Up-Close and Personal
Now here's a first: Just about anything I can complain about my most recent dining experience is most likely my fault.
For instance, I didn't appreciate the lack of ambient dining music during this meal. While I'm never overly fond of, say, loud house beats vibrating my plate -- and my teeth -- as I try to eat, I do appreciate the right music set at a moderate tone. If location is significant for real estate, music can be just as meaningful to a dining atmosphere. And the only bright hum at this place was from an unceasing fountain spilling into the pool located just a few steps from the outdoor patio, a situation more inclined to make me want to visit the restroom than the restaurant.
I also didn't care for the proprietors' lack of concern for the mosquito population. Obviously the owners can't control the forces of nature and the demands of the food chain, but let's just say that it looks like the birds and frogs will be getting fat this year. So restaurateurs need to take some steps to ensure comfortable outdoor dining conditions for those with sweet-enough blood to attract the little vampires. Yes, I know, I'm not sugary enough to be in this category, but my dining companions are frequently a lot nicer than I. So I suggest that proprietors in general take some steps this year: bug zappers, citronella candles, a collection of spiders with strong web-making skills, what have you.
And finally I was not entirely pleased with the child situation. While I'm always a big proponent of bringing kids out to eat, I do maintain that some places should be verboten to munchkins. Anywhere where I'm paying, say, 200 bucks per person, which is what this meal turned out to cost me, I shouldn't have to deal with little ones who are so distracting that I miss the dessert course entirely.
But as I said, all of these things are my own damn fault. After all, it was my pool that made me want to pee. They are my mosquitoes, God help me and the backs of my legs. (Even critics tend to get a bite here or there.) And they are my children, for better or for worse, who stayed out with their nanny as long as she could handle -- which to her credit turned out be a 14-hour day.
You see, this dinner took place at my house, under the mango trees that were dropping unripe fruit into our soup all evening. The scenario was as if a restaurant had been imported into my home: flower arrangements, candles, linens, the proper wineglasses, china, utensils. Plus an executive chef, kitchen personnel who called themselves "refrigerator coordinators," even a waiter who offered us sparkling or still -- not tap -- water. And I didn't have to do a thing except the usual: eat a five-course New World repast, drink too much wine, and pay the admittedly exorbitant bill.
In other words, thanks to Chef Du Jour and its executive chef, Joey Ramos, I got to host a dinner party but didn't have to cook, set the table, or even clean up.
Chef Du Jour is a fledgling "personal chef" company that caters dinner parties or events of any size in your own home. Joey Ramos started the venture last year when he left his executive chef post at Ricky Martin's now-defunct Casa Salsa in South Beach. He and his girlfriend, Heather, a.k.a. the "refrigerator coordinator," move into your kitchen for the evening, bringing with them everything you'll need for a five-star dining experience, from hotel pans to San Pellegrino to homemade chili butter to spread on the assortment of breads.
Indeed the toughest thing you'll have to do is OK the menu, which is not as easy as it sounds. The options are virtually limitless. Ramos can and will cook anything and easily tailors menus to accommodate diets and food restrictions. I wanted to see what he'd come up with, so I asked for a menu that had no dairy in it, since some of my guests, like me, are lactose intolerant. The result, which he faxed me a day after I arranged a date with him, was so mouthwatering with Caribbean and local influences you never realized the dishes had no cheese or cream in them. That's because he doesn't use substitutions but instead looks for recipes that don't contain those ingredients in the first place. For instance the main course, a stuffed pork loin medallion en croute was served over a crisp yuca hash brown and partnered with a prawn wrapped in pancetta and glazed with sugar cane. The pork was also moistened with a port wine-mushroom jus -- delicious and naturally dairy-free.
By catering a dinner party instead of attending one in a restaurant, you don't have to sacrifice presentation. Ramos served a vibrant Caribbean conch chowder, rife with nuggets of tender conch and garnished with roasted coconut. For bowls he used the coconuts themselves. He produced the first course, an island-style ceviche martini, as a gazpacho in martini glasses, topping the just-chilled tomato soup with citrus-poached oysters, shrimp, squid, and octopus. Don't have martini glasses? Don't worry. Ramos supplies those, too.
In fact he scopes out your kitchen well beforehand, touring the premises and making notes to himself. I was quick to point out the challenges with which he'd have to work: our five cats, who are about as well-behaved as toddlers; a wall oven that is set so improperly low you have to get on your hands and knees to see what's cooking; and a nosy food critic as the host. I was just as fast to point out benefits though, including the extensive granite counters that he was free to arrange for his mise en place any way he liked. He cringed when I pointed out my Henckel knives, though. "I'll bring my own," he assured me. "It's a chef thing." In return I promised I'd lock up the cats.
Once Ramos arrived at 4 p.m. for a dinner scheduled to begin at 8, I found it best to stay out of his way. I was surprised not only by how commodious he was in my kitchen but by how comfortable I was having him there; I don't normally allow even my sisters-in-law to help me clean up after a family party. I'm the only one, I should note, who can load my dishwasher properly -- and it's probably the one element of housework about which I'm actually anal.
Perhaps some of my ease came from the fact that Ramos is a truly personable professional, a young, pleasant, good-looking guy who's not shy but also not in-your-face. I quizzed him a bit before my companions arrived; he admitted that his clients make widely varying demands. Some ask him to do everything, even provide entertainment, but act like an invisible house boy; others move the party into the kitchen to watch him cook, and he winds up giving impromptu lessons as if he were an honored guest. Any way you want to work it, he tells me, is fine with him.
The rest of my comfort came from knowing that he was earning his check, which came to about $1200 for a five-course meal that took eight hours to prep, serve, and clean up. The ingredients were top-quality, and Ramos prepared everything on the spot -- no premixed sauce or marinade. Even the anise vinaigrette, a mildly licorice-flavored blend that dressed a salad of jicama and baby arugula with cassava fries and pistachio nut-crusted duck scaloppini, he fixed on the spot.
And because it is your own house, Ramos can tailor the meal to the flow of the evening. We were just about to dig into dessert, guava/fig/macadamia nut-stuffed pastelillos with a tart, spicy mango sauce, when the wee ones came home brimming with overtired energy. I not only had to lie down with my daughter to get her to go to sleep, I had to "change into your PJs!" according to her demands (and I was just drunk enough on the New Zealand wine Ramos had provided that I complied). Naturally I fell asleep, but Ramos was kind enough to leave me a dessert plated in the fridge. He was also nice enough not to laugh at me in my nightshirt when I finally reappeared, just as my husband was giving him the heave-ho -- er, saying good-bye and thanks for a lovely evening.
Of course not everybody can afford to hire Ramos or any other personal chef for the evening. If you can, you might want to reserve his services for particular festivities. I've now blown my paper's budget for the year and kicked in some of my own funds for the privilege. But then for us it was a special occasion. We were marking the anniversary of my husband's rather serious surgery, after which he almost died from a hospital-acquired, penicillin-resistant pneumonia. I was also three months pregnant at that time. But a year later hubby is healthier than he's ever been, and we have a sweet little boy who turned six months old the same day as our celebratory dinner. If Joey Ramos and Chef Du Jour are a culinary indulgence, then celebrating life -- in the subtropical springtime, under the mango trees, with or without mosquitoes and cranky toddlers -- is surely worth it.
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