Hold the mayo
Personal chefs add creativity, convenience to outdoor parties

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Chef Sheldon Walker examines fresh produce.

Sami Fgaier’s first experience with outdoor grilling was no different than that of other boys his age on the Kerkennah Islands in his native Tunisia.

“We’d build a fire on the beach, get some mussels from the Mediterranean and throw them into the flames,” said Fgaier, 37, now owner of Madison-based Le personal Chef. “The shells would open up in the heat and the mussels would cook very nicely.”

Mussels still feature prominently in the indoor and outdoor menus Fgaier prepares as a personal chef for clients in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. As the weather turns warmer, he says, the demand for outdoor catered affairs heats up.

“I always associate outdoor events with grilling,” says Fgaier, who started Le Personal Chef in 2009 after seven years in the kitchen at the former Le Chardonnay restaurant in Madison. “It helps if the clients have a good grill, but a good chef can make any grill work.”

In addition to outdoor grilling, the demand for personal chefs also is catching fire. Although growth has been slower in the conservative Midwest than on the coasts, more people are turning to personal chefs due to their increasingly busy lifestyles and desire for healthier, better-prepared food. And they are discovering they don’t have be Oprah Winfrey to afford it.

“Chef Sami catered my fifth 29th birthday party,” says gay client Ed Edney.

According to the San Diego-based American Personal & Private Chef Association, there are more than 11,000 personal chefs in the United States – about 4,500 of them are association members. Of that number, Wisconsin has 20 association members, and the number is growing.

Sheldon “Chef Shel” Walker, 49, is among those who prepare restaurant-quality dishes in private homes. A former bank branch manager and the former interim director of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, Walker had toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant or bed-and-breakfast, but was ultimately put off by the long hours and loss of weekends and holidays. The flexibility and opportunities of a personal chef were more to his liking.

“I once spent an hour discussing the virtues of a Yukon Gold potato with another chef,” says Walker, a graduate of the Culinary Business Academy in Albuquerque, N.M. “Friends and family encouraged me to pursue a career in the culinary industry and, after 23 years in banking, the personal chef business turned out to be a perfect fit.”

Walker, who opened Haute Dish, A Personal Chef Service in Milwaukee in 2009, specializes in what he calls “make-ahead meals.” Clients contract for two weeks’ worth of meals, which he prepares in their homes using his own materials and utensils. The meals are then stored in the refrigerator or freezer for later consumption.

“I want to thank Chef Shel for making our lives so much easier,” says frequent client Denise Cawley. “You get a lot for what you pay.”

Walker also does dinner parties and, this time of year, sees many of them moving outside. Food safety is one of the most important issues to consider when working outdoors, he says.

“Keeping cold foods below 40 degrees and hot foods above 140 degrees. Along with keeping food preparation surfaces clean, this is where many people miss the mark,” Walker says. “No one wants uninvited guests at their cookout, and this includes bacteria and viruses.”

Rochelle Herrmann, a relatively new personal chef and owner of Milwaukee-based Chef-n-Stuff, a firm that focuses on cooking education as well as personal chef services, agrees that cleanliness should be at the top of a chef’s list. She advocates careful advance planning and making sure that the chef will be working in a setup that meets his or her needs.

“Look at the space you’ll be working in,” says Herrmann, 41, who is completing her culinary degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College. “Is it adequate for what you will be doing? Does it have the proper equipment or facilities to keep the food warm prior to serving?”

Like other chefs, Herrmann advises outdoor party planners to step away from the potato salad, because the mayo could spoil in the heat and cause illness. Instead, she stresses creative summer foods that blend flavors and textures, such as matching blueberries with cracked black pepper or a molé sauce of chocolate and jalapeno peppers. Until now, her strawberry basil lemonade had been a well-kept secret.

“Create a puree of fresh strawberries, water and sugar, then strain the mixture through a cheesecloth to remove any pulp,” Herrmann says. “Add fresh squeezed lemons without the seeds, and add more water and sugar to taste. Then add chopped fresh basil leaves.”

Walker agrees with the need for creativity. “Outdoor menus can be a lot of fun,” he says. “Generally it is best to offer items that are familiar to your guests, as well as something to surprise them.”

For Fgaier, the best outdoor menus strike a balance among the various elements. Start with a crisp Salade Niçoise, he says, followed by fresh fish on the grill – swordfish or mahi mahi are best – and end with fresh fruit. Fgaier’s favorite is fresh watermelon cubed and mixed with feta cheese and fresh mint.

“You don’t want to hire me to cook hamburgers and chicken,” Fgaier says. “That’s something you can too easily do yourself.”

Recipes insider secrets from the pros

Chef Sami’s Kerkennah-style shrimp, fig and white pearl onion skewers

1/2 pound large shrimp (21/35)

8 black figs cut in half

1 bag of white pearl onions (blanched and individually peeled, they should be soft and halfway done)

2/3 cup olive oil 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 4 garlic cloves minced 1/2 tbsp coarse sea salt 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper 1/2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika 2 tbsp fresh thyme

Recipe for honey lemon dressing:

1 cup of extra virgin olive oil 2 tbsp honey Juice of 2 lemons 1/2 tsp white pepper

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

whisk all ingredients very well until almost creamy texture.

in a large glass bowl, combine olive oil, garlic, sea salt, cracked black pepper and thyme. mix thoroughly.

Add shrimp and pearl onions to mix, cover with plastic and refrigerate for two hours.

preheat an outdoor grill to high heat.

Make skewers with shrimp, white pearl onions and figs. Make sure they are pushed well together so they can withstand the grill.

Grill 3-4 minutes per side. Drizzle with honey lemon dressing and enjoy!

Chef Shel’s peach and Brie quesadillas

2 large peaches peeled and thinly sliced 1 tsp of honey 3 ounces of Brie, sliced (he prefers a double-cream Brie) 4 ( 8”) flour tortillas Oil for brushing quesadillas

Set your grill to a medium or indirect heat. in a bowl, combine peaches and honey.

place 1/4 of the Brie and spoon peach mixture on one tortilla and fold in half (be careful not to overload the tortilla).

Grill approximately. 2 minutes per side, until cheese is melted. repeat with remaining tortillas. These are great as is or with a drizzle of honey.

Try other fruit and cheese combination, such as apple and cheddar, for example.

Six dazzling summer wines

Just like pairing beer and burgers, culinary creativity calls for alluring wines. Here are six winners you might not have considered:

Biohof Pratsch 2011 Gruner Veltliner ($13)

This light-bodied Austrian is a suitable alternative for those who want to move beyond cloying German rieslings. A fruit-forward spicy nose of peach and apricot gives way to a tangy white-pepper palate and well-rounded body. It works as a light aperitif, salads and seafood dishes.

Ramon Bilboa 2011 Valinas Albarino ($14)

The Albarino grape is a delightful Spaniard too often overlooked. In this wine, the results are bright gold and greenish hues, giving way to pineapple-mango flavors with stronger citric notes and a lingering finish. Best served with cheese, lobster salad and shellfish.

H&B 2011 Rosé Languedoc ($12)

Nothing says summer like chilled rosé, and this wine from southern France’s Languedoc- roussillon region makes a light-bodied, yet elegant statement with a crisp, refreshing edge and fine finish. Serve alone or with grilled veggies.

Ghost Pines 2009 Winemaker’s Red Blend ($21)

Sourced from multiple California AVA vineyards, this red wine from Michael Eddy has a blackberry-pepper nose and flavor profile that includes licorice, dark berries, cedar and dried herbs with a long, lingering finish. Best with heartier fare, such as steaks and roasts.

Peter Lehman’s 2009 Clancy’s Red ($15)

A striking red from Australia’s famous Barossa region, this wine’s raspberry nose leads to a flavor palate of dark plums and chocolate that’s well-balanced and complex. Try with grilled meats or aged cheeses.

Primus Carmenere 2010 ($17)

Chile can be credited with helping save the Carmenere grape after it was destroyed by blight in its native Bordeaux a century ago. This particular example adds a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon to provide a wine with flavors of dark cherries and currants shrouded in a smoky spice with hints of chocolate on the palate. Perfect for outdoor steak entrées.

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