Let's face it, each of us has some secret desire harboring within us to be a gourmet chef, or at least a gourmet diner. Remember those mud pies you made in the backyard and served to mom and dad? Or those great culinary creations mixing 10 brands of cereal and then smothering it all in chocolate and strawberry jelly? Yes, there's a little bit of chef and/or foodie in all of us and while many may not admit it, I suspect there is a lot of guilty pleasure television viewing going on thanks to the Food Network. After all, how much more homespun or easy-peasy cooking can you get than Paula Dean? Or how about Bobby Flay's grill techniques? Or even a look at snack foods "Unwrapped."
But one of the top shows that calls out to us is PRIVATE CHEFS OF BEVERLY HILLS. Blending culinary arts with reality television, what's not to savor! Self-described as a "docu-soap", PRIVATE CHEFS follows six chefs from Beverly Hills' premiere chef-placement agency, Big City Chefs, as they are placed "on call" 24/7, catering to the culinary whims, demands, delights and dietary restrictions of the famous and not-so-famous alike. Each with diverse and eclectic backgrounds and expertise, the chefs have a chance to not only showcase their culinary skills, but entertain us with a peak into the world of private chefs.
With some of her recipes already published in the Little Big Book series, Sasha Perl-Raver, a self-described "latchkey kid" from Manhattan, is already destined to be a fan favorite. With no formal training, Sasha is the chef with whom most of us can identify as she exudes confidence and talent, bringing a joyous "If I can do it, You can do it" attitude to the show and her cooking.
I had a chance to sit down with Sasha, who talks turkey and dishes about PRIVATE CHEFS OF BEVERLY HILLS.
DLE: What is a "private chef"?
SPR: A private chef is a chef who works in private residences instead of in an industrial kitchen.
DLE: How do you decide to become a private chef? Do you just wake up one morning and say, "I think I'll be a private chef" or is it something that develops over time, perhaps from a love of food or ability and enjoyment with cooking?
SPR: I finished high school in three years instead of four (my brain is huge) so I was 16 when I graduated but decided I wasn't quite ready to go to college. I needed a job to help pay for USC and to give me something to do but I didn't have any marketable skills except my obsession with food. I started cooking when I was 7 as a latchkey kid in Manhattan. I used to take the bus home from school and my bus stop was in front of this amazing pizza parlor. It always smelled insanely good but I only had enough money for the bus, not a snack. So I would go home and make pizza from scratch. I made the dough, the sauce, everything. Those early pizzas were usually unbelievably delicious, but one time my dad cracked a tooth on the crust. You live and learn. I've just always had this crazy preoccupation with food. My most frequently asked question as a child was "What's for dinner?" and I used to read cookbooks out loud constantly to my parents like they were comic books; food was just always my thing and I don't really know why. When I was looking for work, a family friend who'd eaten my cooking for years offered me a job as her personal chef. Word of mouth spread really quickly about this 16 year old wunderkind and soon I had a roster of clients and my obsession became my profession.
DLE: We hear a lot in the media about celebrities with their own personal chefs, be it for ease, due to laziness or for dietary necessity. Who have you served as a private chef?
SPR: Interesting question! I've worked for a few celebrities but signed NDAs so I can't name names. For most of them it was a dietary necessity. They have to look great in order to do their job and what you eat is hugely instrumental to that end. Trust me, I¡¯d be a smoke show if I could learn a modicum of self-control. For other clients it was about making their lives easier, for some it was a "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" mentality, but overall I think the reason people hire private chefs is because who wouldn't want someone at their disposal to make awesome food to their specifications and at their beck and call? I'd hire me if I were rich. I think that sounds fantastic!
DLE: In reading the bios on each of the PRIVATE CHEFS competitors, it looks like everyone has their own area of specialized cuisine and expertise. What's yours and why?
SPR: I am obsessed with desserts. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn't let me have any sugar so now it's both my muse and the monkey on my back. I need to go to Fro-Yo rehab. To me, no meal is complete without something sweet and I take great pride in my desserts. As for savory stuff, I'm all about farm-to-fork, clean and fresh, followed by a major dessert. You know it's my food if there's lemon zest, Italian parsley, and farmer's market produce involved. You don't come to me for heavy, cream and butter-laden, meat meals. That's just not my thing. But it's certainly other people's. I spent my teenage years in Oakland so my food philosophy is based largely on what Alice Waters preaches.
DLE: So, what can we expect to see on PRIVATE CHEFS? For example, on Project Runway, everyone is given the same challenge which they must individually interpret. Is it a similar format with CHEFS? How does the culinary and "cheffing" process work on the show? Are there winners? Eliminations? Are you given specific meals to prepare or are the menus left to your discretion?
SPR: Our show follows six chefs who are paired up and cater three events a week. No one is eliminated and the winners, in my mind, are the clients who get to eat our rad food! As for specifics, oh yeah, there are loads of those! For the premiere, I was asked to cater a Ducati launch party hosted by Lorenzo Lamas (Renegade!) with a menu that mixed Italian (for the bikes) and Argentinean (for Lorenzo). It was a serious challenge.
DLE: Are the meals for one, two, a family or an entire event?
SPR: Some meals are for families and couples, but we also cook for events that range from 12 to 50 people.
DLE: It looks like you have some formidable competition on the show. Who would you say is your stiffest, and not in terms of personality?
SPR: Since we don't compete against each other, I don't really know how to answer that question. The sad truth is, I really love everyone I get to work with on the show. Wait! By everyone, I mean the other chefs. I wish I could say the same for clients but that would be a big fat lie.
DLE: What are some of your favorite recipes? Do you get to execute them on PRIVATE CHEFS?
SPR: As for my favorite recipes, they change all the time. This week it's Mexican Spiced Brownies with Sea Salt Dulce de Leche (which is provided below) and Tuna Churros which I made for Lorenzo Lamas on the first episode of this season. It sounds gross but it's awesome! You take spicy-smoky tuna, corn, peas and cilantro, mix it into a corn batter, fry it like a churro and then roll it in crumbled jalapeno potato chips. So good!
DLE: You've already had your recipes published in the Little Big Book series. What makes your recipes "book worthy" ?
SPR: Wow. I've never asked myself that. Can I pass?
DLE: What is your favorite dish to prepare?
SPR: That's such a Sophie's choice for a chef. And it changes all the time. Right now, I'm really into red quinoa which I make as a breakfast cereal with dried fruit, nuts and strawberry preserves. I also love anything with beets and I do an amazing golden beet and fennel salad which I made for Christopher Knight [Peter Brady] this season with Gorgonzola flan on the side. Since it's fall, I'm getting really into apples and root vegetables. I can't choose just one! But I can say that Thanksgiving is my favorite day of the year, and not just because no one looks at me funny when I eat four desserts to wash down the 3000 calories I had to dinner. That's pretty close to how I eat every day anyway.
DLE: What is your favorite dish to eat?
SPR: Seriously? Are you trying to make my brain explode?
DLE: What is your favorite part of doing the show?
SPR: The insane pressure. We're dealing with demanding clients, high stakes, crazy circumstances, and if anything goes wrong, we can't escape the cameras which are there to document every moment. That can be brutal but it's also a serious rush.
DLE: What is your least favorite, or most difficult part of doing the show?
SPR: Watching it. I can't stand seeing myself on TV. It's that thing that happens when you hear your voice on the answering machine, but times a million.
DLE: So dish for us. What, or who, is the worst client you have ever had to cook for?
SPR: Honestly? I hate to say it, but I think the prize goes to a seventeen year old. In the last episode of last season we worked for two teenage boys and one of them was brutal. He made me cry. And I'm a grown ass woman.
DLE: And while I am sure you have never done it, have you ever been tempted to sabotage a meal because of a nasty client?
SPR: Hahaha! Of course! But I think the best way to quiet people who are fussy is by giving them amazing food. Number one, it puts something in their mouths so they can't talk, and two, it helps them realize how good I am at what I do.
Don't miss Sasha and the rest of the private chefs on PRIVATE CHEFS OF BEVERLY HILLS. Season Two premieres, Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 9:00/8:00 Central on The Food Network.
And now that Sasha has inspired you, here are a few of her specialties you can try at home:
Mexican Spiced Brownies
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups good quality semisweet chocolate, chopped finely
3 extra large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder (cayenne can be substituted in a serious pinch)
1/4 cup milk chocolate chips
1/4 cup 60% cacao bittersweet chips
Sea Salt Dulce de Leche
1 can sweetened condensed milk
Flake sea salt (Maldon preferably) to taste, plus extra for sprinkling over top
Start by making dulce de leche. Place an unopened can of condensed milk in a small, heavy-bottomed pot and completely cover with water. Boil can, uncovered, for 2-3 hours, replenishing water as necessary.
Carefully remove unopened can from water and set aside until can is cool enough to handle.
Open can and pour dulce de leche into a small bowl.
Season with salt to taste and set aside.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Melt butter and semisweet chocolate together in a double boiler over simmering water. Allow to cool slightly (but not harden), then add eggs, vanilla and sugar.
Sift together dry ingredients and add to chocolate mixture. Add additional chocolate chips at the last minute, folding in to combine.
Pour batter into a lightly greased 9 by 9 pan.
Pour three thick ribbons of dulce de leche over top of brownie batter reserving any leftover for future use of dipping. Using a tooth pick or knife, gently swirl dulce de leche into a decorative pattern, taking care not to stir it into the batter. Lightly season with additional sea salt.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, taking care not to over bake. A tester stuck into brownies will not come out clean. The idea is to create a brownie whose center is closer to fudge and under-baking is crucial to that end.
Remove brownies from oven and allow to cool before cutting and serving.