Have Knife, Will Travel
Private chefs live in a have-knife-will-travel world, arriving into home kitchens to create gastronomic delights for homeowners who don’t have the proper skills or time to create on their own.
It sounds glamorous. But sometimes, the kitchens themselves can be a little challenging. And sometimes, the chefs are asked to cook something really different — like an alligator.
More about the gator later, but interviews with several private chefs in Charleston indicate they have no desire to return to the often toxic culture of a restaurant, no matter the challenges of cooking privately.
“I worked 11 years in cooking before I became a private chef 10 years ago,” said Emily McClish of Emily-lane Personal Chef Services. “Several things are different. One obvious one is quantity. You’re not mass-producing. You’re interacting with people almost from the time you step in the door and that’s what I wanted. You’re thinking about these specific people as you prepare their food.”
Sarah Adams, who cooked at Bacco, Peninsula Grill and FIG as a sous chef, said her experience in restaurants helped when she started cooking for small groups as a private chef about five years ago.
“It’s very valuable to have a strong professional background, because in a restaurant kitchen, you are perfecting dishes over time and building on a skill set,” Adams said. “In private dining, you have to constantly change course, because you’re cooking for the same people a lot versus someone coming in and ordering the gnocchi off the menu that’s tried and true. You have to take all those skills you have worked on for a very long time and constantly flip them. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of support staff, so if you make an error, you have to know how to fix it because you don’t have access to a pantry with backup things or prep.”
Being prepared for anything
That lack of supplies is a critical difference for the chefs.
Brett McKee, who has run his own company for 10 years and who was chef at a number of restaurants, including Oak and O-Ku, recalled one job at a Kiawah rental in which he thought there’d be enough glassware for a party of golf buddies. One of his staff called: The owner had locked every cabinet, including the ones containing glasses and plates. Fortunately, McKee said he had friends in the industry and frantic calls went out to bring over glassware and plates.
“There might be a variable thrown at you and you just have to deal,” McKee said. “When it’s just you, there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide. One f*ck-up can be the Achilles tendon that takes me down.”
McKee said his more than 40 years of experience has helped him to develop a standard checklist of things for a job, including paper towels, spices and seasonings, napkins, and his own soap and sponges. He also brings his custom knives, as do all of the chefs.
Lauren Furey, a private chef in Charleston since 2019, also has a checklist and timeline that keeps her organized when she unloads supplies, which she said takes about 15 minutes. She also researches the location in advance, not just to see if there are online images of the kitchen, but also because she is aware that she is a female going into a strange house.
“When I take a job, I always have a 15-minute discovery call first. That’s a mandatory step and if someone does not want to do that, they are not my client,” Furey said. “I think it builds trust. If I ever felt I was in a dangerous situation, I would just leave. Plus my mom always has me on her location app at all times.”
Still, it is the working in private kitchens that she enjoys.
“I think being in someone’s kitchen is very intimate and homes are where people make their memories, so respecting someone’s space when I’m there is my priority,” Furey said.
For all of the chefs interviewed, one of the big rewards of the job is interacting directly with clients.
“It’s fun. It really is a night of making memories together,” McKee said. “You don’t have to worry about parking, and you’re getting better than restaurant food in your house. You’re creating stories. You can get f*cked up, and afterward, you can roll over and put your stretchy pants on, and your house is clean. Every night, someone will say, ‘Wow!’ and that’s what we strive for.”
Adams said the lack of public glory that chefs might have as restaurant celebrities is made up for with work-life balance.
“There’s not as much glory because you’re not public-facing and you do things very privately. I’m not going to be Instagramming from someone’s house. I can’t tell people about a lot of my clients, so there’s not a lot of bragging rights involved,” Adams said. “But, at the end of the day, I can still have time with my family. The loss is not getting the glory of restaurants, but I’d rather go to the Halloween parade at school.”
The chefs said flexibility is key for private chefs, and clients can make timing changes or suddenly realize their guests have unexpected allergies or aversions, so the chefs have to be prepared to improvise using the ingredients they have brought.
The big improvisation
And, then there is the alligator.
McClish said one client, early in her career, told her he had hunted an alligator and had the meat and wanted her to prepare alligator five ways.
“It’s fairly easy to fry the tail meat, but he didn’t want that. He wanted other things. Now, alligator meat doesn’t taste like much, and the leg meat is really tough,” McClish said. “I think I ground some up and made fritters, I slow roasted some and made a kind of gumbo, I ground it and mixed it with pork, which is fattier, and made appetizer meatballs, and I pounded the leg meat with a mallet to make cutlets with some kind of sauce.
“It took a lot of pounding! It really was something I’ll never forget.”
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