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Cooking for One V.I.P.


What do Bruce Springsteen, Michael Eisner and Dolly Parton have in common?

Chefs who are at their beck and call. Private chefs are the personal trainers of the '90s.

That was the conclusion you had to draw from a panel discussion organized by the Southern California Culinary Historians last Saturday. On the panel were seven food professionals who have bypassed corporate catering and restaurants for custom cooking: creating a dinner for five with three menus, cooking a rack of lamb not quite done so an actress could microwave it in her trailer on a movie set, putting together a cocktail party for 100 at the drop of a cell-phone call.

Why do they do it? Freedom to create, no-holds-barred kitchen budgets, interesting people, travel and applause at the end of a dinner party.

"I have all day to prepare a dinner for 15," said chef Christian Paier, who works for Barbara (Mrs. Cary) Grant. "You don't get that in a restaurant."

How did they land the jobs? Word of mouth, usually. Most are self-taught, widely traveled, well-educated foodies. Only one had formal culinary training. At a tryout dinner, Meeshell Block cinched one job by saving the prospective client (who was not her current boss, Rob Reiner) with the Heimlich maneuver when he nearly choked to death on a fish bone. "I was hired on the spot," she said.

Starting salary? From $900 a week.

Trade-offs? Being permanently on call and having to juggle or sacrifice a personal life.

Keys to success? Being a jack-of-all-culinary-trades and understanding the fine line between being a member of the family and a paid professional.

They were clearly a happy bunch of people who enjoyed regaling everybody with culinary anecdotes. But if the audience at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Public Library had come for juicy personal tidbits about Sigourney Weaver, Steven Spielberg and former President Gerald Ford, there was nothing to hear from these employees. Another crucial part of a personal chef's job is an unwritten bond of confidentiality.

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