What I love about being a personal chef #2: Variety

Monday: East Mediterranean menu, calorie count
Tuesday: Vegetarian family menu; plus, a dinner for 6 in the evening
Wednesday: Healthy family meals with few restrictions, plus baby food
Thursday: Organic semi-vegetarian family menu, plus baby food
Friday: Strictly organic gluten- and dairy-free menu with multiple restrictions
Saturday and Sunday: I grill for my boyfriend and I.

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Location:San Francisco Bay Area

What I love about being a personal chef #3: hanging out with other chefs

For this month’s meeting of our Bay Area Chapter of US Personal Chefs Association, we went on a foodie tour, exploring food places of West Marin County. As often happens in our business, many of the chefs got busy at the last minute, and only five of us made it to the meeting, turning it into small, casual family gathering.

We started with an oyster farm tour at Hog Island Oyster Company. The farm manager showed us how they grow their oysters in submerged wire basket, told us about oyster’s life cycle, science and technology that go into farming oysters, and seafood safety. We were amazed to learn that even a simple Pacifica oyster takes two years to reach market size. For the tiny delicate Kumamoto oyster it’s three years. I will never complain again about the price of fresh oysters.

Then we sat at a rustic picnic table by the water, and were served fresh sweet water Pacificas, Kumamotos, BBQ oysters with the farm’s signature chipotle-bourbon-garlic butter, Cowgirl Creamery soft-ripened cheese rolled in fresh herbs and edible flowers, and Carneros Brut Rose sparkling wine.

Our next stop was Point Reyes Winery. We tasted their well-aged, medium-bodied wines made of grapes grown in cool coastal areas. One of my favorites was 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, and then I was tale that the winery gets it’s Cabernet grapes from a friend, who grows them in a small vineyard in Terra Linda, just blocks from where I live!

After unsuccessful attempt to engage the cows at the nearby dairy farm in a photo session, we proceeded to downtown Point Reyes Station to do our grocery shopping at the delightful Palace Market, and then to chef Garbo’s charming Inverness country house, to cook our dinner.

The menu was:

Chef Garbo’s Side Car cocktails
Crostini with fig jam and Brie by chef Dawn
Shrimp skewers appetizer by chef Kara
Wine-marinated cedar plank grilled salmon by chef Greg
Chef Greg’s green beans
Grilled butterflied leg of lamb with chimichurri by chef Polina
Chef Dawn’s sweet potato and wild mushroom gratin

We had to abandon all our dessert ideas, since no one had room for the dessert anyway.

We enjoyed cooking together, talked business and food, exchanged tips and tricks about grilling, knife sharpening, using kitchen gadgets, admired chef Garbo’s food styling studio and a beautiful collection of vintage styling props, and generally had a great time.

The next morning my boyfriend and I traditionally missed the chefs breakfast chez Garbo, and instead had coffee and last nights leftovers for breakfast on the beach in front of our hotel room. Then we went for a hike in the hills overlooking Point Reyes seashore, where we saw large herds of elk, a few deer, a coyote, and where I almost stepped on a snake.

On the way back I stopped at a butcher shop on Marin Sun Farms to get grass fed steaks for the grill.

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Location:Inverness, CA

What I love about being a personal chef #4: healthy Russian food

Born and raised in Russia, I grew up cooking and eating the traditional Russian food. My grandmother, an excellent home cook, made use of whatever we could get in those lean times. In summer we ate from our kitchen garden. In winter, we had jars of homemade preserves and barrels of pickled vegetables and mushrooms that we would combine with whatever meats Grandma could get to make hearty, healthy meals. We used to go foraging for wild mushrooms and hazelnuts in fall, and gather young nettles for soup in spring.

I am an adventurous eater, so after moving to California I don’t cook too much traditional Russian food for myself – there are too many other, new things to try. A few days that I spend up in Tahoe every winter, I do cook Russian winter foods for my ski party – they go so well with the snowy mountains, below-freezing temperatures, and tire chains. Otherwise, I’m busy exploring California Wine Country cuisine, Asian fusion, and South American cooking.

Fortunately, many of my clients are Russian immigrants and conservative eaters, so they crave homemade Russian comfort food. Here is my opportunity to remember my Grandma’s lessons and make piroshki, borscht, sorrel soup, cabbage rolls, selyanka, pelmeni, and ukha the traditional way, using the best, freshest ingredients


(3-4 servings)

2 1/2 cups beef of chicken stock
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small beets, plus (optional) greens from 2-3 beets
1/2 small head of white cabbage, thinly sliced
1 mediom yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, cleaned and sliced into thin sticks
1 sweet green pepper, seeded, cored, and thinly sliced
2 medium ripe red tomatoes, peeled and cubed (it’s OK to seed them, butI leave the seeds in)
2-3 garlic cloves
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt, pepper to taste

for serving:

3 tbsp crème fraîche or sour cream
minced dill and/or parsley
3 slices of bacon, fried, dried on paper towels, and crumbled (optional)

Cut the root end and the leaves off the beetroot, leaving 1/2 inch on, to keep the juice in.
Heat the oven to 400F, place the beet in a baking dish with a little water, cover with aluminum foil and bake until fork-tender, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size. Let cool, peel and set aside.

Bring the stock to a simmer in a 3-qt. soup pot.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Sautee the onions and carrots until just beginning to turn golden. Add to the stock, bring back to a slow simmer. Add the cabbage, cook for about 10 minutes, then add the sweet pepper and sliced beet greens. Bring back to simmer, add the tomatoes, cook until the tomatoes are very soft. Slice the baked beet root, toss with the vinegar to preserve the color, add to the soup. Mince the garlic with some salt, then pound to a paste in a mortar. Take the soup off the heat, add the garlic paste, cover and let stand for a few minutes.

Served garnished with sour cream, minced herbs, and (optional) bacon crumbs.

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Location:San Carlos Ave,San Carlos,United States

What I love about being a personal chef #5: Dinner parties

I get to go to all the parties, and I get paid for this!

The regular personal chef service, cooking weekly family meals, is a lonely job. After interviewing the client about their dietary needs and preferences, I sometimes work for them for months without meeting them. The main reason why they need a personal chef is that they are busy people, right? So when I come with my culinary mission, they are rarely home, and when they are, they are busy in the home office or taking care of the kids, and don’t have time to stop in the kitchen and chat with the chef. It’s fine with me: I love my independence, peace and quiet, and being in full control of the kitchen.

But we all need some social moments, and for me cooking for home dinner parties and conducting interactive dinners and private cooking classes means exactly that. Meeting fellow humans, in their best, relaxed and happy form.

Most modern houses and apartments, fortunately, have open kitchens, so I get to enjoy the party and interact with the guests, share recipes and cooking tips and do a little tasting, while I prepare a special dinner for them.

Also, dinner parties give me an opportunity to practice nice food presentation, while in the regular meal service the presentation options are limited by storage requirements. A meal vacuum-packaged in a rectangular Pyrex dish for storage in the freezer can look beautiful, but I challenge you to make it look striking.

Pictured here is daikon and zucchini salad with lemon dressing that I made for a dinner party for a small San Francisco social media start-up today. This salad is very light and refreshing. It’s also low on calories, vegan, raw, and gluten-free, so everyone, no matter what their diet is, can enjoy it. The choice of a sharper or a fruitier olive oil for the dressing can take it in different directions.

Daikon and Zucchini Ribbon Salad with Lemon Dressing
Serves 6

grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
1 shallot, minced
1 cup olive oil
1 large daikon (Japanese radish), peeled
3 very fresh and tender zucchini
6 large basil leaves
sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

Make the dressing: cover minced shallot with lemon juice, let sit for a few minutes. Add olive oil and whisk together.

Using vegetable peeler, shave daikon and zucchinis into paper-thin ribbons. Arrange on six salad plates. Rub basil leaves gently with olive oil to prevent darkening from contact with air. Roll the leaves together, and slice them very thin. Unroll the basil – you’ll have very thin basil ribbons. Scatter grated lemon zest and basil ribbons on top of the salad. Pour dressing over salad. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Another raw treat for the same party – raw berry crisp, slightly modified from the recipe on Whole Foods website.

Cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries; blue agave and maple syrup, date-pecan-almond topping.

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What I love about being a personal chef #1: Clients enjoy the food!

S., my long-time friend and client from Burlingame, wrote me this wonderful heartwarming review:

Polina’s cooking for us has changed our life style in three important ways.First, the food is outstandingly tasty, stylish, and diverse. This creates quite exquisite feeling of a food fest that continues every day.

Second, my wife and I got much more free time because cooking time, shopping time, or time to pick up food from a restaurant has been simply returned to us and we can spend more time with each other and our family.

Third, healthy and diverse food with no artificial sugar and no refined flour helped me to stay fitter than I have ever been last 10 years.

This is what keeps the personal chefs going: in our profession, we are able to make people happy and help them stay healthy, and we get to see the results every day!

This week’s menu for S. and his family:

Summer vegetable soup

Baby greens with orange and walnuts

King salmon with white wine sauce
Chicken with tomatoes and portabello mushrooms (Marengo)
Moroccan braised lamb with eggplant
Meatballs in tomato sauce

Roasted new potatoes
Sweet potato and carrot puree
Pea and green bean ragout
Brown rice pilaf with spring vegetables

Menu 05/11/2011

What I love about being a personal chef #6: the seasons

Cooking and eating are the activities that naturally connect us with the seasons. Living in coastal California, I sometimes cannot tell what time of the year it is by just walking outside. It can be hot and sunny in the middle of January, and our summer fog and wind will easily trick you into reaching for your ski outfit.
But fruits and vegetables don’t grow and ripen in one day, their life cycles depend on the average temperatures, the length of the day, and rainfall, so they can tell you the time of the year for sure.

As a personal chef, I am not bound by a printed menu, so I can select whatever is the best on the market every day. And the best is usually what’s in season right now. I don’t have to buy cardboard winter tomatoes, ever. And if I happen to find a beautiful basket of figs, a handful of young fava beans, a rare boletus mushroom, or tender cute minu-squashes, anything with short season that’s good right now, I’d get it right away, and my clients would appreciate it.

Winter: the start of the year is the time of root vegetables, sturdy greens, cabbages, citrus fruits, pomegranates, and delicious wild mushrooms. It calls for slow cooked comfort foods. It’s also the sardines and Dungeness crab season.

Favorite vegetable: Brussels sprouts
Favorite meat: braised lamb shanks
Favorite seafood: broiled sardines
Favorite fruit: blood orange

Spring is probably the most exciting time at the market. The endless root vegetables of the winter give way to crisp young greens and fresh asparagus, artichokes, spring onions, young garlic, green peas and fava beans.

Favorite vegetable: fava beans
Favorite meat: rabbit mixed grill
Favorite seafood: smoked halibut
Favorite fruit: strawberries

I don’t have to advertise the summer. We all look forward to the grilling season, the heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, summer squashes of all colors and shapes, tender corn, and or course beautiful summer fruits.

Favorite vegetable: Cherokee purple tomato
Favorite meat: grilled tri-tip steak with chmichurri sauce
Favorite seafood: grilled California spot prawns
Favorite fruit: fig

I love California fall! The weather is usually the best of the year, most of the summer produce continues till the winter storms, so you still get your heirloom tomatoes and peppers, but the fall adds to them the wealth of grapes and fruits, winter squashes, new wine releases, and the beginning of the oyster season.

Favorite vegetable: kabocha squash
Favorite meat: duck leg confit
Favorite seafood: oysters with mignonette sauce
Favorite fruit: Fuyu persimmons

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What I love about being a personal chef #7: Recipe Development

It’s so easy to get into a routine and keep cooking the same dishes for yourself and your family over and over again. In my previous life as a corporate employee, I remember a whole summer when I ate salad nicoise almost every night, just because it’s good enough, and after a whole day at work it was hard to invent something new, just for myself.

It is different when someone asks you to come up with a new or modified recipe for a special diet or a particular taste. Then you have an excuse to turn your home cooking into a recipe development session, trying out various combinations and adjusting ingredients in order to make the new recipe work. This way you eat something new and exciting every day.

I’ve been developing and testing recipes for gluten-free and dairy-free dishes, low-calorie and even fat-free versions of classic dishes, filling and delicious vegetarian meals, making adjustments in traditional recipes for my client’s tastes or dietary requirements, like brown rice paella or chicken cacciatore made with ghee instead of oil and butter, mushroom and rice soup, not to mention low-calorie Mediterranean dishes made without onions and celery for my client who loves Mediterranean but hates onions and celery.

Whatever new seasonal ingredient is on the market, I get to play with it. Sunchokes, blood oranges, Thai snapper, persian cucumbers, fingerling potatoes, duck eggs, venison – I get to taste them all, and then I have a pleasure of introducing them to other peoples tables.

What I love about being a personal chef #8: Beauty of the food

My day starts with a glorious display of local seasonal ingredients of the best quality, not unlike an old Dutch still life, and it ends with a week worth of family meals, neatly arranged in the refrigerator in convenient containers, ready to be served on a minute notice.

As a personal chef, I am in a unique position to create a new menu every day, according to the client tastes and dietary goals, and to select only the best, freshest meats and vegetables from the quality supermarkets and the farmers market. Unlike restaurant chefs, we are not restricted by a set menu, or by a profit margin built into each dish. Since the client pays for the groceries, we are free to select what the client wants, and he or she usually wants the best, not the cheapest (within reason). The economy for the client is achieved by selecting what’s in season, and by efficient shopping, preparation and storage of the food, without sacrificing quality.

Using the choice ingredients increases the sensual enjoyment of the cooking process for the chef, as well as taste and health benefits for the client.

In this post I used photos made with my iPhone during a cook date for my Mill Valley client.

The menu:


Tuscan bean and kale


Arugula with blood orange and caramelized walnuts


Salmon steaks with green sauce

Chicken saltimbocca

Braised lamb shanks

Pork chops with orange sauce


Haricot vert (French green beans with garlic and lemon)

Quinoa with mushrooms

Rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes

Vegetable paprikash

What I love about being a personal chef #9: Pets know I’m their best friend

I am the bearer of ground meat, the source of chicken trimmings, and the creator of these wonderful aromas. Even those cats and dogs who eat commercial pet food every day, appreciate some ground lamb as a treat once in a while.

The furries come out to greet me and check out the groceries, then they sit and wait for me to drop something delicious, either purposely for them, or as an accident. Then they help to clean up.

What I love about being a personal chef #10: I get to play with client’s kitchen gadgets

This is my Santa Clara client’s brand new Panasonic electric meat grinder/sausage stuffer that I took out of the box today, and used to grind beef round for traditional Russian beef patties, cotleti. Works like magic, and so easy to use (after spending hours with my temperamental manual grinder at home).
Russian beef patties - cotleti

Powerful VitaMix blenders, food processors, infrared grills – I get to use them all.

I cannot wait for the day when someone tells me “We bought this Bradley smoker two month ago, and we never use it. May be you can use it sometime, smoke salmon or something…”