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Be seen, not heard: A day in the life of a private chef |

Be seen, not heard: A day in the life of a private chef

| Saturday, May 11, 2013 7:27 p.m
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Chris Cunningham works as a personal chef for a Pittsburgh area family.

My boss is a billionaire. While most people don’t know even one billionaire, I have had the unique experience of working for four of them. I am a private chef.

Working for the wealthy, being completely engrossed in someone else’s lifestyle, is a complicated experience. It is liberating to be able to practice your craft without most financial constraints, but being part of the household and day-to-day lives of the wealthy is a position of trust that has its own burdens and trials.

Most days, I work in the main house of my employer, a sprawling estate of nine bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, a library, two great rooms, living and sitting rooms, a dining room that comfortably seats 30, and of course, the kitchen. Initially, working here was a bit surreal — I mean, 14 bathrooms? Eventually, the house became my job, my office, just like anyone else’s place of business, but occasionally I am reminded of how different my job really is. For example, when my wife and I are invited to use the private jet to go to New York City, or my parents are invited to come spend a week on the yacht, everything becomes surreal all over again.

My employer, Mr. W., is a businessman. Think of telecommunications, tools and healthcare products: The major companies that come to mind were most likely founded, bought, sold or grown nationally in some capacity by Mr. W.

Mr. and Mrs. W. have three children. Michael is in his second year at a college out of state, Cameron is in the 11th grade, and Clare is a high school freshman. I’ve been cooking for this family since the children were very young.

Organization and preparation are large parts of my daily activity. Today when I arrive at work, I unload seven sizable shopping bags and sprawl their contents across the custom marble countertops. It’s 2 o’clock on Friday afternoon. I am working on my menu plan for tonight and the weekend.

I peer at my prep list and call Mrs. W.’s assistant, Staci, to find out the family’s schedules and determine when and what to feed them. Staci gives me the rundown. “Mrs. W. will eat at 6:30 with Cameron. Clare has an evening ride with the horse trainer, so she will need to eat at 5:30. Mr. W. is flying in from New York City after a meeting; he probably won’t be in until 7:30 or 8:00, depending on weather. He said he would call you from the plane.”

I thank Staci and continue unloading bags and mentally constructing menus. Everyone in the family eats something different. In the 20 years I have been a private chef, I have very seldom prepared one meal at one time for a family. There is no dinner bell that rings to announce the formal meal, with everyone appearing in the dining room. Due to various schedules, food preferences, diets and health needs, I usually provide individual meals for each family member.

Tonight, Clare will have cheese ravioli with a traditional puttanesca sauce consisting of finely chopped shallots, garlic, peeled and seeded Roma tomatoes, anchovies, capers, aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil. She will also have the family recipe Caesar salad.

For Cameron, I will do something completely different. Cameron has turned into a bit of a foodie after three trips to Paris in the last two years. He has developed a taste for truffles. Since I’m already making ravioli for Clare, I’ll prepare a specialty ravioli for Cameron with assorted forest mushrooms, truffles, fine herbs, mascarpone and ricotta cheeses and a simple browned butter sauce with julienne sage. I’ll also section a small veal tenderloin into medallions, sear them off, and serve them with a white wine, roasted garlic cream reduction and some haricots verts. To complete the meal, I will also make a composed salad of potato ribbons (thin peels of potato sautéed in grapeseed oil till brown), aged chèvre, baby lettuces, arugula and mache, tossed in a hazelnut balsamic vinaigrette.

And although Mrs. W. will be eating with Cameron, she will also require something different. Trying to maintain a healthy diet, Mrs. W. prefers simple and “cleanly” prepared food. No heavy sauces, breading or fried foods; just simple, minimal recipes. I’ve cleaned a whole bronzini, which I season inside with salt and ground pepper, stuff with freshly cut leeks, fennel, lemon and herbs. I tie it with some cotton twine and rub a bit of fresh olive oil over the skin. I then chill it to be baked just before service. Mrs. W. will take the haricots verts with this dish also, and I’ll add a whole-grain brown rice or quinoa to complete the dish.

Finally, I plan Mr. W.’s meal. After a long trip (he’s been to Seattle, Washington D.C. and New York City over the last three days), I’m thinking comfort food. On this trip, Mr. W. has been eating in the best restaurants and has probably had it with rich food and lengthy business conversations. I’ll do a burger or a grilled chicken breast with simple sautéed vegetables and some bread, maybe a Caesar salad as well. No matter how delicious, no one can eat heavy, sauce-laden food on a daily basis. Sometimes people just want a burger or a plain piece of fish with lemon, maybe with potato chips on the side.

As I am finishing the evening menus, the phone rings. The display reads “Restricted Number.” “Hey, Mr. W., what’s up?” I ask, then listen. “OK, 8 o’clock sounds fine. I figured that was on the menu. Chips or fries? Ruffles it is. OK, thanks.” I hang up. It pays to know your people. Mr. W.’s meal confirmed: check.

I finish peeling and chopping an assortment of vegetables — a mélange of carrots, daikon radish, celery, zucchini, tomatoes — and arrange them in plastic ziplock bags, lined up in the pull-out Sub-Zero refrigerator drawer, labeled and dated. I wash and chop, or tear and spin the assorted lettuces — radicchio, butter, mache, arugula and romaine — some for the salads at dinner tonight and some for weekend prep.

As a private chef, obtaining a variety of quality ingredients can be challenging. Unlike the restaurant world, Sysco deliveries don’t show up at the back door of private residences. I have to visit the local grocery store and pick through what’s in the bin to find the best product sold to the general public. I always try to cultivate relationships with the heads of the various departments to procure the best products; however, if I want any specific, high-end ingredients, like Russian caviar or a rare, aged balsamic, I have to order it from specialty food sources and have it shipped to the house.

I shop for the ingredients I want to work with and, perhaps more importantly, what I know my employers like. This can take some research, but it more often depends on experience and intuition. After working for five different families, I am familiar with most food preferences and requirements. Chicken fingers become cassoulet as the kids grow up, low-carb meals become spa cuisine as diet trends crop up or fade away. I can change any menu or dish on the fly and often do. Sometimes family members request a meal ahead of time, but usually my menu is based on the best seasonal products available.

Occasionally, my employer’s health concerns force a specific diet. A previous employer had a heart transplant and couldn’t have any grapefruit, shellfish or wheat. Considering that this gentleman was worth over 6 billion dollars and owned two islands, three yachts, three planes, professional basketball and hockey teams, and a company that employed tens of thousands of people, the prospect of accidentally killing him with a grapefruit sorbet intended to clear his pallet created more than a little pressure during menu-planning time.

At 3 o’clock, I begin preparing the pasta dough for the ravioli. The dough has to rest in the refrigerator at least an hour before rolling out. I measure out the flour, grab the eggs, and toss it all into the food processor. (I know many pasta traditionalists are cringing at the thought of the food processor, but I try to save a little time when I can.) It spins around for a minute as I splash a little water through the feed on top of the machine, just enough for the contents inside to form a ball and begin to vibrate the food processor off the counter, making a loud commotion.

“What’s going on in there?” Mrs. W. inquires from the next room.

“Pasta,” I yell back. “Sorry for the noise.”

This is another unique aspect of being a private chef. Many times your boss is working, conversing, or simply living right next to you. I had to make this adjustment the hard way: My first private chef position took me from the Ritz Carlton Hotel kitchen line into the president’s residence at American University. The culture shock was enormous. One day I was prepping banquet food for 800, and the next, I was passing out stuffed figs at a private lunch reception, watching King Hussein of Jordan jump out from behind a door to surprise his daughter at her college graduation. There was a substantial learning curve, to say the least, not just in cooking but also in etiquette, culture and professional expectations.

I dust the counter with a toss of flour, knead the pasta dough for six to eight minutes, separate it into three equal-sized balls, flatten them, wrap them in plastic, and put them into the fridge. Then, I prepare the stuffing for both types of ravioli. First I make simple cheese stuffing of ricotta, aged Chevre and a mild French brie. Then I grab the leftover forest mushrooms, chop them finely, and then add a little mascarpone cheese, black truffle pieces, ricotta and an egg yolk just to bind everything together. Next I’ll chiffonade some sage, which I’ll serve with the browned butter and later a garnish of the sliced truffles to complete the dish. I proceed to program one of the two German-built, overly complicated wall ovens to 350 degrees. Sometimes cooking a rib roast requires almost as much effort as piloting the space shuttle.

I slice off the bottoms of six bulbs of garlic, rub them in olive oil, and set them on a tray to roast and soften for the garlic cream sauce that will complement the veal medallions. Next, I grab a thick-bottom copper saucepan from the custom, hand-carved maple-and-brass pot rack above my head, add some whipping cream to it, and reduce it by half. I put white wine and chopped shallots into another pan to reduce also, and eventually combine the crème, the reduced wine and shallots and the roasted garlic. I clean and slice the veal tenderloin into medallions. I’ll get five or six cuts from this piece — more than a serving, but I can save what is left over for sauce, stuffing or garnish later.

My focus is broken by the doorbell, which screeches like an elementary school fire alarm over the intercom system and pulls my attention away from the various items occupying all six stovetop burners. I go to the door. Daniel the electrician — the man responsible for dumbing down the smart technology for the rest of us — has arrived. “What doesn’t work now?” I inquire.

“Phone in the stable office is on the blink again. Makes some weird chirping noise and scares the hell out of the horses.”

Interruptions are commonplace in this environment, and concentrating can be challenging. When I was working for another family on their classic 50-year-old yacht, I was constantly dealing with events that would seem unusual to the traditional chef. The galley moved with the waves of the ocean, I was often pulled away from cooking to help tie up the boat, and there were constant issues with water availability, power and storage space. Change was the true constant. Preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for five crew members and up to 20 guests was a daunting task. Eighteen-hour days were the norm, but maintaining five-star standards was expected even during the unexpected storm, fire or engine mishap.

Four o’clock already. I tend to the simmering puttanesca sauce on the back burner and give a stir to my two weekend soups bubbling away (Caribbean black bean and what will become vichyssoise potato-and-leek soup) I roll out the chilled pasta dough with the Italian pasta roller clamped to the counter. I fashion a peasant-style ravioli by placing a dollop of stuffing just off-center, about an inch apart, down the length of the rolled out dough. Next I fold the dough lengthwise, cut between each dollop and crimp the three exposed edges with a fork. I then place the ravioli on a couple of floured sheet pans and divide them between the fridge for service and freezer for storage. I set the kitchen table for three, even though everyone will eat at a different time. Oh yes, I’m also the waiter. Mr. W. will probably eat in his office, because he won’t be home until after everyone else has finished.

I step back at this point and take stock of where I am. The puttanesca sauce is finished, as are the now cooling soups for the weekend, the roasted garlic cream sauce, the sautéed potato ribbons and the baby lettuces and hazelnut balsamic dressing. Both ravioli for dinner are in the fridge, joined by the stuffed fish, salads to be plated and six trimmed veal medallions.

The phone rings, and I again read “Restricted Number” across the display. “Hi, Boss,” I answer.

“Mrs. W. is going out with her sister after she eats tonight,” he says, “so I invited the boys, Jim and Henry, for dinner. Can you throw something together for them?”

As usual, the only certainty is uncertainty. “Still about 8:00?” I ask.

“More like 8:30, I think.”

“No problem, see you then,” I say, hanging up the phone.

It’s not up to Mr. W. to know his guests’ preferences; it’s up to me. The “boys” are Mr. W.’s high school buddies, and I know what they like. Henry can have the cheese ravioli like Clare, and I’ll just add a little sautéed lobster tail. For Jim, the cheese ravioli won’t work, since he’s on an unfortunate low-carb diet. I’ll make him a Maryland-style crab cake: He used to live in Baltimore, and I know it will be a treat. Jumbo lump, a little béchamel sauce to bind, seasoning and just a few Panko crumbs added without breaking up the lumps. A quick white wine beurre blanc with a splash of lemon, and they’re done. Three Caesar salads will complete this third seating.

By now it’s 5:15. To finish preparing Clare’s meal, I warm the puttanesca sauce, drop the ravioli in the boiling water, and toss the Caesar salad in a large wooden bowl with the homemade dressing and freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese and a little black pepper. Adding a splash of pasta water to thin the sauce, I fish out each ravioli with a slotted spoon and dab off the excess water with a clean towel. In the pasta bowl, I ladle a base layer of sauce, then place three ravioli on top with a little sauce again to finish. Clare descends from upstairs dressed in her riding habit. She grabs the tray full of food and off she goes.

“Thanks, Chris!” Her voice trails off down the long marble hallway. After she finishes eating, she returns her dishes to the counter and runs out the door with two apples in her hand, one for her and the other for her horse.

Mrs. W. and Cameron arrive around 6 o’clock. “I think we’ll eat in the library tonight,” Mrs. W. says. She and Cameron are already engrossed in conversation, speaking in low tones, with their backs to me. This is my cue to get dinner ready quickly and make myself scarce.

Working right in the middle of a private family — any family — can be uncomfortable at times. Before I was hired, Mrs. W. told me clearly: You will see us argue and scream right in front of you, sometimes at you. I have discovered if I turn on the hood over the stove (it sounds like an F-15 leaving an aircraft carrier), I can hide in my own personal cone of silence. It’s protection for both me and the family. Privacy is at a premium for a family of this means. Surrounding yourself with all the finer pleasures requires surrounding yourself with people to maintain those pleasures. Throughout the day, there is always someone walking through the house adjusting, cleaning or repairing something. As evening approaches, I am one of the few staff left on the property. As the immediate family converges to discuss the day, I am compelled to ignore much of what I hear and see. My job requires me to be as unintrusive as possible. It can take a great deal of effort to simply do your job.

My service style and family interaction does vary with the personalities and situations around me. Sometimes I am coolly professional, other times I will share bar stories and tell bad jokes. I’m always a valued part of the household, but I am also aware that I am an employee first. It’s important to know where the line is and not to cross it. I don’t care how much a part of the family you think you are, if you inadvertently sicken a child with salmonella or run over a cat in the driveway, you’re history.

After pouring drinks and serving the salads, I finish Mrs. W.’s and Cameron’s meals. I take the fish from the oven, slice it down the back, remove the head, and carefully open it up. I’ll remove the bones and plate the fish with a timbale of brown rice and haricots verts, adding fresh Meyer lemons and fennel fronds to finish: simple and clean. Completing Cameron’s plate, I remove the sauté pan with the seared veal medallions from the oven, deglaze the hot pan with a little white wine to mix with the juices, and reduce and pour in some of the warm garlic cream. I boil off the truffle ravioli and brown some butter, adding the fresh chiffonade of sage to complete the sauce. Once I plate the veggies with the veal and fill a pasta bowl with the ravioli, service is complete for this round.

Because I’m in a good spot with some time to spare, I do a quick clean up. I line up a group of various-sized glass storage containers on the counter. In addition to the soups, fresh fruit, assorted berries and lettuces, I have prepared some items to serve as sandwiches or with salad: shrimp, chicken, egg salad, jumbo lump crab, steamed lobster. Everything is labeled and refrigerated. I constantly have to keep up with the dirty dishes, scrub out my pots and pans, and run anything else through one of the three dishwashers. I dry and put away what I can, and then I reset the library dining table for Mr. W. and his friends.

At 7:45, I sear off the crab cakes, then thaw and marinate the lobster tail in olive oil, garlic and lemon zest. I patty a ground sirloin burger and ready the grill outside. At 8 o’clock, I get a phone call from the co-pilot of Mr. W.’s plane, informing me they have just landed and are expecting to be home by 8:30. I clean some more and wait, then prep the Caesar salads. Mr. W.’s driver calls from the car to let me know he is 10 minutes away. I grill the burger, finish cooking the crab cakes, remove the lobster tail from the marinade and sauté it with whole butter and a splash of sherry. Mr. W. prefers asparagus to green beans, so I peel, blanch, and sauté those as well.

The boys and Mr. W. tend to be informal. They crack jokes, relive high school, and lament lost loves and the old neighborhood. When they all arrive, sit down at the table and exchange greetings, Mr. W. says, “Chris, I know it’s late; just bring everything at once so you can get out of here.” A welcome phrase and greatly appreciated.

While my dishwashers are buzzing and sloshing, I have a good window to wipe down the countertops, cabinets, stove, floor, kitchen table and all the brass on the door handles: Fingerprints show up here prominently if I have to let the dog out with wet or oily hands. As it creeps toward 9:45, I collect the garbage from around the kitchen, replenish all the drinks in the fridge, do a once-over on my weekend provisions and a final check of my lists before leaving.

Being employed as a private chef has afforded me some privileges while working on the fringe of the truly privileged. Though my surroundings are glamorous, working as a private chef on a yacht, an island or within a palatial estate is a demanding job. The relationship with the family can be like making a hollandaise: mixing too much or not enough can have undesired effects. Be seen but not heard. Be understanding but not intrusive or meddling. Remember you are in someone’s private home first, but in a strange way, you are treating them like a guest. I have to be professional, but in a way different from a restaurant job. In a restaurant, the employer/employee relationship boundaries are very distinct; here I work next to my boss in his bathrobe and slippers playing with Legos with his grandkids. It’s his home and his guard is down. I must respect that.

My workday has ended, and it is time to leave this family and return to my own. On my way home, I will stop at the local dive bar, a neighborhood establishment I know well. I will sit at a corner table and sip a cold India Pale Ale. As I look around at the patrons, loud, drunk, smoking and swearing, I will think about the fact that I live in two completely different worlds. It’s a fine line to navigate, but for now I will continue to balance these two worlds. As foreign as they are to each other, they are both home to me.

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