At a luxury home in North Vancouver’s tony Edgemont Village, Jefferson Alvarez unwraps freshly foraged lobster mushrooms on a marble countertop lined with an immersion circulator, torch, smoke gun and other high-tech chef toys.
“Good luck finding space,” says the host, waving her arm at the expansive showcase kitchen filled with Gaggenau appliances.
Mr. Alvarez is here to cook a private dinner for six couples that he and his assistant will also serve on a heated patio next to the putting green.
The five-course meal, which includes cocktails, canapés and modernist Latin flourishes such as a plate-cleansing “paper” of powdered soursop fruit sprinkled with guajillo sugar, is a networking event for an exclusive business association that has requested not to be identified – as have the hosts.
Discretion is par for the course for private chefs, who have been doing a booming business during the COVID-19 pandemic as well-heeled diners seek alternatives to the uncertainties of eating at restaurants and some of Vancouver’s top chefs recalibrate their career options.
For chefs such as Mr. Alvarez, who in March had to cancel a five-month trip to Europe, where he planned to stage at several Michelin-starred restaurants and cater with his sister in Amsterdam, private dining has become a means of survival.
“It’s actually more fun than working in a restaurant,” says Mr. Alvarez, who was forced to close his own, Cacao, just over a year ago after an extensive flood.
“The customers are more relaxed and adventurous about what they eat. The costs are controlled. You don’t have to worry about turning tables. Everyone’s having a great time.”
For clients, the opportunity to enjoy a restaurant-style meal in the comfort of their own home often feels safer than going out.
The chef-owner of Vancouver Private Dining, Evan Elman, says he’s slammed.
His company has recently expanded with several new hires, services (including weekly rates for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and partners (they’ve taken over the Vancouver Lookout for corporate events, which are sometimes spaced out over several days to safely accommodate large numbers and group-size restrictions).
“And I know a bunch of other chefs that are killing it right now. I want my colleagues in the restaurant industry to be okay at the end of the day. I haven’t been doing any advertising. I know they’re struggling. The 10 p.m. curfew is almost the nail in the coffin. But they shouldn’t think of us as competition. There are enough slices in the pie. Everyone is going to be okay.”
Even some of Vancouver’s most legendary restaurateurs are getting in on the game.
Scott and Stephanie Jaeger, who closed their venerable PearTree Restaurant in August after they were unable to negotiate a new lease with their landlord (who was asking for a 40-per-cent rent increase and one-year demolition clause) will begin offering private chef services next month.
“It will be premium catering,” Mr. Jaeger says. "And we’re only interested in small groups.
“Do I think this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my career? No. We’re looking for new places and I’m sure something will come up. But for the next little while, at least until spring, well, we’re not out of this by any means and it doesn’t seem like the right time to open a new restaurant.”
The life of a private chef isn’t for everyone.
“It takes a certain type of person,” says Darcy Wiebe, the owner of Park Place Productions & Events, who used to stage elaborate events for clients around the world, but is doing private dinners for a small bubble of regular clients that keeps him “beyond busy.
“It’s just so incredibly different from being a restaurant chef. You’re working in someone’s private space. You’re dealing with their marble tabletops and fancy floors. You have to be poised, you have to have your mise en place organized and be tidy. There are no dish pits to dump everything. You cannot be on your phone or go for smokes. And if you break someone’s Miele oven, you’re liable.”
But on the customer side, private chefs aren’t just for the rich and famous.
Two weeks ago, Donna Burton, a health care worker, hired Mr. Alvarez for a birthday celebration. It was her first time hiring a private chef.
“When I heard that he had cooked for the Canucks, I thought ‘Oh my god, my house is not worthy. Please bring your own knives. And are you sure you want to come all the way to Port Coquitlam?’ But he didn’t make me feel self-conscious at all.”
Ms. Burton discovered Mr. Alvarez through his online classes.
Bored at home last spring, Mr. Alvarez began offering free video tutorials. He started with simple staples (oat milk), progressed to more obscure specialties (banana extract) and ended up doing interactive collaborations with online grocery stores and restaurants for which he either delivered the meal kits and equipment (including more than a dozen paella pans for Mother’s Day) or sent his students scurrying across the city to gather all the ingredients in advance.
Ms. Burton, whose whole family participated in the online classes every Saturday, asked him to turn the birthday dinner, an Argentinean-style BBQ, into an interactive event.
"My husband was on grill. I sliced the onions and jalapenos for the salsa verde, my girlfriend smashed the yucca. I don’t know if we drove him crazy or not, but he guided us through it all without burning the house down, everything landed on the plates at the same time and the food was amazing.
“What impressed us most was how he was totally engaged with everyone. The food was great. But when you have someone in your home, the conversation is what you remember the next day. It was so much fun we’re already planning the next one.”
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