Lake Tahoe’s private chef industry redefines the home-cooked meal
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — If having a personal trainer at your fingertips, a winter chalet at Lake Tahoe or a Swedish masseuse on speed-dial is a sign you’re living the good life, it’s time to consider tacking a personal chef on to the list of obtainable indulgences.
What was once considered a service afforded by a wealthy few is now cropping in more modest kitchens around the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is the experience of a private chef service,” said Holly Verbeck, co-founder of HeyChef! — a Truckee-based culinary concierge that places chefs and wait-staff in private homes throughout the Tahoe region.
Dining at a restaurant can be a memorable experience in itself, but hiring a private chef makes the process of eating unforgettable
First and foremost, nothing compares to watching someone else — let alone a culinary professional — cook in the privacy of your kitchen.
Factor in the freedom to wear pajamas to dinner, to drink above the legal limit without getting behind a wheel and to pop in “Finding Nemo” at the first site of a toddler’s tears — which, let’s face it, can be an unpleasant part of the restaurant scene — and you’ve found plenty of reasons to Google the nearest personal chef.
Restaurants and temper tantrums aside, there are other things to worry about when hosting a dinner party, like slaving over a hot stove, topping off your guest’s drinks, managing your children and your guest’s children, taking allergy requests and finally, tackling the stack of dirty dishes at the end of the night.
Eliminate all those elements and you’ll find yourself in a unique position: a guest in your own home.
“There’s a high concentration of affluent vacationers with a density of second homes in our area, so I think the Tahoe-Truckee region in particular offers a great opportunity for chefs to get out from behind the line and showcase their skills in a special, private setting,” said Verbeck, who launched HeyChef! 18 years ago with her husband, French-trained chef, Grog Verbeck.
MAXIMIZING THYME IN TAHOE
While there is no shortage of high-quality restaurants at Lake Tahoe, there is a shortage of time for second-home owners, vacationers and locals looking to maximize their Tahoe experience.
Calculate the time it takes to grocery shop, prep, cook and serve each meal, not to mention cleaning up the kitchen, and you’ll see where your free time has been swallowed up. Factor in a few kid’s menus and a grocery store meltdown or two, and what was once a blissful weekend getaway is not much different than the day-to-day grind.
As the back office expert behind the scenes of the company, Holly oversees the business logistics, allowing clients to kick back and hang up the apron so Chef Grog and their fleet of culinary pros can do what they do best: cook delicious food.
“The most time consuming things of everyday life are the daily tasks we all have to engage in,” Verbeck said. “Cooking, eating, shopping and stocking a kitchen while you’re on vacation can be a hassle, especially when there are multiple families involved, and it jeopardizes the most valuable thing you come up here for, which is time – time with family and friends, time for yourself, and time to relax.”
TO FALL IS TO SUCCEED
As part of HeyChef!’s network of on-call culinary professionals, personal chef and longtime Tahoe resident, Michael Plapp — owner of Meals by Michael — reinvented his career several times over, from engineer to restaurateur to personal chef.
After years behind the line at numerous reputable restaurants in the basin, Plapp said he’s found himself most at home in someone else’s kitchen.
“Besides the possibility of having my own business and living in the mountains, cooking appealed to me for the creative freedom and immediate feedback,” said Plapp, who also counts rock climbing and spending time with his wife and two grown children as ways to feed his soul. “I think the personal chef business is the ultimate expression of this.”
Finding his footing in the private chef world hasn’t been without its slip-ups, but the soft-spoken thrill-seeker knows from his time spent scaling giant walls of rock — if you aren’t falling, you aren’t trying hard enough.
“There’s been some uncertainty because I never know what the next month will look like in terms of work, but then I’ll get a few calls and it always seems to work out,” Plapp said.
Plapp has lent his menu creations and restaurant knowledge to countless dining establishments across North Lake Tahoe — like Big Water Grille (Incline Village), Plumpjack Café (Squaw Valley) and Morgan’s Lobster Shack (Truckee) — but it wasn’t until he stepped into a private home that he realized what his line of work had been missing all those years: gratitude.
Receiving a compliment for his food is, for him, much like the rush he feels when he reaches the top of a difficult climb — there’s a satisfaction and self-reward that far exceeds any title or paycheck.
“All of the side distractions of operating a restaurant are stripped away,” Plapp said. “You create a menu, cook the food and witness the results as you share it with guests.”
CHANGING THE GENDER GAME
It doesn’t take a rock climber to understand the value in overcoming obstacles, whether it’s in life or in the kitchen.
In spite of a long-standing, iconic image of a woman laboring over a stove, the professional world of cooking is predominately saturated with men, and encountering a female head chef behind the line is still widely considered an exception.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or in Chef Julia Paradysz’s case, bring on the heat in a club of mostly boys.
“It’s like a game of cowboys and Indians in any given kitchen, but luckily for me, my parents raised a strong-willed, level-headed person that was both my father’s son and my mother’s daughter,” said Paradysz, who left the corporate marketing world to work behind a fast-paced line at Montbleu Resort Casino & Spa at Tahoe’s South Shore.
“If you’re a girl in a kitchen, you’ve got to grow some thick skin, because it can be intimidating,” she said. “I’m so passionate about what I do that nothing anyone else says really matters, unless of course, it’s about my food.”
Rising to the occasion in a high-temperature, male-dominated setting takes practice, and for Chef Julia, it was hammering out close to 1,000 tacos a day at Montbleu’s Mexican joint, where she gained unparalleled experience, as well as “street cred” among her male counterparts.
“The biggest thing working there taught me was speed and the ability to move really quickly in a kitchen, which helps me time manage a lot of other things in my life outside of cooking,” Paradysz said, presumably referring to her other titles, like wife, mother, entrepreneur and philanthropist. “That job was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but it made me appreciate working as a chef in a higher-caliber kitchen, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
FEEDING THE SOUL
A chef doesn’t have to be a woman in a man’s world in order to take his knife skills to the next level. For Randy Anger, owner of Jauquin’s Personal Chef Services based in Tahoe City, the career game changer happened when he left the world of bartending to clean up his resumé, and his life.
Nowadays, the self-taught chef, music buff and long-distance runner whips up culinary masterpieces for families of four to weddings of 100.
“When I look back at those years bartending, I feel like I lost a part of my soul that I’ll never get back — I’m at peace with it — but it wasn’t a healthy lifestyle for me,” said Anger, who holds barbecue, fresh herbs and understanding allergies to the highest regard. “The Randy of then wouldn’t believe the Randy of now. I get to feed people healthy, delicious food, and that is the ultimate gift, because if you think about it, we can’t live without food — we can live without other things — but food is what brings us all together, and that’s what makes this so rewarding.”
Anger, whose kitchen alias is Chef Jauquin, redefined his career from line cook in his 20s to bartender in his 30s to the self-taught private chef he is today.
Outside of the kitchen, the entrepreneur showcases his creativity through his merchandise and apparel company, Tahoe Basics, a popular brand worn by both locals and visitors.
“I would never have expected this industry to take off like it is right now, and I’m lucky because I got in early enough that I get to watch it transform from an affluent thing into something that’s more family oriented and more economically accessible,” Anger said. “And it’s not just growing as a service, but as a profession, too, because I think the internet really opened the door to exploring different cuisines, and that’s when self-taught chefs became more abundant.”
COOKING FOR THE BIGGER PICTURE
At the top of his game is dual citizen of San Francisco and North Lake Tahoe, Chef Kellan Hori, whose colorful creations have found their way onto tables and television screens across the country.
In addition to his personal chef company, Kellan’s Kitchen, Hori is also a member of a growing San Francisco-based chef concierge service, Kitchit — two non-restaurant endeavors that allow him to express his passion for simple ingredients, fresh herbs, bold flavors and any meal involving a grill.
“The private chef business is growing, and not just in volume, but also exposure,” said Chef Hori. “Food is growing to become a spectator sport; for example, I recently had an eight year old ask for something like kale, quinoa and locally sourced halibut because he’s either had it or he’s seen it on television.”
It’s possible that eight year old has even seen Hori showcase his chef skills as a competitor on the Food Network’s reality series, “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which aired last October.
Hori said the challenges were anything but scripted and the sabotages were very real, but that didn’t prevent him from claiming victory over his competitors.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, well, aside from being a hand model,” the young entrepreneur and culinary artist said with a laugh. “Honestly though, I can’t see myself doing anything else, especially working in a restaurant, because being a personal chef is a completely different experience, and at the end of a meal, you get to see your clients smile, you’re a part of what made them happy that night.
“And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.