The foibles of the rich and famous is a common topic in media and glamour magazines. One particularly well-loved topic is the odd food requirements that celebrities and touring musicians issue while they are on the road- legends of requests for bowls of M&Ms without any green ones and such peculiarities are common. However, until recently, no one has known much about how the wealthy act about their food when they are at home. Enter Michael Harwood.
Harwood has been a private chef for the sort of people who can afford private chefs for many years. Now, he’s ready to share his tales of particular tastes and odd extravagances.
The most basic sort of request that a private chef gets is a meal that is most notable for its cost. For example, one couple liked to have baked potatoes in front of the TV. This is not that unusual, except for the topping that the couple wanted on top- top-shelf caviar. The caviar brought the cost of the meal up to over a thousand pounds- per night. This is just one example of the way that money can make a person’s perspective change. A Russian oligarch living abroad was averse to eating any and all solid food. He required that all food be blended, pureed, or mashed before being served, so that he would never need to chew.
These kinds of requests are examples of the general fact that the rich often have rich tastes. There are exceptions, of course- like the royal family, who prefer to eat simply. For the most part, though, the life of a private chef is one of balancing an employer’s personal quirks with the standards of what makes good food. It is far from easy to take the finest ingredients in the world and craft them into a dish that must be liquefied.
Being a private chef can be an exciting opportunity, but that is not to say that it is easy work. The demands of dealing with eccentric eaters on a daily basis is hard enough for most chefs. Combine that with the fact that the audience is often just one person, and things get quite complicated. This is especially true if that one audience has the power to replace you on a whim. It takes more deftness and ability to think on one’s feet than the ordinary experience of being a chef, even one in a top restaurant.
One of the biggest differences between being a restaurant chef and being a personal chef is control. As a chef in charge of a restaurant, you have a great deal of control over the menu. It is possible to experiment with different dishes and innovate with new styles. As long as at least some of the guests like the food and keep coming back, there will still be an audience for the food. On the other hand, when it comes to being a private chef, there is paradoxically less control, because one bad review can mean the end of the job. The customer is always right, especially when there is only one customer. As a result, the peculiarities of that one customer have far greater influence over the daily menu than any customer at a restaurant. On the other hand, if the client is a big fan of the chef’s work, that can give them even more leeway to experiment than a restaurant chef would have. It is a fine line- a chef with a strong relationship with the client can use their creativity every day, while a chef in a precarious position needs to use their creativity just enough to walk the line in avoiding getting fired.
That leads to some crazy situations and work-arounds. For example, Yuda Galis, a longtime private chef, told a story about one client who refused to eat any food that was not the color green. This calls to mind the green M&Ms of legend, but with a more serious consequence. Green doesn’t just rule out meat and most carbs- it means no juicy red tomatoes, dark beans, raisins, nuts, croutons- quite a few different ingredients that are crucial parts of giving a good salad depth of flavor and texture. Try restricting yourself to green food and see how long you can last before you crave variety- and now imagine being the one to cook that way and come up with new ideas for meals every day. It is an exhausting challenge.
Being a private chef can be exhilarating, rewarding, and terrifying, all at the same time. It is a cultural fact that the eccentricities of the rich are larger than life, due to their outsized power, influence, and freedom. When you extend that idea to their meals, the results can be quite interesting. A private chef is a member of an elite class, a lonely master of the culinary arts. Whether going into being a private chef will pay off depends on skill, personal skills, creativity, and luck, but one thing is for sure- it is bound to result in tons of great stories.