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Be a Guest at Your Own Party:
Erin Hobey

(with recipes following for Braised Lamb Shanks and Tarragon Chicken Salad)

As the weather warms, you may be mulling over this season###s party possibilities. You may be planning for an open house or planning a cookout. Each season brings many occasions to celebrate, from showers to graduations, anniversaries and holidays. If thoughts of such festive occasions leave you more anxious than excited, know that you are not alone. And better yet, if you plan wisely, you can be a guest at your own party. With such planning in mind, I met with personal chef Jennifer Kaplanski at the cozy French Café Pain Quotidian in Manhattan###s Upper Westside to discuss her career, preparation of seasonal recipes and how to choose a personal chef.

When Kaplanski was younger, her mother asked her what she had the most fun doing. Kaplanski answered, "Cooking." Years later she has become a successful personal chef, creating menus for a variety of occasions, including romantic meals for two, themed dinner parties for many, and nourishing meals for individual families.

She took "instinctual steps" to begin her career. First apprenticing herself once a week as the family chef to Annemarie Colbin, founder of the Natural Gourmet Cooking School in New York, Kaplanski learned the style of macrobiotic cooking. Ms. Colbin soon became Kaplanski###s mentor, giving her pointers about food preparation. In 1997 Kaplanski attended Peter Kump Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) to "learn the art of cooking… cookbooks are limiting." While a student, Kaplanski continued to cook for her growing number of clients, thereby creating her niche as a personal chef. She prefers a "more personal kitchen" to a restaurant###s kitchen wherein she can work independently, be more creative and experience the beginning-middle-end processes of cooking.

While Kaplanski veered from the restaurant career path, she learned much while interning at Verbena. There she learned about timing and working under pressure, which she notes still need work. She offers hope for many amateur cooks: "Cooking is about experience - about jumping in and learning as you go - and learning to utilize instinct where experience lacks. Continue practicing." According to Kaplanski, one###s cooking practice shares similarities to a doctor###s practice: both are works in progress.

What types of food experiences led you to become a chef? I have always loved to cook. My stepfather was a good cook; he had passion in the kitchen. We bonded over cooking. He was relaxed and emphasized having fun in the kitchen. I felt close to him when we prepared the family meal together two or three times per week. I had time to experiment. My mom makes a really good tuna sandwich, but she###s not as an adventurous a cook as my stepfather was. She rebelled against all homemaker things. My grandmother was a good cook, but by the time I was of age, she mostly prepared quick dinners. These generational parallels interest me.

Can you share a lesson that helped you improve your "practice?" Learning to detach from people###s food idiosyncrasies and intimately communicating with clients regarding their food preferences (such as cooking with no fat, low fat, butter or oil). It###s up to me to respect these preferences and step away from my opinions.

With which foods do you prefer to work? I prefer simple, pure seasonal ingredients, such as free-range meats, organic vegetables (when available), excellent olive oil, butter and organic cheeses. The best ingredients, according to Alice Waters, pave new ground and support farmers and other people working with the environment.

Which ingredients do you always keep well stocked? Sea salt from Brittany, olive oil, mustard, butter, sun-dried tomatoes, strained tomatoes, canned beans, cartons of organic stocks, vinegars (sherry, balsamic, champagne, red, white), anchovies, soy sauce, organic ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and a variety of grains.

What do you cook for yourself at home? I keep it simple...sautéed greens or salad, fish, rice, quinoa, beans, pasta, eggs. It takes all of 15 minutes for me to prepare each meal at home.

Please share any wisdom regarding food preparation. I find that spending more on quality ingredients makes for a better end result...excellent olive oil, good sea salt, high-end butter, etc. I am picky when it comes to ingredient scouting. Quality ingredients are crucial to my business and I will go to several stores until I am satisfied...picky, but not obsessive compulsive. When possible, buy organic.

When you go out for dinner, how do you choose your destination? I don###t go out often because I am often disappointed. I go on recommendations (a friend of mine works for Zagat). I avoid new and trendy restaurants that are trying to have a look, and care less about the food and more about the image of the food by thriving on the cool aspect of reinventing food for cuteness or difference. I enjoy the food more than the atmosphere. Seasoned places fascinate me. My favorite dining experiences have been 3-4 hour meals with several courses to linger over.

Any comments about celebrity chefs? As long as the emphasis is on cooking and not celebrity, I am interested.

Which celebrity chefs### philosophies do you admire? Alice Waters and Julia Child.

When should you hire a personal chef? When you are food savvy and panic when guests are coming. When you don###t know where to start. When there is stress and you cannot enjoy your own party since your plate is full with the responsibilities of flowers, babysitters and candles. The choice to enjoy a party depends on your anxiety level. When you hand over other responsibilities you can focus on enjoying yourself (dressing, taking a long bath, creating the atmosphere of the party…). When you cannot enjoy the guests and the food because of your anxiety level - even if you may love both - a chef can help you so that you can work on the other aspects of your event. Input on the menu, however, is vital so that a chef can create a meal that you would have liked to prepare yourself if you had the time or the inclination. My goal is for the meal to reflect my client###s personality. If the client wants or needs input on menu selections, I am also happy to make suggestions.

When should a client contact you (or another personal chef) for an event? At least two days prior, but I may be booked. The sooner, the better. I never discourage people from calling.

What opportunities await you in your future? I love both aspects of my business...for my weekly clients I enjoy creating healthy delicious meals. I would like to build on this arm of my business and include more weekly clients. I would also like to expand the other arm of my business and do more parties. I enjoy helping to design menus, the cooking, and the presentation of each special event. In short, I would like to expand my business to include more clients, building on the foundation that is already in place.

When I asked Kaplanski what questions should be discussed when employing a full-time personal chef, she replied with several key considerations, including the budget, actual food preparation, and role definition. You should ask how much the personal chef charges and his or her fee structure. You should learn if the fee covers expenses, travel or labor or if it is all-inclusive. If you have any food preferences or restrictions, specify them: everyone###s definition of spicy or garlicky varies. Be sure to define the personal chef###s role and your expectations. Ask if the chef serves, cleans the table, or accepts deliveries. Do not assume that the chef will perform additional house needs such as babysitting. Again, be candid with your expectations.

To find a personal chef for an event or for full-time employment, Kaplanski suggests contacting the nationally recognized and highly regarded United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA.com). The website guides you to see all the chefs in a particular geographic area. She also recommended visiting the American Personal Chef Association website (APCA.com); just plug in your zip code on the website and take it from there.

Finally, below are two seasonal recipes from Chef Jennifer Kaplanski###s kitchen:

Braised Lamb Shanks
serves 4

4 lamb shanks (3/4 lb each)
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, diced 4-6 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
4 cloves or more garlic,