Whenever people think of Chefs, they automatically think of those Cheflebrities on the Food Network: Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, Mario Batali. What they are missing out on are the amazing chefs who work in the Personal Chef field. This market is growing fast. I have used personal chefs in the past. They take the sting out of having your 40 family members over for Thanksgiving. Personal chefs are perfect when you’re just starting a diet, it is much easier to follow a diet when you have a pro sticking to the rules and creating something delicious. One Personal Chef we particularly love is Alex Tishman. Tishman is young, innovative, and talented. I recently caught up with Chef Tishman to learn a bit more about the life of a personal chef:
Blanca Valbuena: Alex, did you grow up cooking?
Alex Tishman: I grew up watching my mom in the kitchen. I learned a lot about cooking from her, especially when it comes to dedication for local, organic ingredients, and solid cooking techniques. For as long as I can remember, she’s always grown her own herbs and lots of vegetables, and treated them respectfully and carefully, Family meals were always really important growing up, and food was a central part of our gatherings Even now, we have burritos the first night any of us come home to visit. She cooks the beans all day long, and we still heat the tortillas in the same two cast iron skillets we’ve used for 25years. When I was really little, my parents used to make ice cream the old fashioned way, with rock salt and hand churning in a bath tub full of ice. Those food memories really form the base of my love for food and cooking.
BV: When did you know that cooking was more than just a hobby, but that it would become your way of life?
AT: Thinking back, I first got the cooking bug in high school. My senior year I was dating this girl who lived just a few blocks from school, and we had a special off campus lunch tradition. We would go to her house during lunch, and I’d make cherries jubilee, or bananas foster, or something else equally alcoholic and flammable. I realize in retrospect this was probably not the safest lunch for a seventeen year old, but at the time I loved it. I thought to myself, “OK, this is awesome; maybe I can do this!” Really though, I just like to play with my food. When I was a kid, I used to roast grapes on sticks when we would have campfires. Funny thing is that when I worked at Acquerello, we had a guinea hen duo with roasted grapes! That’s when I know that cooking was it for me.
BV: And when did you decide to become a personal chef? What was the catalyst to make you go in this direction?
AT: I made the decision to become a personal chef in April of 2011. I had helped open a restaurant in the East Bay, and after two years of running the kitchen and growing the business, I felt like I wanted something more. I kept hearing this voice in my head, telling me that I didn’t want to be doing this forever; bending over and pulling hot pans out of an oven for someone else into my sixties. I was starting to tire of the restaurant lifestyle. I’ve never been much of a partier, so that element of restaurant life didn’t appeal to me, and I was sick of being exhausted and broke all the time, frankly. The idea of being a personal chef was so appealing to me because I knew it would give me the flexibility to cook what I wanted, when I wanted. I had other interests like gardening and music, which a new lifestyle would allow me to explore further.
BV: You went to California Culinary Academy, was the training to become a personal chef different than that of a “standard” chef?
AT: I would say the training to become a personal chef is basically the same. When I went to the C.C.A., I didn’t anticipate becoming a personal chef. I wanted to have a restaurant and be “the chef” and all that, and my focus in school was learning as much as possible. I learned about the fundamentals of cooking, safety/sanitation, and lots of food history. While it seemed elementary at the time, I still use so much of what I learned there every day. Here’s the thing about culinary school; people think that once they graduate, they’re a chef. Spoiler alert, they aren’t. When I left culinary school, I was an intern, and then a pretty bad line cook, and then finally a good line cook. I took years and years before I felt confident enough to run a kitchen and actually deserve the title of chef. Becoming a personal chef was just an extension of that journey for me.
BV: You did a good amount of time at brick and mortar restaurants, what is the biggest difference between a restaurant like say Acquerello and working as a personal chef?
AT: The biggest difference between working in a restaurant and working as a personal chef is the approach. In a restaurant, there is more opportunity to build a regular customer base, fine tune dishes, improve relationships with purveyors, train and be trained by other chefs, and learn by repetition. Also the scale of a 250 seat restaurant is obviously bigger than a private dinner party for 8. As a personal chef, I work mostly alone, do all the prep on site for an event, shop at markets for products, and have a single opportunity to make a good impression with a client. Also, being a personal chef requires a much more attentive level of personal service, and individual planning regarding each client. You REALLY need to be a people person.
BV: What is the best (and the worst) thing about being a personal chef?
AT: The best thing is the schedule, undoubtedly. Going from working 60-80 hours a week, to having a basically normal life was incredible. The worst thing for me is not being able to bounce ideas off of other chefs daily, and having more limited access to products, equipment, and resources.
BV: How easy is it for a personal chef to find work?
AT: It varies, of course, but if you work with an agency, as I do, it’s a lot easier. It can be done independently, but then you’d have to spend all your time looking for clients and marketing.
BV: What is the biggest misconception people have when getting into the field?
AT: I think people have this idea that being a chef is easy and fun and that if you like to cook, then you can be a chef. It’s easy to think that, especially because so many people can relate to food and cooking. Television shows that glamorize chefs and their lives certainly don’t help, either. Being a chef of any sort- private, restaurant, corporate, or whatever- is seriously hard work and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
BV: What is the best piece of advice you can give to someone who wants to become a personal chef?
BV: How do you think personal chefs are viewed by the industry?
AT: I get the feeling that the industry views personal chefs as something less than, or not as good as restaurant chefs. While I understand where this comes from, and there is a certain level of clout as the chef of a big name restaurant, I think it’s undeserved. Does being a carpenter working for a big contractor or working as an independent woodworker necessarily change the actual level of ability or skill of the craftsman? I think not. Same deal with chefs.
BV: Tell me more about your role at Big City Chefs?
AT: As the lead chef for Big City Chefs in San Francisco, I am primarily responsible for all San Francisco Bay Area clients, which means that I receive all client leads for dinner parties, weekly meals, corporate and private cooking classes, etc. It gives me the stability to have enough consistent work, but also the opportunity to branch out a little more, do pop-up dinners, caviar tastings, winery demonstrations and much more. So if you’re looking for a private chef for dinner or event in the Bay Area, you’ll almost certainly be working with me.
BV: OMG – caviar tastings, I want in! What do you see as the biggest benefit someone can derive from a personal chef?
AT: Probably being able to have a fantastic customized dinner in your own home, without any of the clean up, preparation, getting dressed up or worrying about transportation. Also, people always seem to take off their shoes when they are having a nice dinner at home. I still don’t know why.
BV: What are the three cooking tools you could not live without?
BV: At home, what do you like to eat?
AT: At home I eat really simply. I like to make brown rice and roasted vegetables, or sandwiches, or cereal. Cooking all day is fun and very rewarding, and it’s very tempting to make a big production of every meal I make, but I think it’s really important not to burn out. Cooking as simply as I can when I’m home is very grounding.
BV: What is the craziest story you have from your time as a personal chef?
AT: One time I did a 40th birthday dinner party for 8 women in Sonoma, and they asked me to play “beer twister” with them afterwards. That was fun.
BV: Can you share a recipe?
AT: Something I love to make, especially this time of year, is Deviled Duck Eggs. My parents have a few ducks as pets and they often have more eggs than they can eat, so I will sometimes get a few if I’m lucky enough to be home.
(makes 24 egg halves)
1 dozen duck eggs, fresh, washed well in warm soapy water
1 cup mayonnaise
3 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 medium rib celery, minced
1 small garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 Tablespoon hot sauce (I like Tapatio)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch fresh chives, cut into batons, with their flowers still attached
Gently lower the eggs in a pot of cold water large enough to hold them all comfortably. Place the pot on high heat and bring to a boil. As soon as the water begins to boil, cover it with a tight fitting lid and remove from the heat. Wait 12 minutes.
Drain the eggs and return them to the empty pot. Fill the pot with ice and then add enough cold water to cover the eggs completely. Allow the eggs to cool completely.
Gently crack each egg on one side of the shell, and then roll it on a cutting board. Carefully peel under running water, ensuring that all the shell is removed. Repeat with remaining eggs.
Cut the eggs in half lengthwise, wiping the knife clean between each cut, and remove all the yolks into the bowl of a food processor. Reserve the emptied whites until assembly.
Add the mayonnaise, celery, garlic, hot sauce, salt and pepper to the yolks. Pulse on high speed until smooth, scraping down the sides as necessary.
Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while pulsing the mixture, until it is completely incorporated. Remove from the work bowl and season.
Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip.
Carefully pipe enough of the filling into each egg white to come up about an inch above the level of the egg white.
To garnish, place a few chive batons and a few chive flowers on top of each egg. Serve immediately.
BV: What do you think is the most exciting thing about being a Chef?
AT: I feel that chefs have a responsibility to support sustainable agriculture and to encourage people to use the best products they can find. Chefs are the ones who can make food trends happen, and I don’t just mean foams and cupcakes and bacon mania. We are obligated to make good food choices, not only for the sake of the ground in which our food is grown, but because properly raised food TASTES BETTER. Really, our job is to make the most delicious food possible, and considering that goes hand in hand with natural farming, it seems obvious that we should be looking out for ourselves when deciding what to eat and grow. Also, living in San Francisco gives us the opportunity to garden all year long. I recently planted seeds for radishes, lemon cucumbers, basil, chives, and nastrutiums, and they are just starting to come up! It’s so rewarding to grow your own food, even if it’s just a few sprouts here and there. I recommend everyone grow a little food for themselves!