Mike Isabella is fast building a posse of restaurants, but none of them may rival what the fame-kissed chef says is the ultimate dining experience: serving his food at your house.
“It’s what the client wants, where we can go and cook for two to eight people. A raw bar, a spit-roasted pig. Maybe a cooking class,” he says, in his New Jersey, anything’s-possible manner. “That’s the new style.”
Amy Brandwein, the popular Washington chef who’s opening Centrolina in the spring, has done plenty of dinners and cocktail parties in private homes over the past few years. “It’s a more personal connection,” she says. “They hire me to get that, plus a knockout meal in their homes. And it’s fun going outside my normal element.”
They could be onto something. Does the new Going All Out mean staying in, inviting a handful of friends, interacting in your own kitchen with a chef you admire, and doing no more at evening’s end than wish everyone a fond farewell?
Personal cheffing has long offered convenience for consumers; its most promising incarnation might be Kitchensurfing, a service offered in six cities across the country to date, including the District of Columbia. Its online roster of talent features profiles that detail the chefs’ work experience and cuisine strengths. Chief executive Jon Tien says that in New York, his company is piloting a weeknight program in which customers can book as late in the day as 3 p.m. and have a chef shop, cook and clean that evening for $25 per person.
Kitchensurfing doesn’t deal in big names, though you can choose someone who might have worked at, say, the French Laundry.
But now that chefs and their Michelin stars have become firmly affixed in pop culture, the public is hungry for dinner and a show, an intimate brush with celebrity.
Food Network “Chopped” host Ted Allen sees that appetite growing. (“Top Chef” cruise, anyone?) He has been at enough private dinners cooked by celebrity chefs to understand who can afford them outright: the 1-percenters and corporations clued into the lure of high-profile cuisine on home turf. A chef who has earned name-recognition status might charge an appearance fee of several thousand bucks — on top of the cost of a private meal, a sous-chef or two, servers and any tableware rentals.
“If you hire Mario Batali, of course you want to taste his food. But what you’re really after is his sparkling repartee, a few photos and being able to introduce him to your friends,” Allen says.
Not all chefs want to be like Mike.
“Dinners in private houses are not something I want to do,” says Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert. “It distracts me from my restaurants, and I want to keep that very high value for our guests.” Still, the super-luminary chef admits he was caught a few years ago when a very persistent woman asked him to do a private birthday dinner for 12 in Las Vegas.
“It went on for three weeks,” he says. “I said no 20 times, and then I gave this crazy price, one that was absolutely irrational. And she agreed! Now, I won’t even give a crazy number.”
Ripert makes one exception. For the past 20 years, he has cooked a “re-creation of the Le Bernardin experience at home” for the bidder who wins his services via the annual fundraising auction for City Harvest, a group dedicated to ending hunger in New York.
The cause is dear to Ripert, who is vice chairman of the organization’s board of directors. In 2013, his dinner for 20 plus an appearance by his friend Richard Gere set off a bidding frenzy that escalated to $220,000; Gere immediately got the chef to agree to do a second dinner for a separate bidder, for the same amount.
The mind reels at how such a menu might read; Ripert ticks off a vaguely remembered list of lobster, caviar, truffles. But he says those private dinners are hardly about the food. “I’m easygoing. If people want to come into the kitchen or invite me to sit at the table, that’s fine. Ultimately . . . it’s about how many people we can feed through City Harvest.”
Bryan Voltaggio, of Volt, Range and Family Meal restaurants, says he also turns down compensated dinner opportunities, focusing his extracurricular efforts instead on charity auction dinners for No Kid Hungry, a Share Our Strength campaign. “For a business person, I have a hard time taking people’s money,” says Voltaggio. For the charity dinners, he brings an entire kitchen crew and every plate and glass needed for a 21-course production, a la his Table 21 at Volt. “It’s a mission that made sense to me. Since 2009, we have raised almost $1 million.”
Demands on her time and constant travel cause Carla Hall of “The Chew” to refuse at least four requests a month to cook at private events. “I guess I’m at the age where I really value my free time. I’d rather spend it with my family,” she says. Her high-roller price? “It would have to be $25,000.”
The former caterer is on the verge of opening her own restaurant, which would make it easier for her to prep for and staff a small charity dinner. But she says she might stick with how she’s learned to redirect those requests. “I go out to eat with someone rather than cook a meal,” Hall says. “It’s two hours of my time versus 10 hours and less stress. More of my attention is directed at the guests.”
The 32 dinners that chefs cooked and served in private homes for Washington’s own Sips & Suppers last year raised more than $500,000 to benefit D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table. Hosting a dinner is another way to get a culinary wizard like David Chang in your front door, but not just any kitchen will do. It has to pass muster beforehand in a visit from event co-host Joan Nathan. Working appliances and enough space to accommodate a sizable team are a must.
The Sips & Suppers chefs don’t have to donate ingredients — local and national food suppliers have stepped up — but “they are so generous with their time,” Nathan says. “They really love doing this fundraiser.”
Chang will work his magic at the Alexandria home of Evan and Tracy Morris for this year’s event on Jan. 25. “I’m dying for that to happen,” Tracy says. Ever since the couple hired Roberto Donna to cook for a private birthday party some five years ago, they’ve been hooked on the experience. Since then, chefs Isabella, Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro, Scott Drewno of the Source, Jordan Lloyd of the Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, Md., and Nick Stefanelli of Bibiana have cooked for the Morrises’ parties, mostly through charitable causes.
“I love to cook, and we do love eating out,” Tracy says. She still has a visual memory of “exactly” how chef Donna showed her to make ravioli. “For me, it’s like having a new friend in the house. Each time is a different adventure. Nick Stefanelli showed my 8-year-old daughter how to roll out dough. I had to take pictures of that!”
Brandwein knows that sharing her expertise is part of deal. Thirty minutes before the first canape is delivered, though, she asks for no company in the kitchen: “I’m in concentrated mode,” she says. The chef has devised a detailed system to ensure that things go smoothly, including a spreadsheet checklist for prep and pack-up, and reserving a little of the food for late or unexpected guests.
Still, she knows things can go wrong, like the water-main break that delayed her arrival and forced her and crew to unload and roll all their materials some six blocks to the home. Tracy Morris says her oven stopped working the day of the Scott Drewno dinner. Unflappable, he cooked on the outdoor grill instead — souffle included. It made her love him all the more.
For a recent celebration at the home of Del Ray resident Mary Jane Volk, Brandwein and host agreed on a small-plates-and-pasta theme, due in part to Volk’s small entertaining space. The menu: shots of cauliflower soup; roasted sweet potato with eggplant and Greek yogurt; little meatballs; charcuterie and cheese; egg raviolo with Swiss chard; pappardelle Bolognese; and seared scallops with celery root.
A friend of the chef’s, Volk hadn’t thought to hire her before and was thrilled with the results. “My guests were really excited to meet her.” Her takeaway: “You don’t have to spend a lot or have to have space for a sit-down for 12. You can still do something fabulous.”
Price points for Brandwein’s and Isabella’s services seem reasonable, considering the chefs’ experience and stature. Brandwein quoted a range of $85 to $125 per person, and Isabella $75 to $125 per person, based on a party of 8 to 10, excluding wine, service and rentals. Isabella can’t guarantee he’ll always be the one to run the show; maybe George Pagonis of Kapnos (this season’s “Top Chef” comeback kid) might be there instead.
Isabella wants to cater to everyone, he says. To that end, he is soft-launching Catering by Mike at the end of the month, promising to cook in any kitchen situation: “We don’t want you spending a lot of money. I definitely think it’s the new way.” His own appearance fee? “Negotiable.”