Seven private chefs who elevate the art—and science—of dining well and living healthfully.
The obstacles to healthful eating are not always so easily overcome as learning which foods offer superior antioxidant power or bestow more fiber. Complicating the equation much more often are the crunch of overburdened schedules and the standards of a sophisticated palate. The simplest way to vanquish one’s lack of time while elevating the gourmet experience at home, or even traveling, is to enlist the help of a private chef who can craft beautiful and delectable, yet also salubrious, meals.
Christian Paier—whose company, Private Chefs Inc., is one of the premier agencies placing chefs in homes all over the world—says those in the highest demand cook healthy food that is both nutritious and satisfying, which calls for organic, farm-fresh ingredients and low-sugar, low-fat preparations with an emphasis on whole foods and grains. “Whether a client is an athlete or a businessperson, it is important that he or she be healthy and at a peak level of performance,” Paier says. “A private chef affords that guarantee without having to think about it.”
These seven top chefs are keeping their clients’ diets both clean and delicious.
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Florida and the Hamptons
When Nina Cioffi took her leave of the world of restaurant management 15 years ago to pursue a career as a personal chef, the culinary landscape looked vastly different from today’s. “I used a lot of simple sugars, white flours, traditional starches, and sauces,” she says. “Now, I very rarely cook in the French style. I am cooking a lot lighter, in line with the Mediterranean diet.” That means she never fries food and utilizes an array of raw ingredients, grains like farro, and plant proteins like quinoa. “We have seen so many diet trends—Atkins, South Beach, now Paleo—but the best way to combat aging and stay healthy is through commonsense cooking,” she adds.
Cioffi has helped clients recover from heart surgery and introduced them to low-fat, low-salt dishes like pan-seared snapper or sea bass with a vegetable ragout, and she can prepare low-cholesterol and low-glycemic dishes. Her credo? The simpler, the better. For lunch she might serve a local fish with kale or bok choy, and for dinner a fresh vegetable soup might precede a grass-fed steak grilled with her own coffee dry rub that is light on salt but robust with flavor.
Anticipating her clients’ snacking urges can help prevent unnecessary indulgences, so Cioffi always ensures a handful of raw almonds or gluten-free bruschetta is available. “I have it all prepared and ready to eat,” she says.
Helping clients adopt healthier eating habits not only challenges Cioffi’s culinary creativity but also enables her to leverage her restaurant management skills and take charge of the entertaining. Whether she is cooking for two or entertaining a party of 100, she can arrange floral centerpieces and the table settings, as well. “It is all part of the bigger entertaining experience, and I enjoy that a lot,” she says. “Taking care of my clients is a labor of love.” »email@example.com
Recipe: Coffee Dry Rub
This rub also works well with rack of lamb and pork. For lamb, bump up the rosemary to 2 teaspoons, and for pork, substitute brown sugar for white sugar. Brownulated sugar mixes most easily into the rub.
1/2 cup fine sugar
1 cup ground coffee, decaffeinated
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, (powder, not shredded)
1/4 cup Colman’s dry mustard powder
1/3 cup granulated garlic
2 tablespoons pepper
2 tablespoons Adobo seasoning salt
1 teaspoon rosemary powder (grind dried rosemary in food processor)
2 teaspoons onion powder
Dry six steaks. All cuts of meat work well with this rub.
Coat each side of the meat with the rub, and let sit at room temperature about 20 minutes.
Heat a grill to high on one side and low on the other. Spray grill with Weber cooking spray. (It is the only cooking spray that is nonflammable.) Grill meat about one minute per side, then move meat to the low heat side and grill to desired temperature. Remove steaks from the grill, and flip the meat so that the side that was last on the fire is on top. Let the steam escape, and let stand for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
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“Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate—that is my mantra—and choose good carbs to give your body enough energy to stay ahead of the game,” says David Long, a former Navy SEAL who attended culinary school after serving in the military. Those two nuggets are his nutrition takeaways. While his clients may not be operating at Navy SEAL performance levels, he has developed a niche cooking for motorsport athletes and golfers like Phil Mickelson.
Known for what he calls “fancied-up dude food,” Long favors grass-fed meats, omega-rich salmon, kale, Swiss chard, and fat-free sauces like his “green jacket” chimichurri: a combination of finely blended garlic, green onions, cilantro, parsley, and lime juice. “It is green, it has some sheen, and adds lots of flavor without any oil,” he explains. That is not to say Long shies away from fat entirely. “Fat moves flavor around the palate, which makes food satisfying. Our bodies need good cholesterol, too,” he explains. So a salad dressed with hazelnut oil and lime juice sharpens the taste of vegetables, or a dab of bacon fat rubbed atop a piece of fish is a nice surprise that adds satiety.
When working with golfers, Long feeds them as he does any other athlete with an emphasis on maintaining stable blood glucose levels for focus and stamina. That starts with a breakfast of complex carbs like steel-cut oatmeal with raisins and berries, snacks such as trail mix or homemade granola bars, and dinners with lean protein (fish or chicken) accompanied by steamed vegetables, brown rice, and maybe just a dab of butter for a satisfying finish.
Long’s diet is not much different. “A lot of people think private ‘cheffing’ is an easy gig,” he says, adding that it is a physically demanding vocation in which chefs spend a lot of time on their feet without the resources of a restaurant staff to get the job done. “But I really enjoy cooking. For me, it can be a great stress reliever.” For his clients, the stress relief comes from eliminating the decision-making, preparation, and worry about what they consume. »privatechefsinc.com
RECIPE: Green Jacket Chimichurri Sauce
1/2 cup peeled garlic
1/2 cup capers with juice
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
6 serrano peppers, whole
2 bunches cilantro
2 bunches green onion
1 bunch Italian parsley
1 dash of fish sauce
Add salt to taste
Combine all ingredients in a Vitamix blender.
Use tamper to slowly push contents into blender.
Blend until smooth. Serve with beef or chicken.
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“One cannot think well, love well,
sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
THE GLOBAL GOURMET
Aspen, New York, Palm Beach
Randy Placeres’ first private client was a vegetarian who also wanted a low-fat, no-sugar plan that provided enough fuel for a daily run, bike ride, or swim. Immediately, Placeres received an education in the art of healthy cuisine. “He was very disciplined, and he wanted to put only healthy food in his body,” Placeres says.
At the time, Placeres resided in Hawaii, where he had worked at Hawaiian regional restaurant Roy’s in Honolulu and was also influenced by chef Alan Wong. There he incorporated Asian- and island-inspired essences, and they remain the backbone of his cuisine. He creates light flavor profiles that often showcase his favorite ingredient, fresh ginger (for its anti-inflammatory qualities), or the tropical delight of coconut oil (for its healthy fats, high smoking temperature, and delicious flavor).
Placeres prepares meals for his two daughters much like he cooks for his clients. A favorite is his “magic sauce,” which blends ginger, agave, vinegar, and sweet Thai chili with grapeseed oil for what he describes as “a little acidity, heat, and sweetness.” Or he may forage porcini mushrooms in the hills above Aspen and cook them with fresh-picked homegrown herbs, roasted garlic, and white wine. His pantry and produce staples are rice, buckwheat soba noodles, watercress, arugula, and tons of herbs, with fresh fish and organic meat that is sustainable and, whenever possible, local.
“Sure, I can make a great French meal and I often do for special occasions, but that kind of eating can take a toll,” he says. “A lot of my clients want to live longer. Wealth is wealth, but health is definitely wealth, too.” »randyplaceres.com
Coconut Oil: Adds a tropical tone to any dish and is valuable for its healthy fats and high smoke point (of about 350 degrees) when sautéing vegetables. ——Randy Placeres
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Manhattan and the Hamptons
There was a time in Cynthia Walt’s life as a private chef when she was hired to trail a high-profile film producer all over New York City. She prepared three meals a day and collaborated with his doctors to keep him on track with his weight-loss and health goals. “Sometimes he was irritated to see me because that meant he had to eat well, but I liked the challenge of making meals that were restricted yet still delicious,” she says.
Walt established her reputation as a healthy cuisinier when she served as executive chef at the Vail Mountain Lodge restaurant Terra Bistro. There she developed her taste and talent for preparing haute, organic spa cuisine, and she describes her approach as “casual and flavorful” with an artistic eye. “I am also a painter and a sculptor, so I am always thinking about how the food looks and the colors on the plate,” she says. Her multihued style also ensures greater nutrition, as a more colorful plate reflects an antioxidant- and vitamin-rich diet.
Walt’s clients often have their own vegetable gardens, making the sourcing of fresh, colorful produce a snap, and she can suggest crops for the grounds staff to cultivate. What is not grown on site, she will procure from farmers’ markets. “Instead of accenting dishes with high-calorie indulgences, I prefer to showcase what is in season, such as flavorful plump berries or vine-ripened tomatoes,” she says.
She also pays close attention to portion size, with an emphasis on abundant vegetables accompanied by 4 to 6 ounces of protein. A grilled halibut served on a smashed pea purée might pair with roasted carrots and zucchini or a raw shaved fennel or Brussels sprouts salad. For dessert, she might bake a fruit galette made with a whole-wheat flour crust or a small slice of flourless chocolate cake that substitutes coconut oil for butter. “Everyone enjoys dessert; I just make sure the flavor is intense so a little goes a long way.”
Walt’s goal: clients who feel sated after a meal, not leaden and heavy. “I do not want them to take a nap after a meal. I want them to feel good,” she says. “My clients have eaten in the best restaurants all over the world, so when they are at home, I keep it fresh and clean using the best ingredients prepared skillfully.” »urbancookingsolutions.com
Lemon zest: Adds a lift to dishes without the acid of the juice and does not discolor other ingredients used in a dish. —Cynthia Walt
RECIPE: Long Island Cioppino
8 ounces diced soppressata
1 cup thinly sliced fennel rout
1 cup finely sliced red onion
3 grated garlic cloves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups fish stock
2 heirloom tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and diced
8 ounces halibut, cut in 2-inch cubes
1/2 pound mussels, cleaned
1/2 pound little neck clams, cleaned
1 pound wild jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 red jalapeño chile pepper, diced
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 lemon, zested
Sea salt flakes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
In a large, heavy-bottomed ceramic skillet or Dutch oven, brown soppressata in olive oil.
In the same skillet, heat two tablespoons of olive oil on medium-high heat. Add onion, stirring often, for about three minutes. Add fennel, turn heat down to medium, and sauté both until tender, about eight to 10 minutes. Add garlic, sauté three minutes, stirring occasionally, until garlic starts to turn golden. Add tomato paste. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly for a few minutes.
Add white wine and stir until it mostly evaporates, about one to two minutes. Add stock, jalapeños, tomatoes, soppressata, and bring to a simmer. Adjust seasoning. Add fish, simmer for a couple of minutes, and add shrimp, simmer for a couple of minutes, then add clams and mussels and simmer gently until the mussels open. (Put in first the pieces of fish that need more time to cook.)
Finish with a squeeze of half a lemon, lemon zest, a drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkle generously with flat-leaf parsley.
Serve with crusty bread. Rub the bread with garlic oil and grill. Garnish with basil aioli if desired.
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Chef David Wells rides along the bluffs of Santa Cruz on his unicycle not because he has circus aspirations, but because it keeps him in tip-top shape. Wells, who is also a certified fitness trainer, has cooked for the late Steve Jobs, George Lucas, and other Silicon Valley magnates. Long ago he eschewed Hollandaise and foie gras and developed a taste for nutrient-dense, quality food. “I now avoid all those ingredients I was taught to use in culinary school. It was great to learn, but eventually I felt I was hurting people,” he says.
His healthful culinary epiphany came 15 years ago when his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He found that oncologists were wary of dispensing nutrition advice. Searching for a way to nourish her during chemotherapy, he studied nutrition and began working with physicians to develop nutritional guidance programs for patients and their caregivers. His mother survived, and “I realized food could be a powerful vehicle,” Wells says. “Learning how best to do that for her and others became my passion.” His main tenets: Limit meat and dairy intake, avoid processed sugars, choose whole-food sources of complex carbohydrates, and combine them with raw, enzyme-rich phytonutrients.
The results are bright dishes such as a raw shredded-carrot salad accented with dried currants, scallions, toasted almonds, and cilantro or a satisfying quinoa tabbouleh with lemon, mint, parsley, tomato, and cucumber. That does not mean he avoids the likes of béchamel completely; he will just tweak it by substituting celery root or parsnip purée for cream and butter. “Everything I do is technique-driven,” he says. “Select the right ingredients and use them in an artful way, and a chef can elevate flavor without all the fat and empty calories. Cooking is as much a science as it is an art.” »privatechefsinc.com
Quinoa: Has been eaten as a breakfast cereal by porters at the base of the Andes for centuries. This superfood is one of only two grains that are complete proteins. The other is amaranth.—David Wells
RECIPE: Shredded Carrot Salad with Lemon, Toasted Almonds, and Dried Currants
2 cups carrots, shredded
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 cup almonds, sliced and toasted if desired
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup scallions, thinly sliced on angle
1/2 bunch cilantro roughly chopped (optional)
Place sliced almonds on a baking tray in a 350°F oven for 10 minutes or until toasted.
Place all ingredients in a bowl, toss, add lemon juice, and toss again.
Serve at room temperature.
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Washington, D.C., Manhattan, the Hamptons
When inventor Nathan Myhrvold coauthored Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking in 2011, Scott Wuennemann was already experimenting with the molecular gastronomy techniques that brought acclaim to chefs such as Ferran Adrià in Barcelona and Grant Achatz in Chicago. Myhrvold’s encyclopedic approach was a user-friendly primer that inspired Wuennemann to refine his own techniques and put them into practice.
His modernist skills create such outcomes as foams, caviar-like spherification of just about any liquid, and ultra-tender meat and fish prepared sous vide (vacuum sealed and cooked at precisely controlled temperatures). “In classical cooking you need eggs, cream, and plenty of fat, but the modernist approach lends itself to being healthy with techniques that infuse light, bright, crisp flavors without a lot of fat. It also helps introduce new textures to pure, nutrient-rich ingredients like vegetables and raw juices,” Wuennemann explains.
For a chef who studied architecture and photography, the functional craft of modernist cooking appeals to his creativity and reinforces a philosophy of healthy cooking that emphasizes moderation, portion control, and plenty of ingredient variety. This straightforward approach has attracted high-profile clients, like Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who want impressive dinner party menus but everyday healthy meals, too. Wuennemann has also partnered with physicians and nutritionists at the Cleveland Clinic to develop a meal plan for an obese client that helped her lose weight.
“People need comfort foods to live well. To think you can omit everything unhealthy from your diet and be happy is crazy,” he says. “My job is to expand my clients’ palates so they crave foods that taste delicious but benefit them, too.” »privatechefsinc.com
Sweet Potatoes: Have one-third fewer calories than white potatoes and are packed with vitamin A. I use them in soups, hash, purées, sauces, and even as a background flavor in veggie burgers. —Scott Wuennemann
RECIPE: Osso Buco
“For this veal osso buco, I braise a whole veal brisket, pick the meat off, glue it back together with transglutaminase (“meat glue”), and wrap the meat around bone marrow that I removed from the bone. There is no fat, sinew, or bone; everything is edible in the entire dish.”
1 whole breast of veal (about 7 pounds)
3 onion, large dice
5 carrots, large dice
4 celery stalks, large dice
8 cloves of garlic, ruff chop
1/2 cup tomato paste
3 cups good red wine
12 cups veal stock
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
Fresh herbs: thyme, rosemary, bay leaves
4 large marrow bones: soak in salted water
for 1 to 2 days to rinse them
6 tablespoons transglutaminase (aka “meat glue”)
Preheat oven to 325°F. Season breast of veal with salt and pepper, and sear in a heavy pan on high heat. Once a deep sear is achieved, place in a large braising pan.
Add vegetables to sauté pan and brown on medium-high heat. Once brown, add in garlic and cook for two minutes. Add in tomato paste, and cook for another five minutes, then deglaze with red wine. Reduce wine by 1/3 and pour into braising pan. Pour in veal stock, top with parchment paper, wrap with foil, and place in oven for two hours.
After two hours, add in herbs and braise for another 1 1/2 hours.
After 3 1/2 hours of cooking, take veal breast out of oven, and allow to cool in a refrigerator overnight.
Marrow bones: During the braising period, pop the marrow out of the bones: Bring a large pot of water to boil. Place bones in water for 30 seconds, take out of water, and with the end of a wooden spoon, push the marrow out of the bone and into a bowl of ice water.
Once cold, place the marrow in salted water and hold overnight.
Making the osso buco: The next day, pick all of the meat off the bone and free of any fat. Strain the sauce and reduce by half.
On a work surface, lay out an 18-inch-wide plastic wrap 3 feet long. Place the meat in a 1-inch layer approximately 2 feet long and 8 inches wide.
With a small strainer, sprinkle the “meat glue” over the whole surface of the meat.
Dry the bone marrow and lay across the meat in a single line in the center.
Lifting up on the bottom of the plastic wrap, roll the meat like you would a sushi roll. Tighten each side of the roll like you would when making a sausage and tie it off. Allow to rest overnight to let it set.
The next day, slice into 3-inch pieces, a size that should mimic a veal osso buco. Reheat in the rich reduced sauce. Once heated, serve with your favorite sides.
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Southern Californian Neil Zevnik began his career managing restaurants and cooking for caterers; he never set out to be a private chef. But when the opportunity arose to work for Elizabeth Taylor, he took it. “I got 30 pounds off her in 3 1/2 months to get into that yellow dress for the Oscars [when she received a humanitarian award in 1993],” says the self-taught chef. “There is truly no secret to weight loss: It’s all about sensible eating, exercise, and the willpower to do it.” Of course, willpower gets a friendly boost when a professional serves only savory and healthy dishes.
That no-nonsense approach has earned him positions in the homes of ambassadors, Hollywood celebrities, and Fortune 500 CEOs. “It is about focusing on the beauty and quality of ingredients,” he says. He cooks in a style that reflects the convergence of the slow food and environmental movements. “I am a proponent of animal rights, but I am also an omnivore, so if I am going to use animal products, I pay attention to whether they were treated humanely,” he says. “If I buy organic produce, I make sure it is locally grown and not flown in from Peru or Chile.”
A typical dinner features protein—blackened Arctic char, for example, served with a cucumber relish seasoned with chives, mint, and sorrel harvested from his home garden and served alongside roasted carrots with a tad of spicy orange thyme. “I try to keep it light and clean but add bright flavors that keep the tastebuds interested,” he says. He exchanges simple carbohydrates like pasta for grains such as spelt and barley that he may pair with wild mushrooms and toasted walnuts.
When Zevnik first began working as a private chef, “health food” was not the realm of haute home cuisine. Now, he says, “Cooking nutritious food has become a valuable commodity in the private cooking world, and I feel lucky that I get to pursue my personal passion to eat healthfully through my work.” But ultimately, “the appropriate thing to prepare is what the client wants.” Increasingly, those desires dovetail with his own zest for healthy, gourmet cuisine. »neilzevnik.com
Fresh Ginger: Lends itself to everything from Meyer lemonade to Asian marinades and vegetable terrines to lamb stews and roast chicken. Its anti-inflammatory effects contribute to cancer prevention and boosting the immune system.
RECIPE: Berry Compote with Whipped Vanilla Bean Greek Yogurt
1 cup raspberries
1 cup strawberries, quartered
3/4 cup blueberries
1/2 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon Austrian sour cherry fruit syrup (like D’Arbo)
1 tablespoon raw honey (like Bare Honey)
1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt (like Straus Family Creamery)
2 tablespoons raw honey (like Bare Honey)
1/3 vanilla bean, cut open and seeds scraped
4 ginger wafers (like Anna’s Original Ginger Thins), coarsely crushed
In a non-reactive bowl, combine berries, lemon juice, fruit syrup, and honey. Toss gently. Refrigerate for an hour or more.
Whisk together yogurt, honey, and vanilla bean seeds until well combined and thickened. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Divide berry compote among four bowls. Top with a generous dollop of the yogurt and sprinkle with crushed wafers.
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Recipe: NEIL ZEVNIK
Scallops with Blood Orange Reduction & Mango Relish
12 large sea scallops
1 tablespoon lemon-infused olive oil
3/4 cup fresh blood orange juice
2 tablespoons sake
1 tablespoon pomegranate juice
1 piece fresh lemon grass, white part only,
sliced diagonally into 6 pieces
3 kaffir limes leaves, lightly crushed
1 knob of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into 6
1/2 tablespoon cold organic unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced mango
1/2 tablespoon minced red onion
1 tablespoon shredded lime mint
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1/8 teaspoon minced peach habanero pepper
1/2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 tablespoon jalapeño-lime-infused olive oil
16 medium spears asparagus
2 ears white corn
1 tablespoon olive oil
Scallops: Preheat grill to medium-high. Moisten
scallops with lemon-infused olive oil, and keep
combine orange juice, sake, pomegranate juice,
lemon grass, kaffir leaves, and ginger. Bring to a
boil, reduce heat, and simmer until reduced by
half and lightly thickened. Strain, then return to
pan and set aside.
non-reactive bowl and mix well. Set aside. (Can
be made in advance.)
olive oil. Grill the asparagus until crisp-tender,
about two minutes. Grill corn until lightly
marked but still crisp, turning twice, about five
minutes total. Cut the kernels from the cob.
until just barely opaque and still tender. Warm
reduction and swirl in butter if using.
drizzle reduction around them, scatter a
tablespoon of relish over each portion, and serve
the rest on the side. Flank each portion with four
asparagus spears and a handful of corn.
Caprese with Shredded Greens
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons safflower oil
3 heirloom tomatoes in different colors
2 balls buffalo mozzarella
12 sprigs lemon basil (or handful of Italian
2 tablespoons recent-harvest Tuscan olive oil
A few splashes of aged balsamic vinegar
1 cup chopped frisée
1 cup shredded Tuscan black kale
1 cup shredded hearts of escarole
1/2 cup shredded sorrel leaves
1/2 cup shredded radicchio
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (like Real Salt)
Generous grind of black pepper
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, and
mustard. Shake thoroughly. Add safflower oil;
shake to combine.
tomatoes, cut each one into four slices. Cut each
mozzarella ball into four slices.
pepper; toss with just enough dressing to
slices of tomato and two slices of mozzarella on
one half, garnish with basil, and drizzle with
olive oil and balsamic. Mound greens beside
them; divide cherry tomatoes among them.