Visit Cronig’s Market early in the morning during the summer and you are very likely to run into one or two or three of the dozen or so private chefs on the Island, getting supplies to start their day of cooking.

Most don’t advertise or hang a shingle like a restaurant, but all are more than booked during the summer, preparing luncheons or supplying dinners to three or four households. It’s nearly impossible to hire one of these chefs in July and August if you haven’t booked them by the previous winter or spring, but that changes by Labor Day. If you are planning a special event or just want to indulge in the luxury of having someone else prepare your meal – off-season is the time.

A private chef is someone to call for help with cooking in one capacity or another. This might be dinner for your family a few nights a week, a special luncheon event, a week of cooking for a new mother, or a cocktail party for twenty or thirty people.

Technically, a private chef works exclusively for one family, and a personal chef, like a fitness coach, has multiple clients. But often the words are used interchangeably. Many handle other kitchen or food-related jobs, such as consulting on kitchen design or offering cooking lessons.

Private chefs tend to work on a smaller scale than caterers who handle weddings, corporate events, and fundraisers. “A caterer normally doesn’t like to take on these kinds of small jobs,” says private chef Jill Amado. “It’s not economical enough for them; their kitchens are too big. That’s where the private chef comes in – we fill that gap.”

Private chefs tend to work in people’s homes for the same families on a regular basis, and many prefer this because it takes time to get to learn a family’s preferences, likes, and dislikes. Most do not like to be called to make one dish like a casserole or lasagna to supplement a dinner party.

What can you expect to pay? On the Island, the going rate ranges from $45 to $70 per hour. That includes shopping and prepping through plating and cleanup. In some cases, you can save some money by getting a drop-off delivery of food or asking the chef to recommend a server who would also handle cleanup.

Thriving in a home kitchen

The daughter of a butcher and sister of a wine representative, Carrie Mae Smith of West Tisbury has combined her two passions – art and cooking – during the last eleven seasons working as a private chef on Martha’s Vineyard. Carrie studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and paints landscapes and still lifes. She is represented by the Etherington Fine Art gallery in Tisbury, and her recent work includes paintings of food. When she first came to the Island twelve years ago, she started as a waitress at the Nunnepog restaurant at the airport, then managed by Wendy Weisman-Jenkinson. On the second day of work, Carrie showed up with fresh mint from the garden to garnish plates, and Wendy told her she was “on the wrong side.” The next day she was in the kitchen. Carrie’s restaurant experience includes Aurora Provisions and Tabitha Jean’s, both in Portland, Maine, as well as restaurants and cafes in Philadelphia, Scotland, and Ireland.

What are the benefits of being a private chef as opposed to working in a restaurant?
Being a private chef allows me to use my creativity more freely. At a restaurant, you’re working under a chef, you’re following their creative vision. Being a private chef, you are your own boss – you work with the client, but ultimately you have the creative freedom to create menus and the presentation. I love the combination of aesthetics and taste – creating food that tastes good and looks beautiful.

Also you are creating the whole meal beginning with the shopping, baking bread (sometimes), appetizer, entrée, dessert, and cleanup. If the party is big enough, I hire help, but mostly I do everything myself. In a restaurant, you work in a station and have a specific set of responsibilities. It is more stationary and repetitive. A private chef creates different menus each day, according to the needs and tastes of the clients and maybe even the weather.

I like the variety of working for different people, at different locations, and the variety of creating different foods. I am able to see locations I wouldn’t normally see – on Chappaquiddick, Seven Gates, Lake Tashmoo. There are some beautiful homes and views from the homes where I have watched the sun set and the fog roll in over the ocean. The light is so spectacular on this Island.

As an artist, I like the fact that it’s more flexible. I don’t have to be on a set schedule, I can turn down jobs if I need to work in the studio. Of course, that’s not so true here in the summertime.

I love that I can see and experience firsthand the joy that food can contribute to a dinner party. In a restaurant, you’re not able to see whether the people are enjoying their food.

I love the Island for all its locally grown produce. I go to the Farmer’s Market in West Tisbury and participate in the Whippoorwill Farm CSA [community supported agriculture] program. I love to be able to pick the produce firsthand, and I mostly build my menus around what is in season locally.

The restaurants here are pretty good; they do make an effort to use local supplies. But as a chef in a restaurant, you wouldn’t have this same personal experience of picking out each tomato and serving it that same day. It is an advantage of working on a smaller scale.

Carrie Mae Smith’s Cape Malay chicken

I’ve made this recipe for people on many occasions, and it’s always been a big hit. Most memorable was a dinner party in Reykjavik, Iceland, when the guests attacked the carcass of the chicken and began gnawing on the bones. The flavor of this spice rub tends toward Indian, as the cape of the southern tip of Africa became a colony for the Dutch East India Company in the mid-seventeenth century, and brought together great cooking traditions from East India, Malaya, and Indonesia. I like to serve this chicken with roasted sweet potatoes and leeks.

Serves 4 to 6

• 1 whole roasting chicken, or 3 pounds parts, such as breasts or wings
• 2 teaspoons garlic, crushed
• 1 teaspoon fresh ginger root, crushed
• 2 teaspoons masala
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon turmeric
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for searing

1. Rinse the chicken, and pat dry with paper towels.

2. Mix the remaining ingredients together, making a paste. Rub chicken with spice rub; let marinate a minimum of 3 hours or up to 2 days.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place the oven rack in the center position.

4. Heat a cast-iron skillet to medium-high; add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and swirl it around in the pan. Place the chicken, breast side down, in skillet and sear for 2 to 4 minutes, flip onto side and then remaining side, cooking until skin is golden brown on all sides. With breast side up, move skillet to the oven. Cook for 50 to 60 minutes, basting every 20 minutes with juices from the pan. A meat thermometer should read 160 degrees when done.

Adapted from Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay: Food from Africa (Metz Press, 1995).

Part of the family

Elizabeth Germain has been a whole foods chef, food writer, and cooking instructor for the past fifteen years, and has cooked for a number of families in Boston and on Martha’s Vineyard on a regular basis. Elizabeth honed her cooking skills at two well-known Boston-area restaurants, East Coast Grill and Icarus. For seven years, she also worked as a contributing editor for Cook’s Illustrated magazine where she developed recipes, wrote articles, and tested hundreds of recipes. She moved to the Island seven years ago to take a private cooking job in Chilmark, where she lives year-round on the property of one of her clients. She’s active in the sustainable foods movement and serves as vice president for Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard.    

What is it like cooking for some of the same families over several years?

Often at the beginning, a family is more hands-on and much more specific, not just we want fish or chicken, but we want this prepared this way, and we want this with it. Over time, I find that almost all of that falls away. A lot of times I’ll just have someone say to me a choice regarding protein, or because they know I cook so many cultural ethnicities, sometimes I’ll get a request for Chinese food or Japanese food, but then they let me take it from there.

As the relationship evolves, I feel like I get to have a sense of what they like even more than they know what they like, because I’m the one out there. I’m around all these great ingredients. What you’re providing is not just food but this whole experience. I love how when people are gathered around the table, the food can feel like it’s the centerpiece, but almost fades into background. You’re not stressed by having to get the dinner on the table, but you can also really relax into the experience of eating and sharing with other people.

The table becomes a place where people look forward to gathering and friends like the idea that they can drop in and be invited to dinner if it’s that kind of open door experience. I have cooked for families and that’s the way it is. You may think there’s nine for dinner, but by the time you sit down there’s fourteen. If kids know they can easily have Jimmy over for dinner, and mom’s going to say yes, that makes everyone’s life happier.

Because I cook regularly for these families, I do the special occasions as well, whether it be a wedding or a birth or engagement or somebody’s graduation. You become almost part of the family. You’re celebrating with them as you’re creating really specifically for them because you know so well what they enjoy. If you do a couple of those special events for clients, they know that you know how to make sure everything’s being taken care of, from the rentals to the flowers.

I’ve really watched the children grow up. To have that influence in children’s growing years with food is just such a gift, because you can open up their world to truly the abundance that’s available to us, how it’s something to enjoy, and also the importance of eating, so they’re taking care of themselves.
I remember there was one boy I was cooking for; he wasn’t really very adventurous at all. He was eating just pasta and chicken and all those white foods, but he wanted to be in the kitchen with me, and through that, he started tasting more, and he eats everything now.

Elizabeth Germain’s Sicilian seafood stew

Traditionally prepared with tuna or swordfish, this tomato-based fish stew marries well with a variety of local fish. Easy and quick to prepare, green olives, golden raisins, red pepper flakes, capers, pine nuts, and mint provide a bright contrast of flavors, colors, and textures. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

Serves 3 to 4

• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
• 3 large garlic cloves, minced
• Pinch of red pepper flakes
• 1/4 cup dry white wine
• 1 1/2 cups drained diced tomatoes, or 14.5-ounce can
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 cup fish stock
• 2 tablespoons golden raisins
• 1 tablespoon drained capers
• 1/4 cup pitted green olives, chopped
• Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 1/2 pounds thick-flesh fish, skin
    removed, cut into large chunks
• 2 tablespoons mint leaves, coarsely chopped
• 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

1. Heat olive oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add white wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, fish stock, raisins, capers, olives, and salt and pepper to taste. Increase heat to high until boiling, and then immediately reduce heat and simmer until flavors blend and mixture has thickened, about 15 minutes.

2. Stir in the fish; bring back to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking, for 8 minutes. Remove pot from heat, cover, and let stand until the fish is just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Remove and discard the bay leaf, taste and adjust seasonings. Serve immediately, garnishing each bowl with mint and pine nuts.

Just heat and serve

Jill Amado of West Tisbury began working as a private chef on the Island in 1997, heading to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for more formal training in 2001. She started cooking early in life, making pies with her grandmother as a child. She continued her collaboration by working with other Island chefs, including former restaurant owner and private chef Tina Miller. Like other private chefs on Martha’s Vineyard, Jill is lucky if she gets one day off a week in the summer. Her business includes a lot of “drop-off” dinner deliveries for clients, as well as cooking for cocktail and dinner parties.

What’s a day like in the life of a private chef?

As a private chef, the first thing I do for any client, the night before or the morning of, is plan a menu. I usually have an idea of what I’d like to do, depending on what I’ve prepared for a client during the week. Most of the people never request anything. They just tell me what they don’t like to eat or can’t eat. So it’s normally a surprise to them what they’re getting for dinner.

A drop-off would be a full meal, either starting with a little appetizer or hors d’oeuvre, a salad, a soup – anything they would want – to a full dinner including a vegetable; beef, chicken, or fish; and dessert. It’s for people who just want to have a small dinner party or a family who wants to have a dinner prepared for them a few nights every week. Everything’s prepared and they just have to heat it. It’s basically in one pan, so everything’s layered. Today I’m doing risotto cakes, grilled halibut on that, and beautiful sautéed vegetables. So when they scoop it up, they can just put it on their plate.

There’s basically four families I have a relationship with on a weekly basis. One is four days, one is three days, and it overlaps a lot. Sometimes I’ll be cooking for two or three families at a time, so that’s interesting to figure out, who has what.

I normally head to the fish store and see what looks good. Then I work around that. I head up either to Cronig’s Market or the Farmer’s Market or to one of the farm stands to see what’s fresh or what looks really good and what would work well with whatever fish or poultry I got.

And then preparing is basically trying to make the food look beautiful and appetizing and also easy for the client to reheat. You’re really trying to figure out where to stop cooking in my kitchen so when they put it in their oven it’s not overdone. Some clients like the food to be in the oven only ten minutes at the most. Some people want it cooked all the way through and just want to heat it up, which is hard for me, because I’m always worried about it being overcooked and not tasting right. But I’ve never had any complaints.

There are menus printed up with heating instructions. When I get to their house, sometimes they’re not even there. I put things into the refrigerator, move things around, because every refrigerator is always so jam packed. And off I go to another client.

Jill Amado’s beef bourguignon

Serve this hearty stew with a green salad and crusty French bread.

Serves 6

• 3 pounds lean stewing beef (chuck or sirloin tip), cut into 2-inch cubes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 carrot, sliced
• 1 onion, sliced
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon pepper
• 2 tablespoons flour
• 3 cups full-bodied red wine
• 3 cups beef stock
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 1 pound button mushrooms
• 24 small white onions

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Dry beef with paper towels.

2. Sauté beef in a good-sized oven-proof pot (such as one by Le Creuset) in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and brown on all sides. Remove beef from the pot, add sliced vegetables, and sauté for a few minutes. Return beef, stir in the salt, pepper, and flour. Set in oven uncovered for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, stir beef and cook another 5 minutes.

3. Remove the pot from the oven and turn oven down to 325 degrees. Stir in the wine, beef stock, tomato paste, garlic, and herbs. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove, cover, and return to oven. Cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

4. While the beef is cooking, brown the mushrooms in a hot skillet or sauté pan with 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Once you add the mushrooms, let them brown a little before stirring them. Add mushrooms to the beef about 1 hour into cooking. Next, peel the onions and cook the same way. Add to the beef as well.

Beyond cooking

Laura Silber worked as a cook and pastry maker at L’Étoile restaurant in Edgartown for three years before heading to Sun Valley, Idaho, for a winter of skiing. While there, she created a private chef business and then traveled with clients as their chef for several years before returning full-time to the Island. She continues her private chef work and also does kitchen consulting and cooking instruction. Private chef work is suited to her lifestyle, says Laura: “I didn’t want to give up my life to a restaurant.” A former WIMP improv comedy performer, Laura built her own house in West Tisbury, where she lives with her son Isaac and creates custom furniture during the off-season.

In addition to cooking, what services do you provide?

I think of myself more as a service provider – like a massage therapist, a personal assistant type of thing. So depending on who the client is, the service will vary as to how limited it is or extensive.

I’ve organized people’s pantries. I’ve worked with the kids on eating different foods. I do the flowers in some houses. I go through and do the ordering for dry goods. I wind up getting more involved, and the client seems to prefer that.

I don’t work for a single family. I’ve had one set of clients for nine years and for them, I’ve helped renovate two kitchens. I’ve already had years of experience of how they work [in their kitchen] and how they entertain. I’ve purchased all of their pots and pans. I’ve consulted on buying hardware like stoves and refrigerators. For them, I cook meals, serve the meals, and I’ve gone to Connecticut where their primary residence is and given their housekeeper/cook cooking lessons.

I’ve done the same thing for clients in Philadelphia, where I’ve gone to Philadelphia and purchased equipment for them and given their cook lessons. Over the years, I’ve had a couple of people say, “Oh, I want to do cooking lessons. It would be really fun.” But the truth is the whole reason you have a private chef is so they don’t have to cook.

I’ve also worked on new construction, working with the architect in the primary stages designing kitchens. There are some things that architects do that are big problems. I’m not concerned about balance and aesthetics. I’m concerned about how the client is going to use the kitchen and how the kitchen is going to function and flow for that particular family.

I do some basic nutritional consulting too. I’m not certified, but I have a background in spa cooking and macrobiotics, and I come from a very healthy perspective. I’ve done a lot of work with kids trying to get them to open up their palates. I also go through the pantry and remove all the things that are going to deaden their palates or that are fillers.

I keep a detailed list of preferences for each client – guests’ names, repeat house guests. When somebody’s mother-in-law shows up, I know what they like and don’t like to eat. I never take over from the host or hostess, but they feel like somebody’s there who’s taking the time to learn everybody’s needs.

You have to be personable and personally interested without becoming involved. It takes a certain type of person to toe that line, so people feel comfortable being themselves in their house, but not feeling like you’ve become an enmeshed person in that house.

Laura Silber’s mirin-glazed sea scallops over black rice and spinach

Serves 4

For the rice:
• 1 cup forbidden Chinese rice or other dark rice (organic wild red rice, Wehani rice, etc.)
• 2 1/4 cups water
• Pinch of salt

For the glaze:
• 1 1/2 cups mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
• 2 tablespoons sweet (or seasoned) rice wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
• Juice of 1 orange
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 small shallot, minced
• Nub of ginger, minced

For the spinach:
• 1 pound cleaned spinach leaves
• 1/3 cup water
• Lemon juice to taste
For the scallops:
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 pounds fresh sea scallops
• Black sesame seeds for garnish

1. Place the rice, water, and salt into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn to simmer and cook according to the instructions on the rice package.

2. Prepare the glaze in a non-reactive sauté pan. Combine all the glaze ingredients, bring to a rolling boil, then simmer and reduce to half volume until syrupy. Remove from the heat and hold. (The glaze will thicken as it cools, but will liquefy at once when reheated.)

3. To sear the scallops, heat a cast iron or thick-bottomed sauté pan to medium-high, add the butter and olive oil, and place scallops in the hot pan. When scallops are brown on one side, turn them with tongs to brown the other side. When scallops are barely done (outside brown, center slightly raw) remove from the heat. Reheat glaze, and pour over scallops.

4. Steam the spinach in a pan with water and lemon juice, tossing with tongs until just wilted.

5. To serve: On a platter, lay a bed of black rice, ring it with steamed spinach and pile glazed scallops on top, pouring any extra glaze over everything. Finish with black sesame seeds sprinkled all over.