out on long days, longer nights, the stress of working on the line, no free weekends or holidays, and, occasionally, low pay. A private chef is only as good as his or her ability to be just that: private. Confidentiality agreements are signed and honored in perpetuity. You do not reveal household squabbles to The New York Post’s Page Six, nor do you balk at making chicken fingers and customized ice creams for the little darlings. A dinner for four could turn into 20, Fifi and Fido may require Fiji water and filet mignon. It’s all in a day’s work.

Here are some tales from private chefs’ lives, one client’s perspective, the opinions of a professional who places private chefs in the Hamptons, and some tidbits from my own experience of cooking for Alec Baldwin.

Kevin Penner is a name familiar to many on the East End. For years he worked as executive chef in some of the finest restaurants on the South Fork: Della Femina, Cittanuova, and the 1770 House. The identities of his current employers must be kept a secret.

“I miss the camaraderie in the setting, but not much else,” he says of the restaurant life. “There are some private chef jobs that are very much like restaurant chef jobs — running a staff, managing inventory, creating menus, costing dishes, and so on. There are some jobs that involve a little bit more: nutritional analysis, cooking for dietary restrictions, and other medical considerations. All of the jobs are different, and the trick is to find one that suits both the chef and the client.”

Penner works a civilized five days per week, even in summer, and he oversees his employers’ spectacular 36-plot garden, with fruits and vegetables on rotation through the seasons, providing as many as 70 to 80 crops to work with daily in the kitchen. “We grow all the staple items, like herbs, onions, shallots, tomatoes, eggplant, and other crops that see a lot of daily use. Some of the more esoteric items include lemongrass, alfalfa, chickweed, sorrel, flax, clover, and artichokes. I cook them in all manners — with flavors from around the world.”

Lunch is usually a simple meal of a salad, a vegetable dish, and whole grilled fish. Dinners can be more elaborate, so during the day he works on that, along with making pizza dough to freeze, charcuterie projects, and long-simmering stock on the stove. In addition to a traditional stove, he uses a combination of “live-fire cooking, wood-burning pizza oven, wood-burning or charcoal grill, and a yakitori grill using binchotan charcoal from Japan.” He also does sous-vide cooking, uses a smoker, ferments and pickles (doesn’t freeze much food), and makes his own vinegar. A large, unexpected crowd doesn’t faze him a bit because he used to serving between 200 and 400 people a night in the restaurant world. There are no recipe files or menu books; it’s all in his head. Lucky, lucky anonymous clients!

Mark Sanne, who cooks for various well-known (but also anonymous) clients in the city and out east, comes from a different background. He has worked in retail, taught cooking, and has his own line of dried spices and herbs called Global Palate. His food is exquisite, and he makes soufflés. He won’t dish on anyone’s private lives, but recalls fondly meeting Julie Andrews at a wedding he once catered and admits he got to meet Elizabeth Taylor during her Larry Fortensky years. She apparently got her nightgown stuck in a screen door and was whimpering “help, help” for quite a while until she was rescued. He found her utterly charming and lovely.

Sanne is always prepared with extra food for extra company and keeps the pantry stocked with staples like farro and pasta. There is also always a vegetarian option if needed. His East End days will begin with a shopping trip to Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett for fish and various farm stands for vegetables, including Balsam Farms in Amagansett and the Green Thumb in Water Mill. After lunch he heads back out to the markets to begin again for dinner.

He misses the social aspects of retail and doing cooking demos, but finds the creativity of being a private chef very fulfilling. “Food is such a personal thing. You also have a very intimate relationship with the client, since you are privy to so many details of that person’s life. Some of my clients have very adventurous palates, some are reluctant to go too ethnic. Most are not trendy.”

Does he ever make mistakes? Burn a soufflé? Forget the roast? “I am obsessive and meticulous, I never forget something in the oven. Yes, there have been times when the power went out or the barbecue had no gas. We cooked by candlelight, and it was fine.”

He never gets bored, loves to cook on his days off, and gets several months of vacation per year.

His words for young newbie or wannabe private chefs? “They think it’s glamorous and they’ll make $100,000 per year and then get a TV show. It takes a long time, many years of experience. You’re anonymous as a private chef. You can’t have a big ego. It’s not about you, it’s about your client, their taste, and their friends. It’s your job to make them look good.”

 Have any guests at one of his dinner parties ever tried to poach him away? “Yes. But I am loyal to my number-one client and have been for 24 years.”

I spoke with a person who specializes in placing private chefs and butlers throughout the region. He said that times have changed, with the “new money.” Few private chefs are as lucky as Sanne, with his working relationship with one family. Some customers wait until the last minute to hire a chef, in the way that some weekenders wait until the last minute for a summer rental, in the hope that prices will drop. Other clients are less interested in food than in diet trends. “They only want kale, healthy stuff,” he sniffs. “In the old days we placed French chefs who would prepare beautiful gourmet meals, and they were paid well for it. Nowadays, the chefs are younger, less experienced, and make half the money. But that’s okay for a family that just wants lighter, less-complicated fare.”

Christopher Polidoro is another chef who comes from a background of Long Island restaurants: He’s a veteran of Nick and Toni’s, Yama Q, and 95 School Street, among others. He recently moved to Florida to open his own place, Restaurant Doro in Neptune Beach. For 12 years, when he was between restaurants, he cooked for a well-known news anchor who, naturally, shall remain nameless. He developed a wonderful friendship with the entire family and it continues to this day. Respect. 

Polidoro points out that in a restaurant you have a set menu, “but as a private chef, every meal is different. I had some staples, but for the most part it was based on what the stores, stands, and markets had. I’d shop twice a day, and there was a lot of improv. In a private home you don’t have the team atmosphere, you’re alone. If you’re lucky, you form a bond with the housekeeper and nannies, and they become your dining staff and kitchen peers. Another major difference was the hours. In a restaurant it’s 10 to 12-hour days. I managed to get my private chef hours down to four by pushing my limits and creating my own stress to duplicate the restaurant-kitchen atmosphere. The pay is higher as a private chef, and you don’t have to be concerned with food cost.”

For the first six years or so he traveled with the family on vacation, which sometimes included a stay in a grand villa with a chef already in residence, who may or may not have appreciated an interloper. So after a while, Polidoro would get his own paid vacations. The family always ate meals together, the children ate what was served, and occasionally they could choose the menu, and everyone would eat what the kids had picked. Dutch dishes were often served, along with coq au vin, chicken liver en croute, gringo tacos, and pad thai. Desserts like puddings, custards, and sundaes were always a hit.

Polidoro kept a collage-style journal/menu book for the entire 12 years he worked for these clients and he presented it to the family upon his departure to open his own restaurant.

For six months around 1999, I cooked for Alec Baldwin. The assignment was simple. I cooked vegetarian lunches and dinners at home and delivered them to Alec’s house. He had six months to lose 20 pounds with my cooking and a fitness trainer in order to play Lt. Col. James Doolittle in the movie Pearl Harbor. He was an absolute delight to work for, funny as hell, generous, and relaxed. On some days he would just stand in the doorway with me, chatting and wolfing down whatever marinated tofu or brown rice goop I had delivered. His wife at the time, Kim Basinger, was beautiful and quiet. His daughter, Ireland (around 5 at the time), was fascinated by the fact that I lived in a pink house by the sea and always asked me about it.

I’ll never forget the kindness of Colin Mather, the owner of the Wainscott Seafood Shop. Several days a week I would show up in the parking lot 20 minutes before opening and he would always let me in to pick out some fresh tuna or striped bass for that day’s lunch or dinner.

Occasionally I would get long telephone messages from Alec, requesting extra citrus dressing and the recipe for his sister, or “Hey, that flounder dish was great” or “Could we have an extra quart of corn chowder for the weekend” or whatever. I would listen to the messages several times because, well, that voice. That voice. Hubba, hubba.

But one day I committed a grievous error. The message went along the lines of this: “Hey, Laura, it’s Alec. I’m not sure if I remembered to tell you: I f*cking hate small shrimp. Don’t ever give me f*cking small shrimp again. I f*cking hate them. Okay, see you tomorrow. Bye.” My recipe and menu folder was henceforth titled “No f*cking small shrimp.” At the end of my tour of duty, Baldwin presented me with a dark turquoise cashmere sweater with a note that said it matched the color of my eyes. It was signed “Much love, Alec.” Swoon.

What is it like from the other perspective, that of clients who bring a chef into their home, forever or just for a season, whom they hope they can trust with not just food, but discretion, honesty, and privacy?

I interviewed a friend who has invited in a private chef for many years. I have dined at the house on occasion, and it is always a relaxed buffet, with emphasis on local, light ingredients. The family usually starts looking for a summer chef in February, through ads in The East Hampton Star, culinary schools, and East End farms. The chef is well paid, prepares only lunch and dinner, gets a car and room and board, and works Thursdays through Sundays. If the chef is from out of town, they show him or her around, educating them about seasonal fish, perhaps take them on a visit to Amber Waves and Quail Hill to see what’s good there, and so on. 

Are there any special meals prepared for children or grandchildren? “No, this is not a restaurant and that’s not how we raise our grandchildren. We’re not fussy eaters, we just like to go with the flow and taste different things. We’ll have barbecues and tacos for the family.” 

Has there ever been a failure in the kitchen? “Not really, but one time we asked a chef to make a paella, and it was pretty clear from the results that he had no idea what paella was. It was good, but it definitely was not a paella!”

If you are, or have been, a private chef, you already know it can be lonely yet creative, a wonderful career for someone who loves to cook. If you are someone who has private chefs, or has hired one in the past, I hope you treat them with respect, pay them handsomely, and allow them to spread their culinary wings for you.

 

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CHRIS POLIDORO’S STAMPPOT ANDIJVIE

(serves four as an appetizer)

 

1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes

1/2 head curly endive

1 cup bacon cut into thick lardons

4 Tbsp. butter

1/4 cup milk

Salt

Rinse and shred the raw endive. Partially render the bacon lardons. Reserve rendered fat. Cook peeled potatoes and mash with masher. Fold in butter and milk. Fold in endive and half of the rendered lardons. Garnish with more lardons and a drizzle of reserved bacon fat. Side of brown gravy goes perfectly.

 

 

MARK SANNE’S FROZEN STRAWBERRY SOUFFLÉS (serves eight)

 

1 ½ cups fresh, puréed strawberries plus more to garnish

1 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice

2 Tbsp. Grand Marnier

⅔ cup sugar plus 3 Tbsp. extra for whipped cream

6 large egg whites, at room temperature

Pinch of cream of tartar

Pinch of salt

2 cups very cold heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks

8 small 4-oz ramekins with a 1”-parchment collar attached to them and sprayed with nonstick cooking oil.

 

In a bowl combine puréed strawberries, lemon juice, and Grand Marnier, and set aside. In a small, heavy sauce pan mix ⅔  cup sugar and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil, gently swirling the pan, and boil syrup until it reaches 238 degrees on a candy thermometer (the soft ball stage). 

Using electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt until they reach stiff peaks. With the mixer on medium, carefully pour the hot syrup in a stream onto the egg whites and continue to beat on high until the meringue is cooled and very stiff, about 10 to 15 minutes. 

In another bowl, beat the heavy cream with  remaining sugar until it holds soft peaks. Fold the cooled meringue gently into the strawberry purée and then gently but thoroughly fold in the whipped cream. Spoon the mixture into the prepared ramekins and, using a metal spatula, smooth the tops and place into the freezer for at least four hours.

Remove from freezer and place in the refrigerator 15 minutes to a half-hour before serving to soften slightly. Remove from the refrigerator, carefully peel off the parchment collars, and garnish with fresh strawberries, mint, and a dusting of powdered sugar.

Laura Donnelly