The lofty adventure of cooking three squares for hungry ski clients.
Several Januarys ago, I was sitting in a crowded Park City restaurant eating a rushed meal with exhausted friends and their kids who had skied all day.
They were in town for the Sundance Film Festival, and though our visit was memorable, the meal itself was less than we hoped for.
I regretted not cooking for my friends at my home. That’s when I decided I would put my chef skills to good use and market my services to other families coming to the mountains to ski.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to cook for families from around the world in Park City and other ski areas, including Sundance.
My personal chef business (Chef on the Go) had evolved from catering, so I’d already learned what works: good quality, mostly organic, nutritionally dense comfort food prepared with care. I shop locally; prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner (with four to five courses) from scratch; and I clean it up. I love being my own boss, and I can cook quickly, thanks to my Cajun heritage and my culinary training.
I gained clients by word of mouth. Typically, the first step is an interview: I usually meet with the hostess/host to determine if we’re a good fit. I then work up a menu plan and budget with them. I create custom menus based on their tastes and provide them with a list of former clients’ favorites to choose from. It usually takes me about an hour to shop for three days of meals, which I do at local shops where I know the produce is freshest.
Clients pay for the food plus pay me an hourly rate. And if I do well, I make a nice tip. My rate depends on the style of cuisine, quantity and complexity of the dishes. My most requested dishes are Deer Valley-style green chili with turkey, chicken tortilla soup, creamy broccoli/potato soup, beef Wellington or prime rib, roasted hens with vegetables, Cuban lechon and, of course, my gumbos, jambalaya, étouffées and red beans and rice—all dishes that nourish and sustain skiers. They often tell me they go to bed with sore bodies but happy bellies.
The costs to the client are equivalent to what they would spend on meals at a family-style restaurant, though it usually ends up being more cost-effective because I also shop for wine, spirits, snacks and other sundries, saving clients multiple shopping trips.
On a long day, I put in five to seven hours. While people are still on the slopes, I’m cooking like mad—after having shopped and prepped for the meals. Juggling more than one meal at a time is essential. Typically, I’m cooking a crock of hearty soup, two entrées and five sides in tandem. The goal is to serve a hot dinner, and have breakfast, lunch and dinner ready for the next day waiting in the fridge.
I usually schlep in my own cutting boards and knives. All too often, I walk into a palatial home, and the kitchen is stocked with those dreadful glass cutting boards and Ginsu knives.
Much of the time, I’m the paid “entertainment,” and some clients would prefer if I would drink wine and socialize with them while I work, but it’s impractical and unprofessional. I always wear a chef uniform and, although in my fantasy world I look like food writer Nigella Lawson, I don’t look all that glamorous.
Often, I’ve had guests in the kitchen with me, wanting to be a little too close to the action. Navigating hot pans in kitchens with open designs can be dangerous, especially with people hovering over my shoulder, dogs under my feet, children running around and people asking me personal questions.
Once, I turned around too quickly and an entire parchment sheet of hot canapés flew off the sheet and all over the counter, which were promptly gobbled up by the children and dogs. Since that mishap, I request that there be no kids or pets in the kitchen while I’m working. They can line up at the counter to catch nibbles.
The funniest stories always involve liquor and the price of organic produce, not necessarily in that order. People will pay just about anything for a great glass of wine, but they balk at the price of berries in the winter. I don’t get it, but they’re the client, and they get what they want.
At the end of a job, I’m always so happy to have met new families and made new friends. I love it when family members gather around the fire in the living room to watch a game or visit. I’ll place tidbits on the table for them to snack on while I go back into the kitchen. Someone always comes to the counter and asks if they can help. It’s hard to explain: It just feels good to cook and feed people. The most satisfying feeling at the end of the job is when someone tells me it was the catalyst that got them back into the kitchen cooking for their families again. Food just has a way of transforming strangers into friends.