Being a chef is not easy; long hours, standing on your feet all day, hot kitchen, little or no time for significant others, coming up with new menu items; I could go on, but I’d hate to discourage anyone who might be thinking about the profession, we already have a huge shortage of chefs.
I am not now and have never been a chef; however, because of my position at The French Culinary Institute, the perception that I am a chef has been floating in the ether for quite some time. I have often had people tell me that they are too intimidated to have me over for dinner. I have some thoughts about this, but I thought it would be more interesting to hear from some real chefs.
I interviewed six successful chefs and thought you might enjoy their responses to my questions:
Interviewed: MJ Adams, former owner of The Corn Exchange in Rapid City, S.D., now television host on Public Television; Damian Sansonetti, Chef/Owner of Piccolo and Caiola’s in Portland, Maine; Kir Rodriguez, Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center, New York City; David Turin, Chef/Owner of restaurants in Portland, South Portland and Kennebunkport, Maine; David Levi, Chef/Owner of Vinland and Rosso Bianco, Portland, Maine; and Nicholas Krunkkala, Chef of Liquid Riot, Portland, Maine.
How often are you invited to the homes of non-family members for a meal?
MJ Adams (MJA): Sad to say, but few and far between.
Damian Sansonetti (DS): A few times a year.
Kir Rodriguez (KR): About once every two months.
David Turin (DT): Not very often. Honestly, I can think of only three people who have invited me to dinner at their home in the last 10 years or so and one of them is a chef.
David Levi (DL): Rarely at this point, since everyone knows I'm working all the time. Maybe a few times a year. I usually have to decline or cancel unless I'm on vacation, which I take once a year.
Nicholas Krunkkala (NK): Since I am a chef and work abnormal hours, I don't really get invited to people's houses for dinner anymore. I used to a lot, especially early on in my career, but now I think people just expect that I am so busy that I’m going to decline. So I’d say a couple times a year.
Have people told you they are too intimidated to cook for you? What do you say when people share that with you?
MJA: That is pretty much the answer 95 percent of the time. I have one friend that is a private chef and whenever he is in town I get an invitation from him. I always tell people it is different as a chef to cook because you are doing it for a living. Having someone cook for me is only just part of the dining experience. I want social interaction, ambience and of course an alcoholic beverage. I am happy to have a hot dog as long as I can have a cocktail or a glass of wine. If people are intimidated, I hope it is because I have a good reputation as a chef.
DS: It happens quite often. Most times after we have begun eating the meal, and after you compliment the host for the meal, how good it is and so, and I would say it almost always good/really good too and cooked and seasoned very well. Sometimes I'm even surprised at a "civilian's" cooking prowess in a non-professional kitchen. I always feel kind of on the spot when they tell us they are intimidated by our cooking (me and my wife, Ilma Lopez).
KR: All the time. I tell them that cooking for me is a lot easier than they think. I like simple things as long as they are homemade. A big green salad with cheeses, bread and wine could constitute a dinner for me. I always offer to help in the kitchen because I can help put a couple of items together and keep it simple, when people usually think that more is better. I understand that just the gesture of inviting me is so gracious and generous, so I want to get them over their preoccupation by just simplifying things.
DT: That is very often the case. A typical exchange would be like this: the husband says, "You should come over for dinner . . . when I told my wife I invited you for dinner she asked if I was crazy, he’s a chef . . . I can’t cook for him . . .” Then the conversation changes to talking about where do you like to go out for dinner. I tell them I really am easy to please and not to worry, but I rarely end up getting the invitation. It feels awesome to be invited for dinner. I joke with people that it’s so nice to have someone else cook and that if they were heating up spaghetti O’s, I would be just fine.
DL: I do hear that, and I laugh it off and tell them how much I appreciate anyone cooking me anything. I'm a harsh judge in restaurants, but not at all in other contexts. I am, though, always more than willing to help and give guidance, both because people tend to appreciate it and because I want to eat foods that are properly cooked and seasoned.
NK: People are always telling me that they are intimidated to cook for me, and it's understandable in a way. But I like to put them at ease by telling them that I like just about everything and eating a home cooked meal outside of a restaurant is like the perfect thing in the world. To go to someone’s house and eat a pot roast or a lasagna that they made and put care into is a very enjoyable experience.
Have people asked you to come over and cook in their kitchens? What is it like for you?
MJA: I have done a few private parties in clients homes and it’s amazing the various degrees you find a kitchen outfitted. Some people have a professional kitchen in their homes and never use it while others who are in high level jobs don’t even have a sheet pan in the cupboard. It’s definitely a challenge since you don’t even know how well their oven works. That’s what makes a great chef, being able to adapt to anything and turn out a wonderful meal.
DS: Yes, it's usually fun, because sometimes it is a food purveyor and they have a lot of great or cool ingredients and want to see what you would do with them in their kitchens. Honestly, doing the Kennebunkport Festival where you cook in a stranger's house is very similar to this as well; cooking in an unfamiliar environment, but it's always fun!
KR: Yes, in that case I offer to bring the groceries. That way I can buy quality ingredients and use the opportunity to illustrate how to cook delicious food with very few ingredients. We visit friends on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for a week every year, and we always bring a dinner to cook there and treat our hosts.
DT: So that has happened a couple of times and it’s been fun. I have a friend who cooked his way through law school; he’s very knowledgeable about food and just loves cooking. We did a dinner in his home a while back and we cooked together and it was like a play date for grown ups ... with wine! He’s got an amazing kitchen, too.
DL: I don't remember ever being asked to cook as a favor. I have been hired to do private dinners. I would not appreciate being expected to cook for free on my extremely limited off time, just as I don't much like being expected to do anything other than be a decent person. I'm almost always quick to volunteer, though. Every now and then I make the conscious decision not to, which takes more effort up front.
NK: I get asked to cook meals for people at their homes for holiday parties, get-togethers, super bowls you name it. It’s a good feeling because going into someone’s home is a lot different than cooking for them at a restaurant — it’s more intimate and it means they really trust you and put you on a different level of respect. To be asked to come to someone’s home and cook a meal is a pretty big honor as a chef.
Have you been to someone's house where you walked in and they just expected you to cook? Can you describe what that was like?
MJA: Yes, I remember one time I was invited to someone's home with my husband along with two other couples. When I arrived they were all standing around with a chef's apron on and the ingredients laid out, waiting for instructions. I was under the assumption that I was going to be dining in their home, not providing a cooking lesson. I think that people feel if you cook for a living you must love it and are on 24/7. I do love to cook, but it is nice treat to have someone else head up the kitchen once in awhile.
DS: Very funny, yes, but it was business. Years ago when I worked For Daniel Boulud, he has a Catering company called Feast & Fete. During the winter holidays they are extremely busy and have a lot of parties that the "core" catering team cannot cook on site for. Well one year for Christmas Eve dinner I headed up a party on the Upper West Side in a huge loft apartment, but it was just myself and it was explained that the host had all the food and their family (Italian), was bringing some fish dishes; feast of seven fishes. It was a 25-person party, but all I had to do was plate up food.
Once, I arrived at a house and was waiting for the host and she came in with bags upon bags of groceries and then a prep list! I had three hours to prep out five courses of food. I got it all done, when the guest count rose to almost 40 people the host sent me a neighbor who was attending to "help" me plate the food. We did it all, kind of ribbing each other during plating of the food and all in good fun. It was a little hectic, but it all looked good and guests were super happy. Afterwards I found out his name was Desmond, as in Desmond Child the songwriter/producer. So it was a kinda cool Christmas Eve.
KR: Luckily, that has never happened to me. Only when I was hired to cook or teach a class.
DT: Never exactly that, but more often something like, “Can you fix this sauce, I was trying to make hollandaise” or “I don’t know how to cut up this turkey or carve this roast.”
DL: No, I've never experienced that. I would probably excuse myself in pretty short order.
NK: Now here is where things get tricky. There are times I go places and I know I’m going to end up cooking. Now if it’s a summer day and they have a really good grill, I have no issue with it. I normally don’t have an issue anyway because I love cooking for people and seeing their reaction. But the problem with me is that I cannot cook a simple meal, especially if it’s for other people.
Is there anything else you’d care to share?
MJA: I would think you should feel flattered if a chef wants to come to your home. It means they enjoy your company, and isn’t food all about sitting down at a table together laughing and enjoying the moment? Make something that is simple and that you have prepared before. Go ahead, send that invitation to your favorite chef and don’t be surprised when you get a quick “yes” response.
DT: I have joked that me going to dinner is like that scene in the film “Coming To America” when Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall get invited to the boss's house for a party. When they get there they figure out the invitation is to valet the guests cars. For chefs, it more like you get invited to someone's house for dinner and then you realize that what they really meant was that they are asking to hire you to cook dinner for 12 for their spouse's birthday (which I am totally into). It’s also pretty fun because the people who invite you to cook in their homes are generally pretty well healed and have some scrappy little three or four million dollar waterfront mansion. It’s pretty fun to play house in their incredible kitchens.
NK: So here's my public service to people if you are cooking for a group of people and there happens to be a chef in the crowd: do not be intimidated by it, embrace it. We as chefs want people to cook for us every once in awhile and we will probably be the ones who enjoy it the most out of anyone in the crowd.
I’ve already started a list of chefs I’d like to invite for dinner; perhaps you might consider doing the same.