For one year, I was a private chef. I was also a food writer. And something between a friend and a girlfriend. And a daughter and sister and friend, too. And someone who pretended she didn’t have a chronic illness, and so could be all of these things at once.
I look back at this time – over five years ago now – with mingling jealousy and regret for that former self. Yes, her choices to overwork and (in response) not take great care of her body then triggered worsening health issues that haven’t really stopped since. But looking back, I also see how much she did — the stories she wrote, the meals she cooked, the miles she drove, the love she made, the risks she dove into head first.
Yes — I whisper to myself now, from the isolated space in which I work and live today — she lived. Oh, she lived.
The following story was slated for print publication shortly after I left that private chef gig. It ended up getting killed when the column switched editor hands or something like that. Eventually, it got published in essay form elsewhere. But I unearthed it recently when digging into old file. I appreciated the walk down memory lane. I’ve only slightly trimmed it. Just for fun.
Where were you, five years ago?
Private Chef Confessions
I never foresaw a career for myself as a private chef. I was an educated artist — a workaholic writer and bookish actor with a decent deal of success under my belt. But the instability of the artist’s paycheck had worn me down over the years. So when the chance came to sweet talk my (admittedly solid) skills into a gig as the chef of a wealthy Manhattan family with three homes and high expectations, I jumped.
The starting salary was more than I’d ever made as an artist. I set my own menus and dove head first into managing a very particular household, learning through trial by fire. And because of the level of intimacy necessary between client and chef, I was privy to some juicy insights into the human psyche.
All private chefs are. No, we don’t make a habit of spilling stories, but we do recognize the absurdity of the upstairs/downstairs paradigm.
One mid-summer weekend, my clients had a gaggle of guests staying at their Hamptons home, for whom I cooked three meals daily. I’d awake at dawn, exhausted from the late night before, and groggily run to the local market for hot pastries and the daily papers I’d set amongst an elaborate spread ready before anyone else awoke. I’d set up the fancy espresso machine that, for some reason, most guests needed several lessons to understand. Anytime between nine and noon, a dozen people could be milling around the table. One memorable morning, I was racing between the espresso machine and the refrigerator and the four burners blasting eggs in various stages when: “Jacqueline, darling, can you please cut my bagel? I’m so bad at cutting bagels!”
This request was made by a well-respected professional in her mid-fifties whose hourly rate probably exceeded my monthly rent. She knew books and operas and words I’d never heard of. She couldn’t slice a bagel?
I flashed a smile and deftly sliced and toasted away for her, flipping eggs and pouring coffee and not knowing that I would discover, still, just how many people find cutting bagels particularly challenging. By August, I’d started pre-slicing in self-preservation.
“I have worked for those who I call ‘the rich and hopeless,’” one chef out of Florida told me recently when I asked him about what asinine requests he’d received: “Any bread served is without the crust, cut 1/4th of an inch thick. Coffee and tea are served at only 120.5 degrees. Toast is to be buttered on both sides. All meats served will be cut into ½ inch slices. No yellow vegetables are to be served.”
“The Dancing Chef” insists things get even saucier in L.A. — he practically guffawed when sharing the plethora of odd requests from celebrity clients: “I work with a bunch of absurd people, and the more money they have, the more absurdity they express,” he said. “One client invited me into his bedroom while he was having sex with three girls and asked me if I could cook for him right there. I was like, ‘Fine, no problem’. I have no boundaries – whatever you can afford, I can cook.”
The “whatever you can afford” part is vital.
I’m not the only poor retired artist in the field who appreciates fair compensation for, say, “creating a meal around a poem” or figuring out how to “find and cook fresh monkey’s brains”, as others chefs have had requested. One esteemed private chef in Chicago once learned how to cook kangaroo by request: “Her guests loved it,” he remembers of his boss’ report. “But she did not tell them what it was until they finished their dinner.” Neither did he.
We don’t tell a client how dramatically extra guests throw off dinner portions or table settings, either, causing a frantic run to a market or an entire dish on the fly. Or that maybe a vegetarian warning would be best anytime before we’ve set plates of veal on the table. As one chef so aptly puts it, “When Sidney Poitier says he’ll have the fish option, you don’t say, ‘Oh no you won’t, Mr. Poitier!’ You run out for a piece of fish.”
No. Our clients appreciate our discretion, and so we don’t point out social faux pas by boss or guests. And “we never tell the client!” that their misstep made our day unbearable.
Because here’s the thing: Despite the insane requests and occasional calamities, we thrive in this kind of work. Most who go particularly into the private chef field have a natural inclination to take care of people. Several of the women I’ve spoken with (including myself) don’t have children — we get a thrill out of perfecting a picky 13-year old’s pasta recipe, even if it takes ten excruciating goes before she’ll wolf it down. (Three of us had this same story.)
And we dearly value the intimacy entrusted upon us as we enter into others’ homes. “I had a client a couple of years ago who had terminal cancer and two teenage kids. With the meals I prepared, she sat and ate with them,” says one chef. “Then she passed away. It was really devastating. I feed the rich; I’m not getting any awards for what I do. But it is a gift to be trusted enough to provide food for a family.”
Trust goes both ways. Most chefs won’t walk out of a job because of an odd request or RSVP mishap. We will, however, because of lack of trust from a disrespectful or micromanaging client. “I walked out of a job because of poor communication,” said one such disgruntled chef. “She was unhappy about something I did or did not do, and left me a written note rather than talked to me. How can you defend yourself to a note? How can you yell at or argue with a note? Communication. Talk, and make things right.”
Nowadays, a bagel-cutting request would barely register as odd in my ears. That same guest was always extremely warm to me and so there was something almost nurturing about helping her when she was in town. A fellow Hamptons chef, however, wasn’t so fortunate in her employer’s guests. During one dinner, a suited gentleman left the dining room before dessert to take a call, then walked into her kitchen with the phone still to his ear and, instead of asking her for dessert, just said ice cream. “His lack of humanity and absent eye contact floored me,” she remembers.
So here’s the thing; chances are the person cooking in the kitchen of such households will be an intelligent, creative and an experienced communicator. They’re going to respect the professional divide while layering love and compassion into their service. And while they’re going to note the ineptitudes of those “above” them, they’ll keep their mouths buttoned if treated fairly and paid well.
And if not, they’ll walk.
Or sneak an ingredient a client swears not to like into a dish.
Something like that.