Aram Reed

Private Chef

04/24/2015

Aram Reed is a private chef based in Chicago.

Why did you decide to become a private chef?

I had worked in restaurants, catering, bars, the food and beverage industry from the age of fourteen up until twenty-one. Coming from two corporate, like-minded parents, when I graduated college I was encouraged to go a more corporate route in my life. I followed in their footsteps because I figured that was what I was supposed to do. I worked in sales and finance for about five years, then in 2007, when the market crashed, I lost my job.

I used that as an opportunity to switch my career altogether, and I came back to the culinary route. During my time in culinary school I was staging at a number of restaurants, so I was getting a real feel for what it’s like to be a line cook. My experience as a teenager was more like hot dog, Italian beef kind of places. I was doing prep, running the books, doing service, it was more well-rounded but never straight, hard, line work.

Although the lifestyle appealed to me--- having these brethren, you’re an army, a team, this family in the trenches, grinding it out--- after working in the finance industry for five years making money was also something that really appealed to me. You had to choose immediately what you can do as far as being a line cook and also having good income. If I worked from a line cook to an executive chef, that path, that journey is ten years, maybe. When I came back into the culinary field I was twenty-seven. Am I gonna work until forty before I’m the boss? Or could I be the boss right now, and with enough life experience figure out how to pay my rent?

One of the biggest moments for me was when I was asked by the president of the school to do a private event. They donated a dinner party in someone’s home for an auction, and they liked me, I was working really hard in school, and they said: hey, you’d be good for this. I went into this event as a student, and I found this door where I’m able to be a personality but also be a chef at the same time. So I said: how do I create a business model around this, where you’re both front of house and back of the house at the same time and still have a proper work/life balance? That’s how I chose this direction.

A client approaches you for a private dinner at their home: how do things progress from that point onward?

I reach out to the client, talk to them, and discuss menus et cetera. If you use Kitchit I have about nine menus on there, the client will just pick one and I can adapt it with a course change here or there. Generally speaking, throughout each season I pick and write three or four menus that I really want to push. One of the first things I do is deal with food allergies, aversions, and requests, so the client gets to customize each menu, which is really special.

When I do private events it’s tiered differently based on how I’m perceived being there. For some of my clients I’m the showman, I come in telling jokes, and telling stories. My most recent menu is Tuscan-based. I was in Italy in November and I wanted to come back and put together a great menu around that. It’s about selling that experience… like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats the ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood. You’re giving them more of a mental experience. Other times I’m just the help. I have a client who’s a big executive at Goldman Sachs, and he does a lot of client dinners. I come out and say, “For our next course, this is a herb gnocchi in a spinach puree, roasted red peppers, pine nuts, and porcini mushrooms. Please enjoy,” and walk out of the room. My server is just there to pour wines.

The majority of the time I prep in a commercial kitchen space, 90% of the way there, and then finish at the client’s house. So short ribs would obviously be braised ahead of time, desserts would be made ahead of time, so would purees. But I’ll cook the fish on site, cook the vegetables on site, so it’s nice and fresh. The biggest issue, the thing that’s the important variable of my job, is that every day that I work I’m in an unfamiliar kitchen. But my expectation is always to be five-stars. I love that about my job because it creates this challenge, I’m very competitive as a person, so for me every time there’s a service I feel really solid about it.

I’ve worked in these beautiful homes on the North Shore, eight burners on the range, it’s the nicest kitchen I’ve ever stepped into other than the Sub-Zero test kitchen in Merchandise Mart. Then we did a 65-person, four-course plated where there wasn’t even a kitchen. We plugged in toaster ovens and induction burners and racks with sternos, like MacGyver shit. How do I make this work, every day? You walk in like the Terminator, analyzing everything: this is how we’re gonna do this, gonna do that, and then you execute.

I love that challenge. The second thing is: how do I make myself present while walking into someone else’s home and taking over their alpha presence, if you will? I walk in and I’m like: you’re in my hands now, in your home. You need to show me where this is and that is, then get out of my kitchen. [laughs] It’s a whole psyche coming in, and I’m not shy, I have a very strong, confident presence, and so when I walk in I’m there to execute this at my level and I need you to let me take over, because that’s the only way I know how.

If I do events for eight people or less I work it by myself. Anything over that I have a crew. I have three or four fantastic servers who work in Michelin and Michelin Bib restaurants that have availability to me. I call all of them every time I have another gig come up and book them in advance. They’re fantastic, they’re close to me, I know them very well, and they deliver the Aram experience that I need them to, which is very important because I know people that do rent-a-bartender, rent-a-server, like a wedding. These are low-paid people, they don’t give a shit. They don’t care.

I have a few friends that work in the city as private chefs, another friend does a lot of events with me because his restaurant closes in the afternoon, it’s a brunch place, but he still loves doing this stuff. I have this amazing talent pool of people from the neighborhood and it’s great. They do great by me because I want to do great by them. It’s a mutual, beneficial relationship.

We bring everything ready to go, very efficiently tote in and knock out a beautiful coursed meal--- the plates issue is a huge thing too, right? Plates are huge, no one thinks about that. For the first three years of my career I used whatever they had, and it’s like this weird blue plate with a chip in it, with this floral pattern that was from grandma’s, and it makes your food look like shit. So you go and buy some nice, rectangle white plates, a blank canvas, and you get to be an artist again, it’s this crazy, good-looking food in their house.

It’s like being part of a family. I have unique memories with each client, when you work with people again and again, you remember their children’s names, little things, where the pots and pans are--- yesterday I was in this home, I hadn’t been there in a year and a half but I remembered everything as soon as I walked in. I thought it was my kitchen too. The best part is when I’m invited to have a glass of wine, or have a whiskey, sit and have a drink: hang out with us chef, join us at our table, whatever. I always say I show up with a handshake and I leave with a hug. Every time, every time. It’s not about hiring a chef, it’s about hiring Aram.

Will you let a client request a specific kind of cuisine?

That happened just last week. I’m doing a collaborative food art project with this artist trying to sell her work. She wants to have guests come into her home, look at her art, buy her art, and be provided with a lovely dinner by me. We did one a month ago, she already booked me three more months out, awesome. Then she says: for the next one I want the whole menu to be Mexican. Right around Cinco de Mayo, okay. So what could be cool? What can I plate, what can I do that would be Mexican themed? So let’s do a mango shrimp dish, and then a nice frijoles and chicken dish, or some braised pork shoulder.

I’d say 90% of the time I’m just suggesting menus, 80% of the time I’m getting requests and 2% of the time I’m getting a random theme request. But because my work is so customized to the client, I’m totally open and receptive to everything.

What’s the most frustrating part of the job?

Being a private chef is extremely challenging, especially comparing yourself to a restaurant chef. I believe that--- and rightly so--- most private chefs do not get a good reputation in Chicago. I don’t know if it’s prestige or credibility, but that’s a hard thing to compete against. When I’m hanging around a ton of restaurant industry people I never feel like I’m looked at as an equal. And most private chefs are garbage, doing garbage shit, passing by. The ones that I’ve seen and worked with, I can’t believe people still hire them. Every day I combat that notion. My learned, trained, behavior is to be better today than you were yesterday, every single day for the rest of your life. I won’t settle for less than perfect, anytime. Because if you fuck up no one will hire you again.

Still: why does the restaurant give you the credibility of your dream? I’m not only a chef, I’m a boss, and I’m an entrepreneur, and I run a business. That’s a lot of shit, and I don’t like feeling less than other people who are doing that. Sometimes I do feel inferior around them , but then other times I’m like: no, fuck you, I run my shit, you couldn’t do what I do. I could do what you do. I can work the line, I can mimic what they do, give me a couple weeks to figure out the dishes, whatever, I can mimic your mechanics as well.

The day that some of these big restaurant chefs look at me and treat me as an equal is the day that I feel I’m successful. And I probably won’t stop until I get there. That has been a driving point all day. And I’m not doing it for all private chefs, I’m doing it for me. Fuck all the other private chefs. I am focused on my thing and my thing only. I’m not a trailblazer for the others, I am a competitor.

I desire respect from my colleagues in the industry as I give respect to them. And every opportunity you have to show your quality… my resurgence in food was introduced by my friends that were working for Grant Achatz and like-minded chefs, and understanding their mentality and focus on the ethics of working in food, the passion for it. There’s no way I could ever think less than that.  So it doesn’t matter if I’m a restaurant owner or I’m in someone’s home, I have the same mentality.

Do you ever want to open your own restaurant?

I have no intention of opening up a restaurant. I just traveled to Colorado, I was in a small little town called Estes Park. When you’re sitting there, taking in everything you’re like: maybe I could live here, open up a little dinette, maybe if I’m fifty, sixty years old and I want to do something different in my glory years. After spending time and living in Italy, the work/life balance is everything in their culture. And that’s really important to me too. As much as I want to have a good business I don’t want to be married to it, I would like to have a family as well, to be able to do both.  Being a private chef allows me to do both, so it’s great.

You mentioned Ratatouille earlier: do you think that a good dish can evoke other places and times?

I’m a showman, and I sell an experience. And if I have the confidence in my story to share it with somebody else, being a good storyteller makes my clients feel like they can share that with me. It is sustainable, and it’s encouraging and exciting for me to have those life experiences to share with other people. People love musicians for their stories, the lyrics are their story--- the food is my story.

I was taking a train to Florence from Tuscany, and the train went on strike, really typical Italian stuff. We pull up to the next town, this small-ass town, and I’m on my own for like nine hours. What am I gonna do? I had this beautiful old woman cooking me this pasta fagioli, one of the better food experiences of my life. Beyond the dish that you’re eating is the energy you get, the experience the food delivers to you. I was in the Dominican Republic on vacation, getting really stir-crazy around the fourth day. I like to work, I can’t sit by a beach and drink all day every day, so I went and got lost. I found this little village, and I had lunch there. I speak a little Spanish and I asked the lady: can I come and cook with you tomorrow? And there I was, in shorts and Toms and a t-shirt, sweating, she’s got me cleaning fish or whatever. I recreated that dish when I got home, with the same products, but it was so different, because you’re feeling that whole sort of vibe.

Last question: what’s next for you, what’s on the horizon?

I was offered a position to teach part time at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school that I attended. It is really full circle for me, to be the student then become the teacher. I delivered a keynote speech for the graduating class last November, and I said: you’ve heard from a thousand restaurant chefs, now you’re gonna hear from a private chef who’s also a graduate of the school, who took a different path in his career.

I don’t want food to be delivered as a job, but as a creative outlet to do what you want. I’m really excited they offered me this position, I took an interview and it was really cool. I’m excited to teach these kids and hopefully deliver some of this passion on: go chase your dreams, you can have whatever you want, all you need to do is work hard to get it. I hope my story is inspiring enough for somebody to want to do that. I’m very fortunate to have great people that I work with, and they’re always very receptive and very warm: thank you, we had a great time, everything was great. It’s instant gratification, it makes me feel good inside.

Private Chef