Truckee-based private chef turns up the heat in residential kitchens
Special to the Sun
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Moving methodically around the kitchen, Jason DiGuilio sets his oven to preheat and carefully prepares a tray of baguettes topped with white cheddar gruyere, bacon and sage.
“I don’t know what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t found cooking,” the self-taught chef said.
Although tonight’s dinner is being served to DiGuilio’s closest friends, he’s nonetheless professional, meticulous and clean — a sign of confidence acquired after 20-some years in the fast-paced restaurant industry, which he left in 2013 to launch his personal chef company, Tahoe Culinary Services.
“I could never be one of those people who sits in a cubical all day,” he said, stirring a saucepan of simmering red wine demi-glace. “Being a chef has provided me with a living, not just from a financial standpoint, but also from the standpoint of being happy with what I do every day.”
He checks the temperature on a beef tenderloin sous vide — French for “under vacuum” — his preferred method for cooking tender, juicy meat by sealing it in an airtight bag, submerging it in a water bath, and heating it to a precise temperature for an extended period of time before giving it a quick sear on the grill.
“You never know what kind of equipment you’re going to find — or not find — in someone else’s kitchen,” DiGuilio said. “That was definitely my biggest challenge at first, but I have my system down now in terms of knowing what I need to bring and how I’m going to execute each menu in a kitchen I know nothing about.”
TACKLING THE UNKNOWN
Growing up in the East Bay, DiGuilio’s palate grew by watching his Sicilian grandmother whip up homemade pasta noodles and sauces for the family.
While whisking together vinaigrette, DiGuilio explained how he left home and moved to Quincy to become a firefighter, only to put the forestry career on the chopping block after realizing it meant scraping by on an unpredictable income.
“I’m the kind of person who will just go for something, and if it works out, that’s awesome, and if it doesn’t, it’s a learning experience,” he said.
He goes on to describe how, in his early ‘20s, he went back to work on a hot line, where he was later approached by a restaurateur who offered him the chance to help redesign an old restaurant from the ground up.
One year after the grand reopening, she offered to sell the restaurant to DiGuilio for the reasonable price of $1.
“Long story short, we had become friends, and she liked my cooking style, and she really believed in me,” DiGuilio said with a chuckle of disbelief that suggests — even now — he deems the offer too good to be true. “I didn’t end up making much in profit, but the experience of running a restaurant was worth it.”
SETTING A TIMER FOR TAHOE
In 2005, DiGuilio decided to throw in the towel and leave Quincy for a sous chef position in Mammoth Lakes, where he furthered his self-made culinary education in subjects like French cuisine, high-altitude cooking techniques, and food and wine pairing.
“I never went to culinary school, but I joined a cookbook club when I was in my ‘20s, and I learned as I went along,” he said. “I have a huge bookshelf full of cookbooks that are dog-eared with recipes from my past. It’s interesting to go through them and look back at the progression of things.”
In 2009, that progression led DiGuilio to put his restaurateur skills back to the test as executive chef at Tahoe Vista’s Wild Goose and Northstar’s Schaffer’s Camp, both owned by Tahoe Mountain Club.
“When you’re the executive chef, you have to wear so many hats from scheduling manager to accountant to fix-it guy,” he said. “I still did a lot of cooking as the head chef, but all those other responsibilities required me to work seven days a week, 16-18 hours a day.”
By the time Wild Goose changed ownership, DiGuilio was preparing to spread his wings on a much-needed vacation in Bali, where he was able to take a step back and see the bigger picture — one that was being painted in a private, custom-designed kitchen.
“People knew my cooking from Wild Goose and other events like Best of Tahoe Chefs, so that was my savior when I first got started because I wasn’t just some dude who came into town and said ‘I’m a private chef, hire me,’” said DiGuilio, who also has a few medals under his belt from Lake Tahoe’s Autumn Food and Wine Festival.
IF THE PERSONAL CHEF HAT FITS…
Word of mouth worked wonders for DiGuilio, who handles all aspects of his business from the initial consultation and custom menu planning to end-of-service clean up and final invoicing.
“I miss the sound of a kitchen from time to time, and the camaraderie of working with a team, but cooking in someone’s home is a unique experience in its own right,” he said. “It changes every single time — different kitchen, different client, different menu — and I love that aspect of it.”
Wearing the personal chef hat also provides DiGuilio with the freedom that comes with being his own boss, writing his own schedule, and most importantly, cooking his own food.
“It’s an intimate thing to feed people, especially in the privacy of their home because it means they’re putting trust in you to take care of them in a sustainable, healthy way, and I consider that to be a huge honor,” he said.
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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