Dining

Ask a Private Chef

Q&A with Jill Donenfeld, founder of The Culinistas

When it comes to private cheffing, Jill Donenfeld knows her stuff: She's the founder of The Culinistas, a network of highly trained chefs who provide customized, high-quality weekly services, event catering and full-time placement consulting. Her chefs have trained everywhere from Momofuku to Eleven Madison Park, so they're known for their talent and attention to detail.

Here, Donenfeld, chef and author of Better on Toast: Happiness on a Slice of Bread, shares some of her kitchen wisdom.

How did you get started as a private chef?
Twelve years ago I moved to New York City and fell in love with all things culinary. I worked in restaurants. I did catering jobs. Then I was babysitting for a family who knew I liked cooking, and they asked me to cook for them. I stocked the groceries and cooked meals that allowed them to regularly eat as a family. I'm originally from Ohio and grew up having family dinner every night—and never considered it a luxury. Then I moved to New York and realized that it doesn't matter how wealthy you are or where you live, people are just too busy to cook dinner every night. But by me providing this service, families can actually sit down together and eat. I got into this, because I have a passion and a love for creating heart in the home.

How involved are you in finding the chefs for The Culinistas?
I interview all of the chefs personally. For me, the most important thing is to find a really fantastic chef who has magnificent culinary skills. When I do the interviews, I have chefs come to my apartment. I do not have a lot of kitchen equipment. I have cast-iron skillets, a couple of pots and pans, and a cutting board. I have the basics, but I do not have an ice cream maker or a huge food processor. It's a huge testament to the chefs to see if they can make do with what I have. I don't want to send a chef to your house if they have all these requirements for what they need. If they say they need a sous vide or a particular food processor, that's just not going to work out. But they also need to be kind and compassionate and make the client feel comfortable in their own house. That's a big difference in hiring a private chef versus hiring someone to work in a restaurant kitchen where anything goes.

What makes a dinner successful to you?
We bring wonderful food into your home, so you can feel comfortable and warm amongst the people you love. That is really the essence of what we do.

Describe your dream client.
Someone who will provide a little guidance and wants to work with the chef. You don't have to eat everything. In fact, we have a lot of clients who have dietary restrictions and health-related food needs. We're all about helping people through the food preparation. It's often just as exciting to help clients figure out what they can eat.

What do you expect out of your clients?
First of all, if you're a client, you don't have to lift a finger. But it would be amazing if there was fridge space set aside for us.

What's your culinary philosophy?
I truly believe in using the freshest fresh ingredients and layering in flavor wherever I can. My culinary background is very international. I've lived and cooked in places like India and Madagascar, non-European countries where it's not about using butter or traditional culinary techniques. Great cooking is about using the best of whatever you have on hand. That might mean spices in India or fresh coconut milk in Madagascar. That approach is reflected in my personal cooking. I don't use a lot of salt or butter, but I use a ton of herbs and spices. I look to add flavor in all steps of the process. For example, I never cook plain white rice; I always put at least a bay leaf or star anise in there.

How do you source ingredients?
It's all based on the client. But if it's up to us, we're shopping at farmers' markets and small organic farms. When you work at a restaurant as a chef, you are surrounded by dishes every day, but you don't make a lot of decisions—you're working under someone. But private chefs have this chance to explore and be part of the process from start to finish. They love finding the best ingredients as part of their job, going to the farmers' market and seeing what's in season and what looks good, and developing relationships with these farmers and small farms.

What are your go-to spices?
I use cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaf the most. They make things so sweet. If I ever make a shrimp cocktail, I always have a lot of bay leaf in my boil to bring out the natural sweetness in the seafood. You can use cardamom and cinnamon in sweet and savory things, over ice cream or on a piece of grilled meat. That sweetness brings depth to savory things and amplifies the sweetness in sweet things.

What's your favorite herb?
Tarragon—it's such a feminine flavor. It has such a floral essence and aroma to it. It makes everything sensual, makes it feel feminine.

Who would you most like to cook for?
I would totally cook for Steve Martin. That would be my dream. It would just be so much fun.

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