Billionaires and Beach BumsBy: Mia Caldwell
The hardest thing about being a personal chef for rich people is that their kitchens are so understocked. They have these giant, impractical rooms full of custom cabinets and Italian granite, eight-burner stoves and double ovens. But they eat out every meal. So when, in a fit of New Year’s resolve or on the advice of a personal trainer, they call me in to prepare meals for them, I usually find their pantries woefully understocked.
You know how on those cooking challenge shows, it’s just a given that you’ll have olive oil, salt, onions, that sort of thing? Not in rich people kitchens. I’ve had customers digging in the depths of old Harry and David’s gift baskets, swearing they had a little bottle of what they were pretty sure was Tuscan olive oil. And when they find it, it’s actually balsamic vinegar.
This job was shaping up to be no different.
Some rich guy had hired me to cook for his mother while she recovered from a knee replacement. I was to come in and make her a lunch and a dinner for three days. I wasn’t quite sure how he’d found my name, I tend to get new customers through word of mouth, but he didn’t mention any referral. I also never go to a house twice a day…but he’d made it worth my while.
I’ve had my own personal chef business for three years. I wasn’t out of cooking school long before I realized I was going to be really bad at working for others. Having some foul-breathed old chef shouting in my face was not why I went to L’Academie de Cuisine. Which I guess tells you a little something about me–sure, everyone knows that Chef is going to shout at you and it’s part of coming up in the culinary world. But my mama taught my brother and me that you shouldn’t let people treat you badly just because they have more money and power than you–and growing up broke in Anacostia, it seemed like everybody had more money and power than we did. I don’t mind working hard. I don’t mind doing menial jobs (okay, I do mind, but I know they have to get done and sometimes I have to do them). I don’t even mind being told what to do by someone in charge. But I do not take it well when they abuse their power, when they treat me like dirt, like I could never be where they are. Like they’d never had to start out chopping onions and washing lettuce. So one day, after the sous chef called me “ignorant girl” because I brought him regular sea salt instead of fleur de sel (guess what? they taste the same), I took off my apron and walked out of restaurant kitchens for good.
Luckily, I live in Washington, D.C., which is full of people with a lot more money than time. I kept reading about personal chefs and local food movements and I put the two together. I started Farm 2U “Bringing the bounty of the region’s family farms to your family’s table.” In truth? Most of these folks don’t eat at a family table. They eat on the run from soccer practice to dance rehearsal or standing up at the breakfast bar while they prepare tomorrow’s briefs. But at least if they hire me, they get to eat good food on the run. I get to work for myself, they get to tell everyone they eat local. Everybody wins.
I don’t want to sound like I hate my customers–far from it. Most of the people that hire me are kind, thoughtful folks that just don’t have the time to live the way they think they should. They want to have everything–full time jobs, kids with all the activities they want, social lives–and something has to give. If you have the money, you can buy time. And that’s what I sell, the time they would have spent throwing some food together or going out to eat. I go to their houses once a week and cook the meals they’ve ordered to see them through until I come back. Usually, I have the house to myself–seven thousand square feet and no one home.
Of course, having the house to myself means there’s no one to ask when I can’t find the colander or discover that the $80 pepper grinder has no actual pepper in it. Which brings me to the palatial kitchen in a massive townhouse in Georgetown, digging through the cherry cabinets, trying to find the jar to a blender. I had found the base–it was a Vitamix, of course–but the pitcher and lid were nowhere to be found.
Walker Alexander had asked me to come every day, twice a day, and to make his mother a green smoothie with her meal, as she didn’t like to eat many vegetables. That was going to be a challenge if I couldn’t find the rest of the blender. Tomorrow, I could just bring my own–a thrift store Waring, of course–but that didn’t turn today’s spinach into a beverage. Just when I’d begun to seriously consider putting green food coloring in a glass of milk, I found it in the cabinet that held all the spare glassware. A caterer’s superpower is knowing, instinctively, where people keep their stuff, but this one had really put my powers to the test.