Chefs of the Rich & Famous

When Lisa Walker's weekly menu came spitting out of my fax machine I knew I was in immediate jeopardy of succumbing to intense culinary jealousy. A private chef, Walker prepares healthy gourmet meals five nights a week for an Atherton couple and their two children. Here's a sampling from her weekly offerings: poached salmon with sorrel sauce, hand-made ricotta and swiss chard ravioli, lemongrass and ginger soup followed by sesame-crusted shrimp and cilantro citrus salad. Lamb kebabs will be served on Friday, and how could I forget to mention the bruschetta with slow-roasted tomatoes?

 

It could work for me. Instead, because I don't have an extra 50K with which to hire my own version of an in-house food magician, it works for Mrs. X, who prefers not to be named because, she claims, there is something of a stigma about having a home chef.

 

"But it is fabulous. Lisa is terrific with the kids, she watches our diets for us and we absolutely love good food." Mrs. X notes that Lisa has become like a member of the family: she travels in tow as they follow the polo circuit to Palm Springs, Europe and Jackson Hole. "Also, we can entertain at home without having to leave the children or battle our way through restaurants. This is an ideal situation, one that I hope will last a long time."

 

Tall, tanned and slim, Walker, 30, a veteran of four years as a sous chef at L'Amie Donia in Palo Alto, hopes so, too. She is always impeccably dressed - white chef jacket or T-shirt, paired with white jeans - and can't say enough good things about her job or her employers, whose real estate affiliations afford them enough free time to travel and entertain frequently. Walker recently pulled off a barbecue for 200 guests, and, on a different night, served a grand meal on Limoges china - one plate alone costs $700. "The opportunity for growth in my field is right here," she enthuses, "I love my job." Restaurant work entails 12-14 hour shifts in a hot kitchen under intense pressure. Except for top chefs, most of the professionals who turn out award-winning food at even the best restaurants make less than the waiters who serve it - despite having spent about $30,000 attending a culinary academy. Sous chefs are allowed little creativity, and are expected to follow strict orders from the head chef.

 

Some highly qualified chefs are stuck at a "station" - making salads or appetizers - for years at a stretch.The pay incentive was also pushing Walker toward private employment. Like so many of her colleagues in the food industry, she found it a stretch to live in San Francisco on a sous chef's salary, which, on average, ranges from $28,000-$32,000 - a wage that is stretched cappellini-thin in this housing market. Private chefs salaries range from the mid $40,000s to the high $80,000s, a huge jump for most cooks who are abandoning restaurant work. Of course there are downsides to setting off to work alone. Walker enjoyed the intensity, teamwork and continuing education she received working at L'Amie Donia, but she was just plain exhausted.

 

"I didn't have a life outside work," she says. "When I heard of Four Star Private Chefs," she adds, noting the agency that is forefront in placing top culinary artists in the homes of wealthy food aficionados, "I called immediately. Within a week I was interviewing with several families.

 

"The gals behind Four Star know their industry, and it's a growing one. Cindy Race and Susan Flynn, private chefs themselves, have placed more than 30 of their colleagues in Bay Area homes. Race has been private cheffing for five years. Flynn formerly worked at several Bay Area restaurants, including a stint as executive chef at the Buffalo Grill, and has worked privately for four years. After a stint at a challenging job - the family was vegan, wheat allergic, and kept kosher - she is now working for a semi-retired Silicon Valley executive. "The chefs we meet are fed up with low salaries and high-powered work," says Race. "They can't afford to live in this city and do what they love to do, which is cook. With top line cooks and sous chefs earning $10 to $15 an hour, who can blame them for wanting to move on?"

 

A look at the local classifieds attests to the problem of finding willing kitchen workers in this economy. Even the best restaurants - both Acquerello and LuLu are currently advertising - are crying out for staff. A call to LuLu's kitchen manager gleaned this response: "I'm so busy looking for new staff, I don't have time to talk."Even with wages as they are and no shortage of employment opportunities, over at Four Star, Flynn and Race view themselves as "chef rescuers" as well as middlemen for families whose wants vary from house to house. Playing matchmaker is no easy task. Both chef and prospective client are analyzed by Race and Flynn. Interview questions range from expectations about the actual food that will be cooked to concerns about money, benefits or whether a uniform is required. Some homes are ultra-casual,others have more formal requirements for their home help.

 

Four Star attempts to get the real story from both parties, which includes gathering references and background checks on their chef hopefuls. Then, after a sample meal or two, when both parties see who's who and what's what, the pairing is finalized. Race and Flynn, who stand behind their matches with a year-long guarantee, have been mainly on the mark. "Good chefs don't always make good private chefs," Flynn notes. "They have to be self-motivated and have people skills."Four Star has placed an equal number of men and women in private homes. So far, only one chef has turned tail and headed back to the restaurant. A top talent, this chef was used to orchestrating 20 underlings and he missed the bustle and command of his former position.

 

After six months, he is leaving the private home in which he says he felt isolated and hampered. Private cheffing, Flynn adds,isn't about ego or pushing one's own culinary agenda. "The client is in charge, and sometimes that hurts the ego. Private chefs have to have the need to please.""Quality of life" seems to be the buzz phrase for both sides of the arrangement. The folks at home are getting good food without the stress of going out, which translates to more quality time with their families, while the chefs are benefiting from the same set-up. Michael Emanuel, 34, a former line chef in the cafe at Chez Panisse, takes his toddler to shop at the Berkeley's farmer's market before heading off to his job in the Oakland hills mid-afternoon.

 

"My son is getting a good education in food," he says, "and he knows the folks at all the shops."

 

By 7 p.m. he has a three-course dinner on the table for his employers, a working couple with two children. Emanuel's wife, Jenny, a former pastry chef, sometimes contributes her know-how or even hands-on expertise so that desserts are often a highlight."I miss the camaraderie at Chez Panisse," he says, carefully noting that chef Alice Waters treats her staff with great respect, "but now I spend time with my family, enjoy my creativity and make more money than I could have in the restaurant world."Salaries in home cheffing vary depending on the number of days worked and how much entertaining is involved. Emanuel's nightly routine varies; sometimes he'll be feeding only children, sometimes a house full of guests. Tonight's dinner, he reports, is just for the kids. "Pollo al Mattone, polenta, spring vegetables, a lemon tart." Tomorrow? "Duck breast and cornbread with spicy greens. "I wait for inspiration to hit while I'm shopping," he says. "Dinner depends on what's fresh."Most of the private chefs note that foraging is a real bonus of their jobs. In the restaurant world, discovering and then creating with the season's freshest ingredients is a part of the job usually reserved for only the highest on the totem pole.

 

Private chefs delight in this hands-on involvement in their art. Emanuel's employer, a working couple - the husband is an executive with a large multi-national corporation - appreciates the freshness of his daily specials, and indeed most everything about him, including that he is great with her kids, who can often be found "helping out" by prepping vegetables. "He's fun to have around the house," the woman of the house gushes, "it has been easier than I thought to make the move to having a full-time chef. Dinner time is enjoyable, everyone wants to be there," she adds, "and the food is so much better than I ever could do myself."Most chefs have a tight-lipped response when queried, even as to the names of their employers, but not Lucy Bowen Taylor, whose lauded boss is Joe Montana. But, staying true to the unwritten code of home help, she'll disclose little more than that he is great to work for and that she has met interesting people on the job. Bowen Taylor, 32, a perky Southerner, landed her job right out of culinary school. "I looked at my options, and home cheffing seemed good from both a financial and creative standpoint."She did a small party for another 49er, and picked up the phone one day to find Montana on the line, wanting to sign her up. They agreed on a four-day work week; she keeps her weekends open for additional clients. "It doesn't work every time," she says, adding that people are often a little taken aback by the cost of home cooking. She also cooks for a big wig developer, providing in-flight meals for his frequent commutes to Seattle in his private aircraft. Wine shopping is part of her job, as it is for most of the home chefs. The night we spoke, the Montana's would be enjoying a fine vintage along with Chilean sea bass with a Thai spice rub, green beans and baby basmati rice with coconut.

 

Signed on yet?Too bad Joe Simoni is already taken. Actually, he was poached. Simoni, 37, one of the stars of the PBS cooking show Chefs of Cucina Amori, was executive chef at Tosca, south of Boston, when he heard of a 10-day job cooking job on Nantucket between Christmas and New Years'. Almost before he knew it, he had quit his job and moved west to the family home in Woodside. It was an offer he couldn't refuse."Wonderful!" he says about the job, which, along with ample compensation, includes health benefits and lodging in the family's guest house. "I haven't cooked this much in years. As an executive chef my job was overseeing 300 dinners a night. Stress like you can't believe. Now I do what I love." Simoni's household, headed by an investment banker who once more will remain unnamed, includes kids "who can tell the difference between real parmesan cheese and the cheap stuff." Today's lunch, a slightly special affair for visiting New Yorkers: thin pastry filled with greens from the farmer's market and raisins, cool mint-pea soup, salad of three endives tossed with walnut oil and sherry vinegar, grilled bread with tomatoes and lemon zest and a crusted rhubarb and strawberry tart.It seems the home chef trend is a win-win for everyone except for those running the local restaurants who, in this crazy economy, are straining to fill their kitchens, if not their dining rooms.

 

Kitchen manager Gilbert Pilgrim said he and Alice Waters were initially quite concerned about good people such as Emanuel abandoning Chez Panisse."This trend does have an impact on us," he says. "We're never happy to see senior chefs go anywhere. But after much talking Alice and I realized this forces us to be better managers. It also means we will attract and keep better people, people who want to really learn as much as they can before moving on. There's no point in fighting it, in a very twisted way it works in our favor." Pilgrim says the career arc for a Chez Panisse senior chef has traditionally opened only two pathways. "After five or six years here, most see only two choices: move to another restaurant and sous chef, or open a small place themselves.

 

Private cheffing gives those who are wondering what they are going to do when they are 45 a third option. "In his last year with us, Michael (Emanuel) really paid a lot of attention to everything I did - the ordering, the menus - and I really benefited from his interest."Few on either side of the home chef employment equation have complaints. Most of the folks with enough dough to go after an experienced chef seem to have a healthy respect for the industry. Lisa Walker, chef for the Atherton polo-playing pack, can't say enough good things about her position. Her employers treat her to meals at top restaurants, while also treating her as a friend. "I expect to know this family beyond working for them," she says, "though I hope to work for them for a long time."Catherine Pantsios, a private chef and cooking teacher at Tante Marie's who ran Zola's for nine years and worked at Zuni before completely burning out, is currently working two days a week for a South Bay couple with children, though she may soon pick up additional clients. "I've heard a few horror stories,"she says, "of chefs who have been asked to walk the dog, but generally we are well respected."She recounts a story about the child of her employer introducing her to a school buddy. "This is our cook," he said to his pal. He was swiftly corrected by his mother. "No," she told him, "she is our chef."

 

Four Star Private Chefs can be reached at (650) 508-0322.

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