How to Avoid Cooking

Do what the well-to-do do: Hire a professional!

Here, dear readers, is how the other half lives: "Hello Greg? Of Four Star Private Chefs? Yes, I've decided a few things regarding tomorrow night's dinner at our place. First, we'll have the seared halibut in the orange reduction instead of the salmon en croute with Swiss chard and horseradish cream. Yep, tough call. But then nobody said having a private chef would be easy. Now, about the Dungeness crab cake appetizer, got anything for dipping besides saffron vanilla bean aioli?"

It's a measure of the outlandish prosperity of this city at this moment that conversations like this one are occurring on telephones all around us at any given moment. Thanks to my job, this conversation actually happened to me a couple of weeks ago. The "Greg" on the other end of the line was Greg Johnson, a young hotshot whose gigs in the widely respected kitchens of Kaspars and El Greco had readied him for more personal, hands-on cheffing. He hooked up with Four Star Private Chefs, a placement service linking chefs with private clients which opened in Seattle this June. These placements are typically 30- to 40-hour-per-week positions, in which the chef does all the planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning up for a family's dinners at a rate ranging anywhere from $600 to $1,600 a week.

To get a taste of such an existence (in order to fulfill our journalistic obligation to our readers, you understand), we hired Johnson to cook in our kitchen for one night, one extraordinary night. It began a few weeks earlier with a phone call to Four Star Private Chefs (788-0872).

The woman answering the phone turned out to be a four-star chef in her own right, the esteemed Laura Dewell, late of Pirosmani and Credenzia's Oven. Dewell runs the Seattle outpost of FSPC, the offshoot of a San Francisco service that experienced land-office success introducing that region's surplus chefs to its surfeit of hungry workaholic bazillionaires. For such an enterprise, Seattle seemed the next logical step, and Dewell, a seasoned culinarian with an exceptionally personable demeanor, the ideal helmsman.

Immediately, Dewell began to recruit a stable of chefs, a formidable crew that has included John Neumark from Cafe Juanita, Barbara Figueroa from the Hunt Club, Matt Dillon from The Herbfarm, and others. Not just anyone makes her cut: In addition to demanding impeccable culinary credentials, Dewell requires a certain humility of the chefs she represents. "Private chefs need to be able to please the client above all, and that means losing the ego," she says. "I've got about 30 chefs now and probably six or seven I'll never be able to place because they just don't have the personality for it."

Greg Johnson, happily for us, was not among them. When I told Dewell what we were looking for—a one-night party in my brother's home, five-courses, plenty of seafood, with a possible more permanent arrangement to follow (OK, sometimes restaurant critics have to lie)—she thought of Johnson, a fish-savvy wunderkind who was looking for something beyond his current position cooking for a couple in the Highlands.

Johnson called me that very day to chat about our desires, upon which he e-mailed me several sample menus. Thus followed the kind of deliberations which keep restaurant critics awake at night: Would it be the yellow finn potato and leek soup with pancetta and fried leeks or the carrot puree with fresh ginger and mint? The chocolate bread pudding with pecan caramel and whipped cream or the poached pear with chocolate sauce and almonds? Our party's guest of honor had weighed in with her wishes: Could we do a citrusy sauce on a white fish? Could we possibly get those crab cakes, only with a simpler aioli?

True to Dewell's mandate, Johnson was Mr. Accommodating, evincing no wounded ego even when his signature vanilla bean aioli was rejected for the basic garlic variety. "Pleasing you is my job," he said gallantly, explaining that cooking in a private kitchen invites constant feedback. Gently, he directed us toward dishes that would harmonize best with the rest, recommending we remain open on certain matters—the type of whitefish used for the main course, for instance—that would be best dictated by what looked freshest on shopping day. Most families using Dewell's service wind up leaving such specifics to the chef, within a general set of likes and dislikes the chefs learn early.

At length we wrapped up the details, agreeing that Johnson would supply the food, the plates, and the server—his charming wife, Dawnelle—if we supplied the kitchen, the beverages, 14 hungry guests, and a check for $700. As we waited for the appointed evening, we wondered: Would Johnson's dinner be worth $50 a head? Would his cooking be worth, say, $70,000 a year?

Let me put it this way: Oh, yeah. "Just walking into my kitchen and having someone else make it smell this way is worth $50,000, at least," cracked my sister-in-law. (She later admitted, however, that the prospect of a professional holding forth in her kitchen drove her to a late-night bout of mad refrigerator cleaning.)

When I arrived, it did smell wonderful—of frizzled leeks and prawns marinating in fresh thyme and olive oil. As Dawnelle graciously poured wine, we sampled those prawns, wrapped in transparently thin prosciutto slices, broiled, and bursting with juice. We also dredged toasted baguette rounds through Johnson's creamy artichoke dip, popping the occasional savory little sausage-en-croute pinwheel into our mouths. Oh, yeah. Dinnah was served. We sat down to brimming bowls of French lentil soup with oregano and fresh thyme and bits of braised short rib, slightly wanting salt but otherwise sure-handed and lovely. The crab cakes were substantial and terrific, herby and rich, presented with a dollop of thick aioli over a toss of exotic greens in a wonderfully full-bodied Dijon vinaigrette.

The main course arrived: a very generous hunk of halibut, seared, and drizzled with a refreshing orange reduction over pearly Israeli couscous alongside simply saut饤 green beans. This plate was a flavorful triumph, particularly considering Johnson had had to delay the meal for tardy guests. ("This job teaches you to cook things to three-quarters done until everyone's ready," Johnson offered.)

We finished with brownie-like warm chocolate mousse cakes topped with vanilla ice cream, by this point roaring our huzzahs into the kitchen. Best of all, we hauled our porky selves into that kitchen when we were through, and it was gleaming, lick-the-counters clean with leftovers neatly wrapped in the fridge.

Yeah, I could get used to this. And though I can't attest to all of Dewell's chefs, Greg Johnson and his wife, Dawnelle, were sheer pleasure to spend an evening with. You can see why the family he currently cooks for brought them along on their two-month sojourn to Palm Springs last winter—like I said, how the other half lives. Since it increasingly seems that about three-quarters of this town is the other half, Laura Dewell and her Four Star Private Chefs should enjoy a long and lucrative future.

Kathryn Robinson is the restaurant critic at Seattle Weekly.

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