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."

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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