Star Cooks

Out of the frying pan, into the private kitchen

So you're a restaurateur, and a successful one at that. You've owned five or six places, mainly in Denver, and have even handled three at one time. But you've trained as a chef, and cooking is in your heart. So you mostly create in the kitchen while your daughter deals with the management side. And it's a good arrangement until you move to Miami and open a restaurant in Coral Gables in 1998. You receive excellent reviews from the critics and garner praise from your regular customers. But when your daughter moves back to Denver, you become overwhelmed with the responsibility of dealing with both the front and the back of the house. In 2000 you make the difficult decision to sell your namesake restaurant, Thoa's on Ponce, to another chef-restaurateur looking to make his name -- Pascal Oudin -- and become simply Thoa Fink, South Floridian.

Except that no one, from local chefs to your disappointed patrons, can seem to forget your classically informed but innovative French-Vietnamese cuisine. In other words it doesn't take long before you are approached by a private citizen who needs a chef to cook for him in his home two or three nights per week. Voilà! You have a regular freelance gig, one that feeds, as you put it, your "addiction to cooking" but doesn't "tie you to the job," quite literally, by your apron strings.

Becoming a personal chef can be quite an advantage to a burned-out executive chef. For Fink, age 52, the position seems natural. Because the gentleman who hired her doesn't demand too much of her time -- all her employer asks, aside from dinner a couple of nights a week, is that she respect his privacy by not revealing details -- she also caters small parties for high-profile Miamians. She continues her involvement in the community by leading classes and cooking at charity events with other chefs. And she works in her large garden -- what she calls "the savior from my brain" -- where she grows the ingredients she uses in her business, everything from lemon grass to guavas. "At this point in my life I have freedom and creativity, and that's what I want," she says.

That's also what 42-year-old Carmen Gonzalez wanted when she left her executive position at Tamarind Bar and Grill in the Sheraton River House (now a Wyndham) almost six years ago. "I was so tired and so stressed out I considered leaving the business for good," she reveals. "In fact I had an offer to open another restaurant, but I had to tell them the truth. I said I could say yes, but in three to six months I'm going to walk. So you'd just be wasting your money."

Instead of opening another eatery, Gonzalez, who had made her name and reputation in Miami at the erstwhile Clowns in 1989, took some time off to regroup. She quickly realized she was "a chef more than anything, and food was the most important thing to me." So she started her own company. For the past five years or so, she's been cooking dégustation menus in people's homes, doing parties for 8 to 180. "It's very different from being a chef in a restaurant. In a restaurant you are so used to your equipment. Now every party is a complete new environment. You just pray everything works."

Of course Gonzalez scouts a site ahead of time, but she's well aware that not everything is in her control. Traffic, for instance, is always an unknown. So is steady business. "In the restaurant business you go through the season, and you have a flexible economy. If you work for a big company, financially you feel secure. With my kind of business, it's a matter of you getting [work]. When the stock market goes down, people don't want to throw a big party. Sometimes it gets very scary."

Still what Gonzalez enjoys about her business is the flexibility. Like Fink she's an avid gardener, and she's so passionate about animals that she volunteers her time trying to organize donations for a shelter that doesn't put any of its 90-odd strays to sleep. Plus many of her clients have become friends. "Now I have balance," she says.

Paula Gaitan, personal chef to talk show host Cristina Saralegui for the past nine months, agrees that balance is important. "Being a personal chef is the perfect job for a woman. You can have kids and not lose the food field," says Gaitan, who is planning to marry in the next year or so.

She also approves of the autonomy and artistry of cooking for a specific someone after stints in mediocre restaurants. "I worked for Norman [Van Aken] for a while, and he's so great that after him I wasn't satisfied with anything. Someone at the restaurant where I was after Norman's told me Cristina Saralegui wanted to hire a personal chef. I spoke to her agent and found she was looking for someone who spoke English and Spanish and was relatively young." Gaitan, a 24-year-old native of Venezuela, realized, "that's me. Now I get to cook every day, but I'm never in the weeds or have to 86 something."

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