There are Hamptoners who only use their houses here one week a year. I know this because two years ago I worked as a sous chef for such a family. Headed by one of the biggest Wall Street whales, they only inhabit their Water Mill House during Thanksgiving week, the rest of the year being spent in the city, Florida, England, France, and probably more places to which I’m not privy.
With its team of gardeners planting all sorts of autumnal foliage around the vast bay-touched property, its cozy fireplace-lit rooms, and its barn with indoor squash court and bowling alley, the compound is an idyllic spot in which to celebrate bounty. They have much to be thankful for.
I received a call a few days before Thanksgiving from the estate manager. I had known her when she was the private chef of now-divorced friends, a Wall Street pasha and his wife who had a house on the ocean near the Maidstone Club. She knew that I cheffed on occasion. Could I start Monday? There were three days of prep work before the extended family of roughly 30 would gather on Thursday.
I had never been a sous chef. I had worked the line at a restaurant once, had been a cook at two top Los Angeles caterers, had a couple of catering companies of my own, and had been a “private chef” for several clients from L.A. to Connecticut.
I would be working under the clients’ French chef, who followed them to their various residences.
“How’s your knife work?” she asked. Not great, was the truth. Knife work? This had never been important to me. Then again, I never worked for clients who cared if a carrot was properly julienned or a leaf chiffonaded. It’s not that I don’t know how to properly slice and dice, it’s just — like penmanship — I’d never mastered it. I’m a very fast cook, preferring to rely on the various blades of the food processor. But that, I knew, would not please a classically trained French chef.
I consider myself a creative chef. My formal training is limited. In my 20s my neighbor in the city, Peter Kump, founder of the James Beard House, inveigled me to attend the first class of his cooking school. Today it is the widely respected Institute of Culinary Education. I already knew what I was doing, having fooled around in the kitchen since I was 15. My first meal: Chicken Kiev from “The New York Times Cookbook.” Yes, the melted butter spurted. I was hooked.
I loved Peter’s school, learned a lot, but found I preferred my usual method of immersing myself in cookbooks (always piled high on my nightstand), then using recipes as veering off points from which to experiment with my own versions. Like covering songs. A few years later, while living in London, I took a few classes at the Cordon Bleu, but found its methods dated. In one of the classes a dour woman demonstrated how to prepare a marrow squash, basically a large tasteless zucchini. I reverted to the books of Elizabeth David and Madhur Jaffrey, going through a stage where I cooked only Indian food, seduced by the exotic aroma of toasting spices.
As I was buzzed through the security gate, I was anxious about what the chef would think of my skills. Never mind my years of cooking untold dinner parties for friends, not to mention cooking three meals a day for myself. (For today’s lunch, just a regular weekday meal, I stuffed a poussin with dried fruits and threw some vegetables into the roasting pan. It took me the same time as making a sandwich, not including cooking time.) The first day went well. We mostly made menus and lists of ingredients, which we gave to another kitchen helper whose only job was to shop.
That night the estate manager suggested we go out for dinner, an opportunity to bond. She chose Bobby Van’s. Since we were on Long Island, I suggested fluke. When the chef took a bite I could see it was not up to his standards. Then I tried it. Strangely cardboardish. I sent mine back. He didn’t, but he didn’t eat his either. I later found out this had scored against me. But I’d be damned if I’d pay $35 for an inedible fish.
The next day the prep work began. Two housekeepers and the Water Mill and New York butlers bustled about on the perimeter. The chef eyed me suspiciously, but didn’t find much to complain about. I kept my eye on three kitchen maids who grabbed my chopping block to clean whenever I wasn’t looking. We endlessly peeled and chopped and, as there was not enough room in the three kitchen refrigerators, it was my job to find space in the pool house refrigerators, and its outside closet that stored cushions, but was cold enough to keep vegetables safely. For the next few days I made the trek between the pool house and kitchen dozens of times, carrying boxes of produce through where dozens of clumps of helenium were being planted, and wondered what it would be like to be so rich. I felt like I’d landed on Planet Billionaire: 10 or so acres of privilege and excess.
On Wednesday, a team of seven tabletop designers spent 12 hours arranging foliage and owl and turkey candles and sculptures spilling a cornucopia of fruit and nuts, as anticipation built. When the head butler, a Brit who spent a lot of time making himself tea and eating jelly sandwiches, rushed through the house calling “Wheels up!” all hell broke loose. Everyone scurried about to ensure all was in order before our lords and masters descended upon the household. If I were rich, I wondered, would I have servants unscrew my Perrier cap as did the lady of the house?
We made lunch for six. As we lined up platters of sea bass, lobster, and salads (lentil, Caesar, arugula — each one fiddled with by the chef with the precision of a diamond cutter), the missus sent word through her New York butler, Anthony, for us to prepare sandwiches. Back to the pool house with the uneaten food, no one daring to tell the boss that there’d been a communication breakdown. The bill from the Clamman alone was $700. When the chef saw the sandwiches I’d prepared he had a minor freakout. I had to start again and cut the crusts off the bread just so.
On Thursday a half-dozen freelance butlers arrived (one told me he was paid $1,000). Glorified waiters, it was their job to set the tables and serve the food, but mostly to stand around and look servile. It upset me that we went through miles of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, but there was nothing I could do. It was clear the chef had no respect for Americans’ traditional holiday fare, boiling to death huge pots of vegetables and Frenchifying them with lots of butter and cream. Didn’t that go out in the ’70s with Cuisine Minceur?
Service went smoothly. The chef had me put beads of Sevruga from a large tin on boring white crackers. Only two were eaten. I didn’t amputate any fingers, didn’t elicit much ire from the chef. But since he never had the opportunity to taste any of my food, I knew he didn’t respect me. I learned many lessons, most notably: Cooking is something I love, so I now I reserve it as a gift for the people I love.
Debra Scott is a real estate columnist at The Star.