When Hollywood wants to throw a dinner party, Jack Paley often gets the call. The veteran chef, who primarily works solo, is known to have cooked for a vast array of entertainment titans and Internet tycoons, including Oprah Winfrey, Google co-founder Larry Page and actress Gwyneth Paltrow (requests for confirmation were declined). Chef Jack, as he is known among clients, prefers individual dinners-for-hire where he can employ the full breadth of his creativity without being beholden to the finicky lifestyle demands that sometimes come with long-term employment (though, there was that six-month stint cooking full time for one of Hollywood’s best-known Scientologists). Nondisclosure agreements, for one, can be such a pain.
Paley’s business card is as discrete as they come: just his first name, the title “private chef” and a phone number. He has no need for a Web site since clients come to him mostly via word of mouth, and though he has an e-mail address, he’s often too busy shopping and prepping and planning to check it. Keeping his distance from the public is helpful when he’s working inside the homes of the often-paranoid and privacy-deprived rich and famous, a vantage point that would make many a gossip columnist wish he were more venal. But his lack of pretension is part of why he’s indispensable: As a cook and food curator, Paley might be described as a naturalist, delivering the simplicity of fine ingredients, nutrition and tastes from the outside world into the seclusion of private kitchens.
He worked for a year and a half for producer Janet Zucker and her husband, Jerry, and she now calls him, “my perfect wife.”
“He’s neat, he’s clean, his food is amazingly delicious and healthy,” Zucker said. “My husband wishes I could cook the way he does.”
On a recent Wednesday morning trek to the Santa Monica Farmers Market, Paley was shopping for a “little gathering” the following Saturday night, “industry related” of course, you know, “a cocktail hour sort of thing” for probably 20 or so people, at which he planned to serve hors d’oeuvres, “little finger foods, little pickled things, some crudités and maybe dip.” It was all to take place at the Malibu residence of two popular musicians. His first buy was mangos.
“These mangos are off-the-chain,” Paley said as he picked up a plump, tender fruit. “Zero carbon footprint,” he added, which is very important to him. “Compared to stuff from South America, the Pacific Rim, which is usually irradiated, nutritionally, that just makes it void. They do all this horrible s--- to food to bring it into the country. The great thing about getting it here is that none of that is done, so you’re eating food that is actually sustaining you rather than poisoning you — that’s what I love about this stuff. I get all excited.”
As a kid, Paley suffered from asthma and allergies, which he claims were cured by a healthier diet (though his allergy to cats stubbornly persists). His mother, whom he described as “a hippie naturalist,” taught him the value of natural nutrition. His father, on the other hand, a prominent Beverly Hills otolaryngologist, preferred to treat ailments and illnesses with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.
“When I realized as a young adult that food was the medicine and the medicine was the food, it all clicked,” Paley said about his decision to become a chef. “This is what I want to do, and supporting this kind of food is more powerful nutritionally and medicinally than any Western medicine.”
He was “in and out” of West Valley Occupational Center, where he admitted to having been more of a stoner than a student. He also decided against culinary school in favor of apprenticing for local chefs. “Institutional education can be a gift, but can also be limiting, because it keeps you in the box. It keeps your mind really structured,” he said.
He began his career working his way up the ranks of several catering companies, some of which handled Hollywood movie premieres. It was then that he was introduced to a steady stream of people in entertainment, though he found the work unsatisfying; events were sometimes so large, Paley said, serving crowds in the thousands, he had to oversee a kitchen with dozens of chefs and stick to conventional, “ordinary restaurant-style food” for his menus. When he began receiving offers to cater private parties, he leapt at the chance to do things his way.
As a private chef, Paley gets free reign to craft colorful menus and an unlimited budget for prime ingredients. His rate varies, depending on the event, but he charges anywhere from $50 per person for appetizers and hors d’oeuvres to hundreds for each guest for a multicourse sit-down dinner (and that does not include ancillary help, such as a sous chef, server or dishwasher).
“This is why I come here,” Paley said as we entered the stall for Windrose Farm, a small family-run outfit east of Paso Robles. Barbara Spencer, who farms the land with husband Bill, tells me that in addition to certified organic, they are transitioning to a biodynamic farming model, a sustainable approach to agriculture that prizes complete ecological harmony. “They’re totally devout farmers, and the result is gorgeous produce,” Paley said, picking up a tawny, pear-shaped spaghetti squash. “These are fairy-tale squashes. They’re perfect looking. What I like to do is use them in place of pasta; I’ll bake this off, scoop it out, put it in casserole dish, pour some red sauce on top, some Comte [cheese], and you have an incredibly nutrient-dense comfort food.”
He was equally smitten with Windrose’s Corolla potatoes and purchased a bag for himself. “A lot of my clients don’t like potatoes,” he said. “They’re scared of potatoes”— ever since the Atkins diet sanctioned fear of carbohydrates — “but now, what’s happening is they’re starting to understand that they’re loaded with vitamin C, and it’s such a high-quality carbohydrate, it’s actually critical to eat these.”
Paley could talk food philosophy for hours: the value of liquid minerals, sustaining an abundant gut flora and how he avoids restaurants because most of them overuse salt and sugar. “People’s taste buds are anesthetized,” Paley said. “Most people don’t understand the delicate natural flavors of delicious food because they associate delicious food with massive amounts of salt and sugar.”
I ask if his clients care as much about nutrition as he does, or if they’re even aware of how he’s feeding them. “A lot of times, when you start getting into the billionaire guys, they don’t give a s---,” he said. “But I love them the most because I can actually teach them stuff that they have no clue about.” Still, he described one pop singer’s diet as “really unhealthy.” “Ugh,” he said, with thinly disguised repulsion. “She eats horrible food. All she wants is, like, Mexican food and Italian food and Moroccan food.” On occasions when he is brought in to private islands or foreign countries, he makes a point of connecting with local purveyors whose ingredients meet his standards. And he’ll occasionally pack some spices into his carry-on.
“Chefs are control freaks,” he said, admitting occasional frustration at the unpredictable elements of his vocation, such as traveling or dealing with celebrity assistants. By now, though, he has learned to accommodate a variety of situations (or at least, if need be, turn his head). Although he declined to comment on any of the celebrities mentioned in this article, he described other famous households variously as “nightmares,” “freak shows” or “insane asylums.” And he told of one couple who hosts outrageous bacchanalian parties on a large ranch, referring to them as “swingers.” “You know, they like to eat, drink, party. And then no one’s got their clothes on after a certain point.”
The stories about the stars are endless. But by 8:30 a.m., the public has begun to flood the market, and the chefs, who are admitted earlier, had already snapped up the choicest produce. Paley still had tomatoes on his list. “Shim, sham, shame,” he said, approaching the Japanese heirlooms. “I wanted to get five times this amount. Feel how soft and gelatinous it is; it’s past its prime.”
On the way out, we passed a stand selling black-sage marshmallows. “I would get something like that for kids, like Apple, for instance” — Paltrow’s daughter — “she loves fun food.” Paltrow is a known chef herself, and the author of two published cookbooks. “She’s a major chef,” Paley affirmed. “When she calls me, I’m flattered.”
Working for Hollywood does have its pluses.
“These people are in positions where they can help make change. People laugh and say, ‘Oh, you know, movies,’ but movies have a lot of political and sociological impact on culture — here and throughout the world. So I think it’s kind of a nice arena for me to be able to spread the gospel.”
OSCAR PARTY SUGGESTIONS
LEMON FETA DIP
6 to 7 ounces sheep’s-milk feta, mashed with a fork
2 teaspoons organic virgin olive oil
1/2 organic red onion, chopped fine
Zest and juice of 1 organic Meyer lemon
1 teaspoon organic toasted cumin seeds
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and serve. (Optional: Garnish with chopped chives.)
Makes about 1 cup.
CURRY CHICKEN PECAN SKEWERS
2 cups organic raw pecans
4 organic chicken breasts, skin off, bone out (let sit out of refrigerator for 25 minutes)
20 6-inch bamboo skewers
1 1/4 cups Vegenaise (soy free) or organic mayonnaise
2 tablespoons raw honey
1 1/2 tablespoons organic curry powder
Bake pecans in oven at 325 F for 10 minutes, cool, then chop into smallest pieces using on-off pulsing action in a food processor, being careful not to make into butter; put onto a wide, flat plate.
Blanch chicken breasts in boiling water for 10 minutes or until cooked through.
Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold. Slice against grain into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Should get approximately 5 slices per breast.
Skewer chicken slices to resemble a lollipop, then refrigerate, wrapped in paper towel to keep very dry.
Mix vegenaise, honey and curry powder thoroughly.
Roll chicken in mayonnaise mixture to coat chicken with thin veneer, making sure not to coat too heavily. Mixture should not be so heavily coated that it drips off.
Roll chicken in pecan mixture to coat thoroughly. Place on serving platter and enjoy.
Serves 4 to 5 people.
Snapshot of Chef Paley's dishes
Organic Dark Chocolate Laced Berry Cookies
Heirloom Tomato Candy