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MC Chef at the Mike

Jeremy Eaton

So you're a musician, and you have some big dreams. You want to be in a band. You want to record a CD. Maybe you want to own a production company. And you need some cash to make it all happen. What to do, what to do?

If you're Joey Ramos, you become an executive chef.

Of course you don't start as an executive chef. You start where the big bucks for high school students are: by taking a part-time job in a restaurant kitchen. After a while you discover you really like the hospitality industry -- even more, you totally enjoy cooking. In fact you're so into the creative aspect of making a meal for a stranger that you learn all you can. You pick up a bit here; you gather some knowledge there. Eventually, though you were raised in Massachusetts and actually bond with snow, you return to your native Puerto Rico and take a job as a junior sous chef at the El Conquistador in San Juan, a hotel that's repeatedly ranked among the top twenty in the world.

After a good stint there, you move on to Cobia, a seafood eatery run by the same company, where you're executive sous chef, and where you become a Caribbeanwide favorite. From there you move to Miami and find yourself as executive chef at Casa Salsa, an Ocean Drive spot very publicly backed by your most famous of homeboys, Ricky Martin.

But like Martin you have never given up your dream of making music. And after accomplishing your goal of being leader of the kitchen, you decide that your fantasy of being leader of the band has never been fulfilled. And it won't be realized if you have to devote your evening hours to working behind the line rather than behind the microphone. Near the beginning of the so-called new millennium, you find yourself oddly in the same straits you were in as a teenager: You're a musician, and you have some big dreams. What to do, this time around, at age 28?

If you're Joey Ramos, you start your own company. Two companies, as a matter of fact: a catering company called Chef Du Jour, and a music production company named Dream World Music -- because, after all, in a dream world is where you live, and, let's face it, you live for dreams.

And if you're Ramos, self-taught chef and vocalist for the Latin-influenced band Boyces, whose first disc will debut at the end of the summer, you eventually discover that you can't "do one without the other." In other words you need to make food to make music, and vice versa. But both, you have come to understand, are passions cut from the same creative cloth. "I stay with the cooking part because it's something I really enjoy," Ramos notes. "When [not if] the music takes off, I'll open my own restaurant."

The problem was, "I needed more time to concentrate on music and keeping a chef position at any restaurant would not allow it." No one in the industry could refute that, because the hours are killer for pursuing much else besides what one chef calls "the Mediterranean lifestyle": sleeping late, drinking too much, making lunch dates, drinking too much, taking naps, drinking too much. For many chefs this European fashion of living is ideal. But Ramos has other plans, which is why he left Casa Salsa a year ago to pursue other options. Casa Salsa, it must be said, closed down several months later, not because of Ramos's departure, but because it had never really garnered the business it should have, hours being stupidly exclusive and prices being way too high to attract any reasonable amount of foot traffic.

But one needn't question Ramos's work ethic. "Work has always been a big issue for me. I always work -- regular days, holidays. I recently had the first New Year's Eve day off in ten years. When I have a break, I don't know what to do with it."

For these sorta type-A reasons, Ramos launched Chef Du Jour, a company that allows him to work "two or three days a month and earn the same amount I would working 50-60 hours a week." (His hours should give you a good idea how much Ramos charges for the privilege, but allow me to elucidate: Expect to pay about $200 per person.) Chef Du Jour provides the same kind of high-end service one would find in an upscale restaurant, right up to the point where your waiter for the evening explains that the butter has been spiced with chili peppers and inquires if you would like still or sparkling water (provided by Ramos).

Ramos explains: "A friend of mine came up with the idea because I always went over to the house and cooked for her. I never thought about it until then. But I started with a vision in mind that I would bring restaurant service to people's homes. That's what sets me apart from catering. It's the whole ambiance."

Indeed it is. I hired Ramos to cater a party of six. We talked on the phone previously so I could give him an idea of the menu that I would like to serve -- sophisticated but lactose-free -- and I met him once in my house so he could tour the facilities and review what equipment I had and what he'd need to bring. I also pointed out his challenges, such as an oven that sits too close to the floor when it should be higher on the wall, plus five cats that aren't exactly princely in their behavior. He took it all in stride, pausing only when I pointed out the set of Henckel knives. "I'll bring my own," he said, wincing. "It's a chef thing."

So is dinner, as it turns out. I had never before had the pleasure of consuming Ramos's Caribbean-inspired fare, and I was especially taken with several of the menu items he cooked up for us, including the gazpacho topped with seafood ceviche and served in a martini glass. Don't have martini glasses? Don't worry. Ramos will provide them, along with dinnerware, glassware, and any equipment he needs that is not already on the premises. In my case he also needed to bring proper bowl-shaped red-wine glasses, and while I would have loved to display my grandmother's hand-embroidered linen napkins, I was more than willing to stain Ramos's set of white linens with lipstick -- saves on the club soda and dry-cleaning, don't you know.

I also was impressed by the spicy Caribbean conch chowder (which he garnished with roasted coconut and served in bowls made from coconut halves), especially since he prepped everything from scratch at my house, showing up at 4:00 p.m. to start serving a five-course meal at 8:00 p.m. Of course, if it weren't for that magnum of Mumm Cuvee that we wanted to consume first, we might even have started dinner on time. But Ramos, fortunately, is unflappable. Hang out in the kitchen and watch him cook, or have cocktails outside in the soft South Florida air, makes no difference to him. All he's concerned about is whether the jicama and baby arugula salad with fried cassava and nut-crusted duck scaloppine, or the pork-loin medallion served over yuca hash brown and sugar-cane-pancetta shrimp topped with wild mushroom-porto au jus will meet with happy endings (i.e., on our palates, not in the trash). Believe me, they did.

Ramos also provides wine if you like, and while he won't allow his own band to play for customers, he will arrange for other bands to do so. "Throughout the years I've been in Miami, I've met a lot of people in the music industry. I hire [some of] them for the evening. We help each other out."

I felt unbelievably comfortable with Ramos invading my kitchen -- and this from a woman who doesn't even let her own mother unpack her china when she moves house. In fact he can be so entertaining that some of his clients, once they got talking to him, never left the kitchen. He recalls, "The first party that I did, I wanted to get the people into the cooking so I got them chef's hats and aprons. They got so involved they wound up staying in the kitchen. They wanted to eat out of the pot. I had to beg them to get out so I could do my job. But still the entrée wasn't ready until midnight."

Did anyone mind?

"I guess not," he chuckles. "They've called me back for two or three more parties." Which is understandable, given that personal chef Ramos is a pretty safe bet. And hey, they already had their aprons.


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