Our epic London summer is drawing to a close. It’s been one of the best summers we’ve had here (e.g. actually sunny) and 2018 will undoubtedly replace 2006 as ‘That Summer’ everyone remembers fondly in the depths of the UK winter.
One of the many culinary adventures that’s kept me busy over the summer months was a two week private cheffing gig I did down in Provence in the South of France in late August.
The job came about rather last minute in the end. I wasn’t looking to head off cheffing but we had a pause in Kiwi & Roo jobs over August (all our corporate clients sensibly on holidays), my flat was due to be painted and I’d just had my heart knocked (broken would be going too far, but there was definitely a bump in there) by someone after our 4th date. I was suddenly very ready for a change of scene. So when this job to cook for an english family down in Provence appeared, it felt like a serendipitous opportunity. (AKA a plane ticket I didn’t have to pay for myself)
The brief: To cook lunch and dinner for a family of 6 plus additional groups of friends who were coming to visit their new country house in France. Exact numbers were likely to be fluid… anywhere between 12 – 20 but occasionally could be up to 30. No specific dietary requirements or requests other than to come armed with lots of peach recipes as they live next door to an orchard. Accommodation would be onsite in my own ‘quarters’, I’d have access to a car to do the shopping and there was someone else on hand to do the dishes and set the table. This, I said to myself as I signed up, all sounds perfectly acceptable. Busy but manageable given I would ‘only’ be doing two meals a day. I foresaw plenty of time for some headspace, walks in the Provençal countryside and sunbathing in my bikini eating cheese.
Warning. (And lesson number one) Live in private cheffing means you are at work and therefore working all the time. Even when you’re not working working, you’re working. I’ve done a few of these live in private cheffing gigs now and I’d like to say that each one has prepared me for the next. But there were still plenty of lessons learned this time around. So I’ve decided to document them here; if nothing else as a reminder to myself next time I think about taking on one of these jobs…
Thinking about private cheffing? I’d say there are certain non advertised credentials it’s crucial to have when taking these jobs. Obviously, being able to actually cook is crucial… but it’s by no means the only important skill. You occupy a unique place as a private chef. A complete outsider admitted into the heart of a family’s most personal space. It’s intimate. You’re there and present, but also invisible. It’s never more so than whilst working away in the bosom of a family who you have absolutely no relation to for 12+ hours a day that you realise more than ever that cooking is less about creating food and all about feeding people.
So alongside your cooking credentials, private cheffing candidates should ideally possess the following skills: (And whether you’re willing to admit to these of course is something else entirely)
- Slight voyeuristic tendencies. (All very PG of course. Kind of like visiting Open Homes, even with no intention of buying. You’ve got to be interested in people and open to how they live, as it’s how you’ll be living while you’re there. Judgement is not an acceptable dish to serve up)
- The ability to be in same room as very personal conversations but yet not see or hear anything. (Private tête-à-têtes between husband and wife, husband and a different wife, father and son, groups of teenage sons, groups of wives… I mean it’s a good thing you don’t have time to watch TV or read your novel because you won’t need any additional entertaining)
- Ability to smile, happily answer questions (“so, tell me what exactly is a bouillabaisse?“) and not look like you’d rather be focusing your attention on cooking the food rather than talking about it.
- To find the diplomatic solution to different, often contradictory instructions. For example, the answer to “We’d like the full cheeseboard for lunch today before dessert” (Mr) vs “No cheeseboard is necessary at lunchtime – we’ll just go straight to dessert” (Mrs) equals the cheeseboard gets put out, but hidden from immediate view. Meaning you have to look hard or remember you specifically asked for it to be reminded it’s there. (Not always easy after that second magnum of rosé). Everybody wins.
- The ability to read people and figure out what they want. Ultimately your role is to help your boss have a lovely holiday and give their friends and family a lovely holiday. But there can be all sorts of spoken and unspoken things wrapped into delivering that.
But, advice on emotional intelligence skill sets aside, here are some more of my practical lessons on private cheffing. Relevant to anyone heading off to spend a few weeks in a French chateau or indeed general life lessons….
Give the people (e.g. teenage boys) what they want. It is a truth universally acknowledged that teenage boys like carbohydrates and they like meat. Ideally a lot of both. Anything green should be strictly optional. And it turns out this applies whether the teenage boys go to the poshest school in the UK or not; chips, pizza, pasta, sausages are still the food of choice. You could spend hours making extra roast courgette, tapenade and lemon ricotta tarts; or you could just make a giant bowl of pasta and cheese.
Ask the right questions to find out what people really like. A pretty obvious question to ask people when you’re about to cook for them for two weeks is “what kind of food do you like?” And hey, it’s not a bad question. But it definitely shouldn’t be the only question you ask as the answers can be tricksy and not particularly helpful when planning a menu:
- “My mother makes the most wonderful spaghetti alle vongole” This is the only answer they know to this question. And trust me, you never want to even try and replicate dishes like that.
- Turns out ‘I love light, fresh and seasonal’ can actually mean ‘I want meat with every meal’. People still tell you what they think they should want, not what they really want. But it will come out, so best to try and ascertain up front.
- “Oh we love Ottolenghi style food” is another favourite. But pry a little further and it turns out they don’t really like spice. So they like the idea of liking Ottolenghi, but not so much the reality.
I found out pretty quickly in this job that meals always needed at least one white meat or fish and one red meat, an undressed green salad, a dessert (but sweet tarts were a lunchtime dessert only) and always fresh peaches and chantilly cream.
Better questions are; Which cookbooks do you have at home? Which restaurants do you enjoy going to? Which countries do you love travelling and eating in? Do you like spicy food? Is it important to have meat / dessert / salad at every meal?
Have a plan, but be prepared to go off piste. You might see some amazing figs or courgette flowers at the market one day and want to cook with those. Eight giant côte de veau might turn up after a trip to the butchers. Nut allergies people forgot to mention may present themselves. And last minute changes in guest numbers means the most important plan is to expect the unexpected.
BYO kit (Fish sauce can fly) In my suitcase to France I took fish sauce, rose harissa, black garlic, tahini, smoked sea salt, rice noodles, miso, sumac, z’atar and pomegranate molasses. I also took my knives, a microplane, measuring spoons, piping bags, mini muffin and friand tins, cake tins, piping bags and scales. I think there were some clothes in my suitcase somewhere. If you want to cook with it, take it. Foreign supermarkets may have some of your favourite things, but chances are they won’t, or they won’t be easy to find. Don’t take for granted what we have on our doorsteps in big cosmopolitan cities.
Lemons, eggs, salt, sugar and oil Put these on your very first shopping list and always make sure you have ample supply. You can pretty much do anything and everything if you have these and you’re pretty much screwed if you run out. Your stockpiles need to be enough to survive late night tequila drinking sessions, making creme patisserie at least 3 times because it just won’t set and the fact that because the olive oil is so amazing you will have it on most things pretty much every meal.
Know thy cupboards. Before you rush off to the market to buy things, spend time getting familiar with what’s in the cupboards and fridges. Not only will it help you figure out what they have and don’t have, more importantly it will give you a good indicator as to what they like and don’t like. Any full bottles or jars past their use-by dates? There’s a reason that chilli sauce hasn’t been touched since 2002, turns out they don’t like spicy food. Any almost empty spice jars? That’s because smoked paprika is a favourite flavour, so a good ingredient to have lots of up your sleeve and a good indicator of preferred flavour profiles.
Drains are not your friend. Don’t block the sink. Private cheffing often happens in amazing venues and private houses. Houses which are big, old and have terrible plumbing. The local plumber (if there is one) may live far away and there’s not a late night emergency number to call. (We’re not in London now Toto) As the chef, the kitchen sink is your domain. Don’t muck it up. Literally. You’ve definitely got better things to do with your time.
Dishwashers (people or machines) are your friend. Be kind. Always. Perhaps the most critical of all questions to ask when taking on a private cheffing job is ‘what’s the dishwasher situation?’ If you’re cooking for large groups of people, you want at least two. Ideally three. (Cycles will take at least an hour and there’s all the cutlery and glassware that needs washing up as well) There will be a lot of washing up to do all the time. If “oh we’ll just all chip in and help” is the answer, I’d run. Far.
Draw your lines. Related to the above, you need to suss out where your job as chef starts and stops. Table setting, serving, clearing, shopping, feeding the dog, extra meals for children…. It’s easy for responsibilities to get blurred around things related to food and the kitchen generally. Always be clear about what you’re expected to do. Take setting the table for example. In beautiful, big houses setting the table can be just as important as the food. Especially if they want particular tablecloths, napkins, silver cutlery sets which need to be polished and then handwashed afterwards as they can’t go in the dishwasher, candles, flowers etc etc… This is a big job. I was lucky to have other helpers in the kitchen who focussed on these things. But again, it’s always worth checking to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Oven tins and tupperware. You’ll need a lot.
Brush up on your destination language food nouns and measurements. Even if you aren’t speaking French with your boss, you’ll need to know your cabillaud from your loup de mer at the poissonerie and your pommes and pommes de terre at the market. You’ll also want to confidently order 500gm or 5gm or 5kg of these amazing ingredients once you’ve found them. (Also sometimes google translate doesn’t work when you’re standing in the middle of the market trying to order your goats cheese. Just saying)
If you get the chance, do it! It’s full on, busy, exhausting, inspiring, fulfilling, fun, intimate but overall amazing. (Just don’t forget to ask the dishwasher question)