Star Cooks

Out of the frying pan, into the private kitchen

Gaitan receives other benefits from being a personal chef, not the least of which is health insurance. "You get holidays off," she points out. "You become one of the family -- they have consideration for you."

Of course as with anything, there are tradeoffs. Howard Hurst, personal chef for Philip Levine, the president of Onboard Media, a publishing company, found out there's little publicity in it for him. Unlike restaurant chefs, who receive probably far too much attention from the food press, personal chefs must reap their satisfactions from doing the job well.

Gaitan also acknowledges that, well, there are few surprises in cooking for the same person day after day. "She [Saralegui] has a nutritionist, and I design the menus according to what the nutritionist tells her to eat. If she's shooting that day, she might not be able to eat certain things like lettuce, which bloats you." Gaitan has to keep Saralegui's likes and dislikes in mind, though at this point she's fairly well versed in her tastes, just as Saralegui knows what to expect from Gaitan. "I give her a menu at the beginning of the week so she knows she's getting the fish that she likes this day and the torta on this day," Gaitan says. She even prepares the star's food for the airplane when she travels, though she has yet to accompany her. "Someday," Gaitan hopes. "[Saralegui] talks about it."

To keep from growing stale as a cookie in a South Florida bakery, Gaitan pinch-hits for Van Aken when he caters outside the restaurant. She also writes recipes with him for his upcoming tome on Latin-American dishes with a New World twist and tests the recipes at Van Aken's home with his wife, Janet. "I do miss working in a restaurant. When you're cooking by yourself all the time, you kind of lose an [edge]. But working with Norman I get smeared with that restaurant feeling," she admits happily. Fortunately for her, as with many personal chefs, her employer gives her plenty of space. "[Saralegui] knows I'm very hyper and can't be sitting down, so she encourages me."

David Whyko, personal chef to rock star Lenny Kravitz, echoes Gaitan's appreciation for her boss. "Lenny is an amazing man to work for, a gentleman with a very kind, humble heart," Whyko emphasizes. "He has blessed me with an amazing opportunity to see the true culinary world." And by "world," Whyko means just that, given that he has traveled with Kravitz to, among other places, Japan, South Africa, Paris, and Brazil.

Being a personal chef to a celebrity often gives someone the opportunity to meet and cook for other celebrities. In the three years he has been working for Kravitz, 29-year-old Whyko has catered meals that have included the likes of Madonna, Prince (formerly known as or otherwise), Mick Jagger, and Denzel Washington. As the proud holder of an associate's degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Whyko might have expected a higher-than-average-profile job when he graduated. But those in the culinary field usually don't anticipate a rock-star lifestyle or going on tour -- unless it's to promote their own cookbooks, of course.

And, naturally, celebrity brings celebrity. Chefs often benefit just by association. For instance Jaime Laurita, personal chef to singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, recently released a book of recipes called Plenty, coauthored with McLachlan herself; the pair also was featured on the cover of the inaugural (and now rumored to be defunct) magazine Foodie. Paula Gaitan receives space for healthy-living-type articles in Saralegui's monthly magazine, a benefit she wouldn't have expected from the initial job description: "I was hired to cook gourmet cuisine, high-end meals, with limited carbs and fats." Who knew it would turn into a column?

Of course the real question just might be whether any of these chefs would return to the restaurant field. "As long as I have my freedom, I don't see myself going back," Gaitan says. But Thoa Fink is a bit more sentimental. "Restaurants have their own glamour and their own power," she offers. "I'm not saying I'll never go back to it."

Carmen Gonzalez, who at one time loved the restaurant biz so much she performed a ritual every morning -- she danced with whatever large, whole fish had come in fresh that morning -- also won't rule it out. Indeed she hints that something is on the horizon and says she would have more fun being an executive chef than she used to, given the experience she has accumulated. More fun than doing the cha-cha with a 50-pound grouper? "There's always that little thing in the back of your head that asks if would you like to do it again," Gonzalez replies. "The answer is yes."

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