Postcard from a Private Chef
I grew up in Dorset, in the southwest of England, with my very foody family. Since we grew all our own vegetables and fruit, reared our own meat, and even tried making our own wine (albeit unsuccessfully), it was not surprising that I dreamed of being a chef. My first job was at fourteen, cooking in a local organic café; it was hot, fast and fun and I was hooked!
At eighteen I went to London and worked at the renowned Lidgate Butchers. The owner, Mr. David Lidgate, was revered by his employees. He took me under his wing and educated me in how to spot, buy, and use quality meat. We would head off at 4 am to Smithfield Market in London and he would fire questions at me and explain why he was choosing this or that carcass out of the hundreds that were hanging before us.
From there I went to work at the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, River Café, in Hammersmith. The lessons I learnt there on the importance of starting with the best raw ingredients — and that you rarely need to do much to them to make the best food — I shall never forget. From there I went to work at Moro, a fantastic Middle Eastern and Spanish restaurant that greatly shaped and inspired the food I cook now.
I eventually had the chance to set up and run my own restaurant/café on the city farm behind Canary Wharf in London. This was a perfect setting for me as I am always torn between wanting to be in the country and the city. Putting into practice what I had learnt and always loved, we built a wood oven and smoke house, and started a kitchen garden. We made use of the 32 acres of farmland by foraging for wild goodies. Monthly farmyard feasts, held in the courtyard overlooking the horse stables, often included meat that had been reared on the farm. It was at one of these events that I met a lady who wanted me to come and cook for her birthday party in her home.
This was my first experience of private cheffing. It was fun going to someone else’s house, delving into a new kitchen, and finding the best local suppliers without having budget as an issue. It wasn’t long before I said goodbye to the farm, signed on with an agent, and was taking my first jobs abroad.
Life as a private chef is extremely varied. Some jobs are crazily busy and require shopping at the local markets (which you have had to research to find which are best), cooking, laying and clearing tables for a crowd three or four times a day, then catching about five hours sleep before your next day begins. But some jobs are so easy the most strenuous part of your day can be chopping a bit of fruit before heading off with the family for a day on their yacht, then eating at an elegant restaurant near a sun-soaked beach.
I have now been working as a private chef for about five years and most of my clients find me by word of mouth, although I still use two excellent agents (Sasha Harvey at Book a Cook UK, and Amaninde Private Chefs, based in the South of France). The jobs are of varying length, and I can be asked to do a one-time dinner party, cook for a long weekend or cook for a client’s month-long sojourn out of town. The reasons for hiring a private chef are also often varied — I can be called upon to help a client kickstart a new health regime, provide feast after feast for a group of friends, or make the family summer holiday a rest for everyone.
With all the adventures, beautiful places and markets, as well as occasions and events I have cooked for over the last five years, I decided to keep an online journal. This is how Philippa Davis Postcard Recipes began. Below, I give you a postcard from Provence…
As a private chef I have had to become quite savvy at the whole traveling game. Landing early morning in Marseille airport I spot a school group of about forty young children dozily heading for passport control. I sprint ahead of them, ducking under barriers and weaving in and out of other unsuspecting passengers; no time to get stuck behind them — my clients land in four hours and I have a lunch to shop for and cook.
Successfully out of the airport, I rent a car and start the hour’s drive East to St Remy de Provence. My challenge is to get to the market, shop for lunch, find the villa, work out what and where everything is in the kitchen, lay the table and then cook the lunch before my clients arrive.
The day is hot, bright and beautiful and I rightly anticipate that the market will be buzzing with activity. It’s a fantastic time to be in the south of France, the market rich with piles of plump tasty cherries, scented apricots and fresh pink-speckled borlotti beans.
I quickly gather what looks most delicious (pretty much everything), including a bottle of local olive oil, a few bottles of the ubiquitous Provençal Rosé, baguettes, a chicken, some fresh fish, and brown paper bags of those amazing shiny cherries.
Arriving at the villa, the ‘House Guardian’ lets me in and gives me a quick tour and shows me to my bedroom — a stunning Provençal space with cool stone floors and pretty shutters that look out over an olive grove. Then it’s into the kitchen, knives out, apron on, bottles of Rosé into the freezer, and time to get lunch underway. Unsure of how my clients will be feeling after their long flight, I decide it’s best to cook a few options to please everybody — a flattened roast chicken with lemon and Herbs de Provence, grilled fish with black olive tapenade, and an apricot and goat cheese salad with Alpine honey dressing. To finish, a cherry clafoutis served with crème fraiche.
It’s 1 pm, the table has been laid, the chicken is just out of the oven, and the grill is almost the perfect temperature for the fish just as the clients arrive at the gates. A quick meet-and-greet, the kids jump in the pool for a refreshing swim, then the wine is opened, everyone sits down, and it’s bon appetit!
First published April 2015