Viewer programming note: No amount of training, culinary or otherwise, could have prepared Chef Juan Pablo Chavez for the kitchens of New York City’s wealthiest families. A Mexico City native with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, Juan Pablo left a high-paying Wall Street job at the age of 34 to follow his dream of becoming a chef. He went to culinary school and survived stints at two of New York’s most celebrated and notoriously tough restaurants—Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin—before launching a business as a personal chef. He dreamt of a balanced life that would allow him to share his passion for food with some of the most appreciative (and well paying) members of society. What he got was a rude awakening. Service Entrance is a new series developed in collaboration with Jon Paul that tells the story of Juan Pablo’s struggles and successes in the world of the personal chef—and his hilarious interactions with a cross-section of New York’s most privileged and quirky characters—along with some of his most popular, easy and delicious recipes. Because you don’t have to be wealthy, to eat healthy.
The Mrs. was crazy. There could be no doubt about that. The upstairs maids from Honduras, the downstairs maids from Guatemala, the Puerto Rican house boy, the two Dominican drivers, the Cuban security guards, and the three Colombian nannies all referred to our mistress as The Mrs.—as if she were a flamboyant character straight out of a Telemundo telenovela. Between her collagen-inflated lips, her Botox-smoothed forehead, her surgically enhanced boobs, and her temper tantrums, The Mrs. had all the talents of a trashy TV temptress. House gossip reported that the late 30-something Mrs. even had the back-story to match. Apparently she grew up poor in Spanish Harlem, became a “model,” and snagged an impossibly rich husband. A hedge fund mogul, the husband paid cash for the largest private residence in New York City—$45 million—a sum he acquired even before his famous bet against the unfolding mortgage meltdown. Now The Mrs. was an aspiring socialite throwing obscene amounts of money at various causes in an effort to buy her way into the upper echelons of New York’s society scene. From the gossip columns, it sounded like things weren’t going so well for The Mrs. And as a result, she began taking out her insecurities on the most recent addition to the Pan American staff, me: A 38 year-old Mexican born Wall Street economist turned chef with training from New York’s four-star restaurants Per Se and Le Bernardin. My infraction? Serving her a dish she actually liked.
“What is this?” The Mrs. sneered.
She tried turning up her artificial nose as I placed a bowl in front of her, but the Botox kept the muscles from responding.
“It’s the fresh grapefruit salad with mint and basil you said you liked.”
I’d seen tirades against housekeepers who were “in-capable” of properly folding underwear, and torrents of hate directed towards drivers who were seconds late to pick up The Mrs. from boozy lunches at Barney’s, so I steeled myself for the impending outrage.
“I liked it two weeks ago! And now you’re serving this to me a-gain? Again? It’s all you ever make! I pay you to cook new things for me!”
“No problem. I’ll whip up something else,” I said calmly.
It was useless to point out at that I hadn’t made this dish even one time since she first enjoyed it a fortnight ago. Or that she herself had approved the day’s menu in advance. I was discovering that logic and The Mrs. didn’t mesh.
“You would never serve this to that actress! I demand to be treated like a celebrity!” she screamed as she fled the kitchen table.
And there we had it. The real reason I had been hired. The Mrs. didn’t care about my sophisticated background—a degree from the London School of Economics, the ability to speak six languages, experience on Wall Street, and a life spent traveling the globe tasting the finest foods and best wines before graduating from culinary school at 34. Or, my ability to indulge her self-imposed food restrictions like a “semi-gluten free diet”—which I always feel is akin to being “a little bit pregnant.” No, The Mrs. was all about appearances and she wanted to brag around town about having the same chef as my most famous client, Fashionista Superstar.
My first clue about the hazards of working for The Mrs. should have been clear when I met Amy at a friend’s party. I asked her what she did for a living and she smiled shyly and said I wouldn’t understand. But I prodded, and she caved.
“I’m a Household Crisis Manager,” she said.
“Que? Household Crisis Manager? What does that mean?”
“Basically, I work for people who have too much money and can’t figure things out for themselves. Like, I help them get their summer clothes from their New York brownstones to their houses in the Hamptons. Tough things like that,” she laughed.
“Well, I’m a personal chef. We have a lot in common. I work for people with lots of money and no time or interest in cooking for themselves.”
“Do you work for one family?”
“No, for me it’s more fun to have different clients. Each one has their own issues, and I like the challenge of having to deal with different styles. Right now I work for a few families, a banker, a celebrity. I’m trying to build up my business.”
In confidence, I told her Fashionista Superstar’s real name and Amy’s jaw dropped.
“In that case, I have a big diva of a client who is in desperate need of a chef. We can’t find anyone to take the job full-time. It’s become a bit of a crisis. But I bet she’d consider you part-time because of the celebrity connection. Think you’d be interested?”
“I don’t know. Not sure I want to work someplace that has a Household Crisis Manager. No offense.”
“None taken. But it does pay a lot of money.”
She told me how much, and my jaw dropped. I said I’d think about it.
In the fall of 2008, I was trying to expand my personal chef business in the midst of what we would later refer to as the biggest financial meltdown of our generation. My partner Jon Paul and I had a relatively new mortgage to pay, and he was hoping to take a big trip to Australia at the end of the year to celebrate his 40th birthday. After leaving my high-paying finance job for a low-paying dream job, I carried some baggage about my job title and salary. Back in Mexico City, my opinionated parents are both medical professionals—my father is a cardiologist and my mother is the dean of a nursing school. They were shocked when I told them I was walking away from what they considered a prestigious career, into what they considered a low class job.
“Juanito, what about all those years studying? To do what? Cooking? Like so many other Mexicans in the kitchens there,” my mother said.
As much as my partner Jon Paul encouraged and supported me, I felt so guilty about relying on him to pay the bills. He was trying to make a go of it as a writer and entrepreneur, and I wanted to relieve him of the burden of bringing home the big bucks—or at least hold up my half. So far, life as a personal chef came with a much easier schedule than the grueling tour of duty I had survived in New York’s high-end restaurants. And the pay was better, just not as steady. I had a few regular clients I could count on, but like any freelancer, there were times when the gigs dried up. Maybe the Household Crisis Manager’s diva client could help bridge my financial gap.
On the next Service Entrance: Chef Juan Pablo gets acquainted with the rest of the household staff, and ends up feeling like The Mayor of Munchkinland.
EASY-TO-REPEAT GRAPEFRUIT MINT CITRUS SALAD
Despite her complaints, The Mrs. always loved the bright flavors of this dish. The recipe below is a simplified version of the one I prepare for my clients. To learn how to give the salad a little more finesse using a classic cutting technique called “supreme,” watch my video demonstration at the end of this post.
2 large ruby red grapefruits, white pith and skin removed, segments cut into thirds
2 large white grapefruits, rinsed, white pith and skin removed, segments cut into thirds
5 navel oranges, rinsed and peeled, segments cut into halves
A few leaves of either mint, basil or cilantro, rinsed and thinly sliced for garnish (optional)
The juice of 1 red grapefruit and 2 navel oranges (strained of seeds)
Toss citrus fruit lightly in a bowl, cover and let chill for at least one hour. Add freshly cut mint, cilantro or basil if desired just before serving. Makes about 6 servings.
Building on the Salad: Add a cup of pomegranate seeds. You can also use this salad as a base for an outstanding yet simple winter ceviche. Add small (or lightly chopped) cooked shrimp, finely diced jalapeno and red onion and season with salt and pepper. Cubed avocado is also great on this dish.