Personal Chefs: In the Upper Valley, Some Cooks Bring the Dishes Home
You wouldn’t know it from looking at photographs of Brian Kasten in a chef’s standard white coat, but the cook and owner of Supper Solution in Thetford never intended to go into the food business. As a geology major at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, Kasten’s main course of study was how to develop alternate methods of obtaining crude oil, not how to flambé a Baked Alaska. But to help finance his education, he worked his way through college by working in restaurants.
And one day, the penny dropped.
“For me the writing was on the wall,” Kasten said, “when I was looking at drill samples at 3:40 in the morning and saying, This isn’t really what I wanted to do.”
Once Kasten realized that cooking was his avocation, he went on to work in restaurants in Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore and then Stowe and Killington, where he was executive chef at the Summit Lodge for 11 years. Since 1989 he has been the sole chef and proprietor of Supper Solution, which brings meals to people who, for a variety of reasons, are unable or unwilling to cook for themselves. His canvas is someone else’s kitchen, and his materials are, as much as possible, locally-raised produce and meats.
“For me it’s something I really enjoy doing,” Kasten said. “No one day is ever like another.”
A business like Supper Solution is a part of the food industry that isn’t seen much by consumers. But there are chefs who prefer to cater or cook in people’s homes rather than taking on the labor-intensive burden of owning or working in a restaurant. And by going onsite, Kasten said, he also avoids having to acquire a commercial kitchen license.
One advantage of running a catering business that can go big (weddings) or smaller (dinners), said Jed Cohan, who operates Delicata Catering in Wilder, is that “you know what’s coming. There’s less waste. All the work is pushed into a small amount of time. It’s easier for planning and easier to control the margins.”
As an example of the kind of work Kasten does, he mentioned a client who asks him to make five entrees for her weekly. Recently he prepared for her an asparagus soup, baked cod with a roasted red pepper puree and a curried chicken stew. He divided those into single serving sizes and put them in vacuum-sealed bags that could be refrigerated or frozen. That client then had the choice of how and when to eat them.
Preparing meals to order is a task in which Sukhbir Sodi, who has lived in Hanover since 1986, takes pleasure. Sodhi got into the food business recently because she loves to cook and she saw that there was a niche in an area of New England not exactly brimming with Indian restaurants.
Born and raised in Mumbai (then called Bombay), she grew up eating the food of her parents, who hailed from the Punjab in northern India. India has a vast array of regional cuisines and although Sodi can cook in different styles if asked to, she sticks to the food she knows from the North. Her customers are both Americans who crave Indian food, and Indians who miss home cooking.
Sodhi will either prepare meals at home that customers can pick up at her house (a Dartmouth graduate student orders three days’ worth) or she goes to a client’s house. If you have such staples as rice and lentils on hand, Sodhi can make a meal from them. The only things she brings with her are the kinds of spices or foods that most Americans will not have on hand, and that aren’t always available locally, unless you go to the Asian markets in Lebanon and West Lebanon.
“For the sake of flavor I bring my kari (curry) and fenugreek leaves,” she said.
Like Sodhi, Barry Clarke, who owns The Barefoot Gourmet in Thetford, is an ex-pat. He grew up near Durban, South Africa, which is a melting pot of culinary influences, from its large Indian community to the Dutch, English and African populations that make up the city.
Although he tends to cater big events rather than making meals over the course of a week for one person, he will also do smaller dinner parties. Clarke didn’t start his professional life as a chef: it took several turns and twists in the road before he decided to go into “my passion at the insistence of my family and friends.”
“Most of the time I’m cooking for a celebration,” he said. The bulk of his business is catering weddings, parties, graduations and even memorial services. “It’s a celebration of that person and most of the time I’m recreating food they like. It’s a privilege to be part of that.”
At the other end of the scale is Peggy Grote, who worked until recently as a personal chef for one family. (She has left the world of food altogether now, and works at the Aloha Foundation in Fairlee.)
For seven years she cooked for the now-retired president of Vermont Law School, Geoff Shields, and his wife, Genie Shields. “I couldn’t imagine working for anybody else as a personal chef,” she said. “If you don’t hit it just right, it could be pretty bad. I had a great experience.”
Trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Grote decided she wanted to go the personal chef route because she preferred that schedule to the punishing routine of the restaurant world. “I was 38 when I started; I was the oldest person in class,” she said, and because of her family she didn’t want to be gone every night.
Her demands varied. She might be responsible for making breakfast one day, lunch the next and dinner on the third day; or she might prepare lunch and dinner one day, and cook for a dinner party of six the next evening. “It was all over the place and sometimes there’d be a week when there’d be nothing.”
Grote had carte blanche, essentially, to make what she, and the Shields’, liked. As part of that she had to be aware ahead of time of any food allergies or preferences of the guests they entertained. As someone who’s observed a gluten-free diet for three years, she “was very sensitive to knowing it was really important.”
Similarly, Kasten has seen an increase in the number of clients who have been told by doctors to change their diet and improve their nutrition, by reducing salt and sugar intake, and eating more vegetables and grains. They tend to be shorter-term clients who will use his services for three or four months, or however long it takes to make the shift from old to new diet.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people to get started in nutrition,” he said. Rather than resorting to taking medication right away, he said, people reason that if they “eat right (they) can really change the tide.”
Dealing with allergies to foods or gluten, or accommodating diners who are vegetarian or vegan, has, de facto, become a part of the job, Clarke said. At heart, though, cooking is a form of communication, between the chef and the food, and the chef and the diner.
“I really, really enjoy seeing people enjoy great food,” Clarke added. “We deliver surprise and delight, and that drives everything we do.”
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727- 3211.