When Jamie Lee Curtis decided to throw a small surprise birthday dinner party for a close girlfriend in the biz last year, she immediately thought of Hans Rockenwagner’s eponymous Santa Monica restaurant, where she is a regular.
However, she really wanted to have the party at her home.
In the end, she got both.
The celebrated chef went to her house and prepared a menu that included a colorful orange-and-jicama salad, broiled black cod with gingered carrots and, for dessert, a fruit soup with lemon sorbet and fresh basil.
“It was a lovely way to have it be incredibly personal but have a restaurant-quality meal,” Curtis says. Plus, the women, several of whom are well-known, were able to let loose without the scrutiny of star-struck strangers.
“Certainly there is a much stronger freedom of expression at a private home than at a restaurant,” she says. “One person even sang a birthday greeting.”
Rockenwagner isn’t the only chef for hire.
More and more of L.A.’s top restaurant chefs are cooking in people’s homes because more and more people are asking. In the months since 9/11, a stay-at-home tendency has been widespread in Hollywood, but in-home entertaining tends to be a sporadic affair. There are few “salons” like that of Samuel Goldwyn in the ’40s or Sue Mengers in the ’70s, where weekly dinner parties were the ritual.
When they do entertain, the town’s affluent set is hardly inclined to slave over a hot stove. They’re also looking for more than simple gestures like the chili Chasen’s used to send over to Jimmy Stewart’s house. What they want are culinary happenings.
Sandy Gendel, chef and owner of Pace in the Canyon on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, has prepared innumerable gourmet repasts for a former studio chief. Gendel, who trained at Chez Panisse, Table 29 (in Napa, under Jonathan Waxman), and extensively in Italy, has a wide range.
Formal evenings included lobster and leek puree lasagna, whole roasted wild-striped bass and wild berry souffle. A garden party for 75 featured an enormous table of assorted seafood, including lobster, shrimp, oysters and clams on the half-shell.
With the table set near the pool with its antique lion’s head fountain and illuminated by candles, the effect was magical.
The same client had one “quirky” idea, Gendel recalls. He hosted a dinner entirely for men.
“It turned out to be a sensational idea,” says the chef. Guests, among them top agents, producers and execs, “had a great time chatting with peers in a private, comfortable setting. No one was looking over his shoulder. It turned into a late evening.”
Having a great chef in one’s private home allows an intimate, unguarded atmosphere. These cook-ins are not without their pitfalls — from pets to allergies to ungrateful guests sending plates back to the kitchen — but there is an upside for Hollywood’s upwardly mobile.
“It’s more of a status thing, like, I have a relationship with Wolfgang Puck and he’s coming to my house,” says Scooter Kanfer, chef-owner of the House in Hollywood.
“That’s a big deal. It’s like the king of the world coming to your house and making a peanut butter sandwich. For some people, that’s what it’s about: how to win friends and impress people.” Most of the people doing the hiring are in the industry.
Pasquale Vericella, owner of Il Cielo, the romantic Italian eatery on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills, ventures that of its at-home clients, about half are entertainment people.
Wade Williams, catering manager at Ammo in Hollywood, puts the number even higher, estimating, “99.9% of the people we do this for are in entertainment.” Having a restaurant chef cook at your home isn’t cheap.
It generally costs about two to three times what it would to dine in the restaurant.
Jean Francois Meteigner, who cooked at several three-star restaurants in France as well as L’Orangerie before opening La Cachette in Century City, and who has cooked at the homes of Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Riordan, charges between $65 and $100 per person for food only. Wine, service and any necessary rentals are extra.
A recent menu for a soiree at former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan’s home featured a black truffle salad with chervil cream, white asparagus and artichoke hearts followed by rack of lamb with Dijon mustard and horseradish accompanied by grilled ratatouille.
Some people want the experience of cooking alongside the chef.
Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of the casual Italian Angeli Caffe on Melrose, says, “A lot of chefs are doing private cooking classes that then become a dinner party. I have one client who calls me four times a year. She gets together four or five couples. They’ll come to the house. Some people will be into the lesson. Some people just want to chat. That’s really fun.”
Brooke Williamson, the young chef at Brentwood’s cozy Zax, recently did something similar for Dylan McDermott. Wife Shiva Rose wanted to surprise him for his 40th birthday and have 10 of his friends cooking dinner for him when he got home.
Hans Goplen, chef and co-owner of the Farm in Beverly Hills and the Farm at the Grove, says he loves working for private clients.
“It allows us, much better than the restaurant, to provide a truly special dining experience,” he says.
It is captivating, he explains, for him — “I have a captive audience” — and the patron — “for whom I will prepare any kind of meal he requests, from sushi to comfort food to caviar and foie gras.”
To work in a private capacity, he advises, a chef has to be very well prepared.
“One doesn’t have the benefit of the restaurant behind you. I might, on rare occasion, have to raid the refrigerator to finish off a sauce, or raid the garden for extra tomatoes.”
Though adamant about not discussing his clients, he does admit to one request he will never forget: “I was asked to make a Krispy Kreme donut cake.” True to his promise to accommodate, he made the cake “with 64 dozen donuts stacked on four tiers!”
Though Goplen cannot find a downside, Pace’s Gendel concedes the “tightness of some home kitchens can be restrictive.” His greatest concern, however, is “damaging the client’s inevitable marble counter.”
Cooking in private homes brings challenges. The biggest, Kleiman says, are small ovens or electric stoves.
“When people don’t have enough heat, it’s so frustrating. Sometimes you bring a small blowtorch with you to give meat some color or a sear.”
And, this being showbiz, there are finicky guests.
“L.A. is the home of sauce on the side. But most party-givers are very savvy,” Kleiman insists.
“They get all the dietary needs in advance.” When they don’t, most chefs aren’t beyond raiding the fridge.
Meteigner recently did just that at a Beverly Hills dinner party. “The menu was fish and the guest wanted chicken,” he recalls. Fortunately, the hosts had chicken breasts on hand.
Pets are another hazard. “There are always dogs or cats,” Kleiman says.
“Either the dog is not allowed to come in and constantly wants to come in, or they can’t go out. They’re supposed to stay there with you, but every time the waiter goes into the dining room, the dog follows them. It becomes a constant ballet of dog in and dog out. With children, too.”
Gendel says the worst moment he ever had cooking in a private home was when it appeared the client’s cat had disappeared up into the hills because Gendel and the staff had left the door open.
As with just about everything in this town, who you know matters.
In this case, it’s knowing the chef, preferably on a first-name basis, and being a longtime patron of his restaurant.
Take Los Angeles’ best-known chef, Wolfgang Puck. “It’s more about his relationship with the client than status or their pocketbook,” says Jannis Swerman, director of communications for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide.
In other words, if you’re Marvin and Barbara Davis or Jerry Weintraub, the odds of Puck showing up at your fete are favorable.
For the rest, there’s always the frozen pizza.