We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 4.
This week on Working, Slate’s L.V. Anderson talks to Santana Benitez, a freelance chef in New York City. Benitez talks about building a pop-up kitchen for a private event, how she prepares to cook for a party, and the different cultures she draws on for her recipes. Plus, she shares her thoughts on culinary school and the proper way to slice an onion. Find photos of her work by searching #illcooklikeyourmother.
In a Slate Plus extra, Benitez talks about her influences, different food trends, and meal presentation.
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L. V. Anderson: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Laura Anderson, a writer and editor for Slate. On today’s episode, we talk with someone who cooks professionally, but not in a restaurant. What’s your name and what do you do?
Santana Benitez: I’m Santana Benitez, and I’m a freelance chef.
Anderson: And how long have you been a freelance chef?
Benitez: I would say about two years now. Well, I guess I could say I’ve been cooking professionally for about two and half years. When I first moved to New York, I went to culinary school. And at the time I was cooking in restaurants.
You know, like when you start from the bottom. Like garde manger, line cooking. I decided that after a while, restaurants were just—well, the hours are grueling. It’s a redundant thing. Every day, you’re cooking the same things, and the pay is very little. So, after that, after I decided to move on. I thought, once I got more experience, I thought I could actually do this. I could find my clients. A lot of them came through word of mouth, and just try out the freelance thing.
Anderson: So, why did you want to become a chef?
Benitez: I actually initially went to culinary school because I wanted to be a food writer. I was always into food blogging, food magazines, and food media. So, I thought I’d go to culinary school, understand the food side of it, the food jargon, and all the cooking terms. Because I definitely thought that would have helped me to be a food writer. So, I got to culinary school and I realized that I’m really good at cooking, and I love it. My mind shifted from writing to cooking full time.
Anderson: Before that, you probably knew that you were good at cooking. I assume you cooked before you went to culinary school.
Benitez: Oh yeah. Yeah, I did.
Anderson: So, what was it that shifted that made you realize? Was it that you were looking at the other people in your class and you realized, Oh, I actually have a lot more facility with a knife than they do? Or was it more about just like realizing that you actually really enjoy the process of cooking?
Benitez: I think it’s both. I think it’s more about the enjoyment of the cooking process, because with each class it was so much fun for me to play with the ingredients and create things. I also think cooking allowed me to express my creative side more than the food writing would.
Writing is also very expressive. But I think to have something tangible and edible kind of spoke to me more. And then, yeah, you tend to compare yourself to others when you’re in a scholarly class setting. I just felt like I was really good at what I did, so why not?
Anderson: Talk to me about the process of deciding that you wanted to freelance. You mentioned that the pay is a lot worse in the front kitchen. It’s pretty grueling. But you also, I guess, went through that experience while you were in culinary school and then after.
So, was there any specific moment that made you realize, OK, I’m done with this, I need to go freelance?
Benitez: I think the moment was actually when I got my first client while I was working at a restaurant. I ran into someone, and they introduced me to a friend of theirs. They were like, hey, we’d love for you to come cook for us at our home. And I was like, yeah, I could definitely do that. It’s funny, because when you’re setting your own prices at the time you’re reluctant. Do I tell them this? Do I tell them that? You’re learning where you buy all your food, the best products, when you want to do your own dinner parties, and what not.
So, I was starting off from the bottom. But then I realized after that first dinner when they loved it and everything came together really beautifully and I made that money for myself, I realized that there was no need for me to stay in a restaurant.
Anderson: So, how do you set your prices? Is it like you’re kind of like a personal restaurant and so you’re charging per dish? Or do you charge for the ingredients, then also charge for your labor?
Benitez: I charge hourly for my labor. It’s pretty standard, the price.
But it depends. Let’s say I’m cooking a private dinner for a couple at their home. I might go on the lower end than I would, let’s say like a corporate party, because the budget is bigger, obviously, and they require more out of me. I keep it separate. I provide receipts and shopping lists for my clients so they can see, exactly how much the food costs, because it’s a separate thing. I also charge for transportation if I have to transport my groceries, my pots, my pans. It’s a lot of lugging things around.
Anderson: So, do you have a sort of set menu that is your standard for a dinner party or a corporate affair? Or do you sort of just brainstorm with your clients about what they want?
Benitez: Brainstorm for sure. It’s cool. I’m doing a party for a woman and her husband, next Saturday. She tells me he loves jazz and he’s from the Caribbean, so he likes really flavorful food. So, I thought let’s do like a midnight New Orleans–style brunch, you know? So, she loved the idea. So, you know, New Orleans is very jazzy and the food is very flavorful.
With the Creole Cajun food, it’s a very soulful kind of food. So, just depending on what the client wants and where they’re going, I dream up menus. It’s really fun. I rarely repeat my menus, but there are things that people really, really love that I tend to sneak in, in some ways.
Anderson: Are there any restrictions that you are OK with? Do you ever do vegetarian?
Benitez: Absolutely. I have a strong background in vegetarian cooking. I’m cold vegan. I can cook vegan, vegetarian.
Some clients say, “I just need gluten-free everything and vegan on top of that.” And it’s just like, well, where’s the joy in that? Why don’t you just buy a chicken breast and cook it for yourself and eat? Boil your vegetables or something really ultra-boring. But you know what? That being said, I could definitely take on an event that wants to try gluten-free and vegan this, vegan that. But I wouldn’t take on a client that consistently requested that. It’s no fun for me. It has to be fun for me, too.
Anderson: Do you test all of the recipes before you actually have the moment that you’re cooking for your clients?
Or do you have enough of a background in knowing how recipes come together that you feel like you don’t need to test them ahead of time?
Benitez: I definitely don’t recipe test. I don’t know if I’m getting off on a tangent here. But I am hoping to start writing my cookbook very soon. So, recipe testing, it’s more difficult than it sounds. I like to keep that separate. When it comes to dinner parties, I just think of things that I know can come together nicely, things that I know I’ll be able to handle. But no, I don’t do much recipe testing because it’s a lot.
Anderson: Because then you’d have to buy multiple ingredients, which could—
Benitez: Exactly. Exactly.
Anderson: That could definitely add up.
Benitez: Exactly. But most chefs do this: They tend to buy a little more than what they need, because if something goes wrong you need to have a backup plan. You also need to have additional portions because you never know who can be added to a dinner party.
Anderson: Can you walk me through a day where in the evening you have a dinner party or a corporate event planned? Do you do all of your shopping the same day?
Benitez: No way.
Anderson: What is that process like?
Benitez: So, usually I start shopping about, let’s say, two to three days out. Prep work. You have to prep ahead. It’s rare that I can do events where I just show up and that’s ready to go, that’s the event. It takes time. You usually have to transport the groceries or prep up some things off site.
Anderson: Is the prep usually like chopping vegetables?
Benitez: Yeah. Chopping vegetables, making sauces, making doughs. Anything that can be done in advance that isn’t going to compromise the dish I tend to knock out before actual event day. That’s really important.
Anderson: Do you do all of this in your own kitchen?
Benitez: Some of it. Most of the time, I cook on site. But if it’s something that I need a dough for, or I need to pickle something in advance. I’ll do things like that at my home.
Anderson: So the day of, when you’re transporting all of this, do you rent a car?
Benitez: No. I actually just taxi it up. I have this really large plastic bin that carries a lot of things with me. But a lot of the times, I’m not building a pop-up kitchen.
A lot of times there’s already things on site for me. But I recently, earlier in the month, I did a complete pop-up kitchen at an art gallery. That was very challenging but very rewarding. It came out really great. I prefer projects, obviously, that already have some kind of something set up for me, but I’m very much open to lugging and setting up for the right project.
Anderson: So, when you say pop-up kitchen, do you mean that there was literally no cooking equipment?
Anderson: So, there wasn’t an oven, there wasn’t a stove?
Benitez: Nothing. It was—
Anderson: Was there a sink?
Benitez: There was a sink. It was a bathroom sink downstairs. It’s really interesting. So, it was for an opening. There’s an artist that I know, Tony Peralta. He just did the Rolos & Icons art exhibit. One of the main women that he painted and reimagined in his pieces was Frida Kahlo. So, we wanted to do a Mexican-style sit down dinner. It was like, three courses, 20 people, and really, really beautiful food. But we thought, OK, how are we going to do this in this art gallery, because there’s no kitchen? But there was a basement. So, we got induction burners.
We built that kitchen—when I say we I mean my friend Fadia—her and I did this together. We made a kitchen. It was actually really amazing to see it after—it took us some time. But it was something else.
Anderson: How much time are you spending on your feet doing this kind of like physical labor for a typical dinner?
Benitez: Oh, hours. I would say 12 hours is pretty normal.
Anderson: Is that hard for you?
Benitez: No, it’s not. It’s actually beneficial to me because it’s kind of like my gym. I wish I had more time to go to the gym.
I probably shouldn’t say that. I do have more time. But I’m just so tired after working, and I don’t feel the guilt because it’s such a physical job. It’s so physically demanding. But I’m very comfortable. I have comfortable shoes—comfortable chef clogs. And chef coats and comfortable pants feel like you’re working in pajamas. So, the comfort of it helps.
Anderson: Do you plan out every step before you go into this cooking situation? Like, OK, first I’m going to make the soup, and then while that soup is cooking I’m going to make the quiche, or whatever the case may be?
Or do you kind of just like have an intuition about what needs to be done when?
Benitez: Well, it depends. If it’s a small dinner, then it’s just off the top of my head. But when we did this large event, I make prep lists. I make prep lists for every event that I do. A prep list is basically writing down every dish that you’re making, and then beneath it you write down everything that needs to be done to complete it. So, if it’s a salad, it’s just very basic. Wash greens, make the vinaigrette, cut whatever goes into it—things like that. You have to list every single step. That way, you know you’re crossing all your t’s, and you’re dotting all your i’s.
It also helps to get a visual of how much work you really have to do. So, prep lists are extremely important in most kitchens. Any chef that I’ve worked underneath has basically taught me that. And there’s a lot of benefits to that. You really should have a prep list.
Anderson: What do you think about the utility of culinary school? You obviously went to culinary school. So, you have a sense of what that experience is like. But do you think it’s possible for people to learn on the job just by working at different restaurants?
Or do you think that they really miss out on a certain level of knowledge or instruction that you got in culinary school?
Benitez: I think that’s such a good question because I’ve heard both sides. I personally will say that I feel like you can absolutely learn under chefs at different restaurants. But the problem with that is, chefs aren’t always going to have the time to teach you all these interesting tricks, traditional foods, the pastry side of it, and every single technique that they’ve learned. Where in culinary school, the main focus is that you go and learn techniques for everything.
I’m sure there are amazing chefs that aren’t classically trained, and you definitely don’t need culinary school to be an amazing chef. But I tell people if you can afford it and if you feel like it’s worth it, to me, I think culinary school is kind of key. I think it definitely streamlined my cooking. It elevated my cooking. Certainly gave me an incredible background on fundamental techniques for cooking that can be applied to all kinds of cuisines that I don’t know that I would have learned under the chefs that I worked under.
I learned cool tricks from them, no doubt, that I add to what I do now. But my bread and butter I would say I learned in culinary school.
Anderson: Can you tell me about a specific trick that you learned in culinary school that you really like to do or that really impresses people?
Benitez: A trick. So, let’s say you want to cut cherry tomatoes, or grapes, or whatever. It’s a small, silly trick. But you basically take a plate—a flat plate—and you lay all of your cherry tomatoes or grapes down. You put another plate on top, and you use a bread knife. And you just slice right through, and they’re all cut in half.
So, there’s no individual cherry tomato cutting, next tomato, next tomato. It’s one quick, clean sweep. Also, cutting an onion. It seems so basic. People think anyone can cut an onion. But when you go to culinary school, you learn the really fast, proficient ways to cut them beautifully and how your knife cuts. That’s a big thing. Which you can learn in restaurants as well. But in culinary school, you spend weeks cutting carrots and potatoes, making sure that they’re perfect.
Anderson: So, how do you cut an onion? I feel like this is a very controversial topic.
People have very different techniques. So, how do you do it?
Benitez: I know, people do. So, what I do is I cut off the top, not the root. You always keep the root on. And then I split the onion down the middle. Then, I treat the onion. I treat each side. So, I take one side and I’ll make my cuts going in horizontally. And then I’ll turn the onion on top and I’ll make them, going vertically. Then I’ll turn it again horizontally, and cut it off. And all the little cubes, whatever size I like, come out beautifully. So, it’s basically a four-cut process, but it’s really quick.
I can take an onion and cut it up beautifully in seconds. So, it’s great. It’s a small trick. But when you see it done and you’re not used to it, you’re think, Whoa, I’ve been cutting onions wrong my whole life. It actually helps, you know. Because a lot of home cooks don’t understand that uniformity in your cuts matter in cooking. Because let’s say you’re cooking—you’re sautéing onions and you have big chunks and little chunks. The little chunks are going to burn before the big chunks have a chance to caramelize. So, it’s really important, uniformity.
Anderson: So, speaking from experience, I feel like when I start writing about something that I really like on a personal level, it sort of becomes work.
And so, my relationship with it kind of changes. It’s not quite as much fun as it used to be because now it’s work. So, you have not had that experience?
Benitez: I haven’t because I think that writing moves people, for sure. But I think that, again, cooking is so instant. You might spend weeks on a piece, and it just becomes grueling. Or you’re just think, Oh, so much editing. But when you cook for someone, they’re comforted immediately, and you can spread that joy.
So, it doesn’t feel like a project that just drags on sometimes. Don’t get me wrong. I have times, or a couple days, where I just don’t cook because I’ve been worked so hard that I need a break. But no, cooking doesn’t feel like a chore. It feels like a joy. You have to eat every day, right? So, if I’m going to eat, I want to make something interesting and exciting and delicious.
Anderson: Do you have a favorite recipe to cook for yourself?
Benitez: When I say I switch up my food a lot, I mean that.
I’m really into soups right now. I mean, I’m always a soup person. But I love creamy, hearty soups. And I also tend to make a lot of seared fish. Like, I’ll pan sear fish, pan roast it, or make like a little pan sauce. I like fresh greens, grains. But I’m definitely into soups and searing meat and fish. That’s my thing.
Anderson: Which cultures do you draw from in your cooking?
Benitez: I absolutely tend to go Asian with my food. Asian influence, Asian flavors. I like that umami. I like the soy, the sesame, the garlic, the ginger.
The scallion, the fresh, bright herbs, the lime. That’s definitely where my palate is. But I also incorporate a lot of Caribbean influence, just because of my background. My father is Puerto Rican but grew up in St. Croix. It’s like a very West Indian, Latino perspective mixed with Asian. And then, my mother raised me on traditional soul foods. So, it’s a mix up of all that.
Anderson: I wanted to ask about your clients and who they are.
Who do you think the typical client is for you, someone who want you to come and cook in their home? What’s their background, and why do think they want a personal chef?
Benitez: They’re really all across the board. I’ve had jazz musician clients. There’s a woman I’m doing an event for, she works for a magazine. Another friend of mine just set up a cooking class for me for the company that she works for. So, it’s really all over the place. I think people really like the experience of creating their own restaurant for their people. When they meet me, we learn each other, and they understand that I’m warm and open and fun, I think clients like that personal touch of meeting the chef and knowing the chef.
Then they can create the experience that they want at a place that they want. I think people really like that. Especially in a place like New York where you can go anywhere for good food. People are into experiences and unique things here. I think that being a chef in that arena and creating experiences for people is really cool, and people are into that.
Anderson: Do you feel like you have to promote yourself on social media or on a website?
Has the Internet sort of changed the way that personal chefs find new clients?
Benitez: Absolutely. I think also now it’s really easy for me. When a client is interested and ask, “What kind of food do you cook?” I’m like, check out my hashtag. I know it sounds really cheesy, but I’ve hashtagged all of my meals. I have hundreds of beautiful dishes and plates, desserts, foods, everything on there. So, people can get a real sense of what it is that I like to cook. There’s a lot of noise on social media and a lot of nonsense. People think it might not be a place for business, but it 100 percent is.
That’s how other people find out about you, and people link you. You get a lot of clients that way.
Anderson: So, you mentioned that you’re working on a cookbook?
Benitez: Yes. I just made up my mind to do that. People have been saying, you’re going to make a cookbook? You’re going to make a cookbook? And I’m like, you know what? I need to make a cookbook. I think I’m putting it off because I actually understand what it takes to do recipe testing.
Cookbooks are very ambitious, because you can’t just say, Oh, well, this is how I make it. I’m going to write it down, take cute pictures, and put it in a book. You have to make sure that you consider measurements. You have to calibrate your ovens. You have to test it at different temperatures. You have to consider that maybe your readers are in high altitudes. So, you have to allow for that and add tips in for that. It’s pretty nuanced, I would say, the process of making a cookbook. So, yeah. But I’m ready to do it. I think 2016 is a good year to do it.
Anderson: When you’re normally cooking, do you measure things out?
Or do you just kind of eyeball everything?
Benitez: If I’m baking, yes, because baking is very scientific and very precise. But there’s some baking recipes that I don’t measure. When it comes to cooking, no. At this point, I feel like I know what needs to go in something. And if I taste it and it’s off, I mostly know what to do to adjust it. So, I don’t usually measure my foods out.
Anderson: Do you want to keep doing the freelance thing indefinitely? Or do you have other plans for the future?
Benitez: I definitely have other plans for the future. My ultimate dream goal, I envision myself owning a beautiful, small bed and breakfast, but with an amazing kitchen that’s open to the public, in the Caribbean.
So. Right? All these layers. So, I want to actually move back to Panama. I lived there for four years when I was a child, and I recently went there on vacation. It’s just a place that really speaks to me. I kind of feel like that’s where I need to be. So, I see myself in a few years moving out there and starting my own place, having my own kitchen. I could see it being written up in Times Travel.
Anderson: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And dig through our first four seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Jason de Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Laura Anderson. See you next time on Working.
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Anderson: Are there trends in the chef world? Do you follow other people on social media and they’re cooking things, and then your clients ask for things?
Or are restaurant chefs cooking things and then your clients ask for them? Or you sort of learn through this osmosis or memeification of foods? Does that happen?
Benitez: Well, there are definitely food trends. Absolutely. I don’t think that I necessarily follow them. I describe my food as rustic ethnic. So, that means that it’s hearty, and it’s not necessarily modern, which can be very trendy.
I don’t necessarily follow those trends. I’m on top of them. I understand what people are into. But when it comes to cooking, no. I definitely refer more to culture. What are other cultures cooking? What’s big in different traditions? Those aren’t really trends. They’re very traditional things. But I also like to make sure I see what others are doing, because it really does give me some nice ideas.
For example, here’s a food trend I like to focus on. In the New York area, bluefish is really cheap. Right? It’s a really good fish. It’s like a clean, white fish. And it’s really cheap. A lot of people are not really aware of it yet. It’s starting to become a food trend now, and the prices are still really low. So, those are trends that it’s important to know about. Because if I want to do a nice, clean, white fish—an easy, affordable one—then bluefish is a cool trend to know about.
Anderson: You mentioned that you pick up plating trends from other chefs.
Can you describe what it takes to make a plate look beautiful? I feel like that’s something that home cooks struggle with.
Anderson: Making things look good. I do, at least.
Benitez: Right. I mean, I think color is so important. Color and texture. A lot of people might have brown rice and brown piece of chicken. OK, that’s fine, but where’s the brightness? Where’s the greenery? You’re not just pouring sauce on top of something. You’re thinking about where it goes, about where it lays. We were always taught this in culinary school, and even in restaurants that I’ve worked at.
When you lay a dish down in front of someone, the diner should understand how to eat this. It’s like you’re telling a story. You should set the plate up to where the diner knows what goes with what. So, you might lay a really nice puree down—a cauliflower puree or whatever kind of puree you’d like—and then put this beautiful piece of meat or fish on top. Because when they cut in and they bite into it, it’s already set up for them. And put the herbs or whatever you want on top so they know, how all the flavors are supposed to go together. That’s really important. Color and texture.
Sometimes keeping the plate tight is important. When I say keeping it tight, it means not letting the ingredients spill all over the place and touch the rim of the plate. Things like that. Any time I cook, even when I cook at home, I like to set up my plates beautifully, photograph them, and share them. So, I’m always setting up my food—always.
Anderson: Who are your biggest influences? Are there any particular chefs or writers who you feel have influenced your work?
Benitez: There’s a couple chefs that I follow on Instagram, but I can honestly say that I don’t necessarily follow certain chefs. There’s websites that I look to. Like Saveur, Bon Appétit. They like to set food trends that I like to look at. But no, there aren’t any chefs that I actually say, Oh, I love their style and I want to be just like them. Because I feel like food is so personal. I admire these chefs, like popular chefs, 1,000 percent. I respect them. But I don’t look to them to tell me what I should be cooking. I like to see what they’re doing, but I don’t necessarily look to them.
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