Food Diary: How a 37-Year-Old Personal Chef Eats on $95K in Belmont, Massachusetts | Bon Appétit

2022-12-17 12:45:47 By : Ms. Berry Zhang

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By Bon Appétit Contributor

Welcome to The Receipt, a series documenting how Bon Appétit readers eat and what they spend doing it. Each food diary follows one anonymous reader’s week of expenses related to groceries, restaurant meals, coffee runs, and every bite in between. In this time of rising food costs, The Receipt reveals how folks—from different cities, with different incomes, on different schedules—are figuring out their food budgets.

In today’s Receipt, a 37-year-old personal chef in the Boston area cooks elaborate, multicourse meals for her client and tries not to cook very much for herself. Keep reading for her receipts.

What are your pronouns? She/her

What is your occupation? Personal chef to the president of a university and executive chef of VIP/alumni events at a university in Boston. I am hired through the largest food service operator in the world, but have a very niche position in the company.

What city and state do you live in? Belmont, Massachusetts

What is your annual salary, if you have one? $95,000

How much is one paycheck, after taxes? $2,549

How often are you paid? (e.g., weekly) Biweekly

How much money do you have in savings? $30,000

What are your approximate fixed monthly expenses beyond food? (i.e., rent, subscriptions, bills) 

Do you follow a certain diet or have dietary restrictions? No.

What are the grocery staples you always buy, if any? Broccoli, 90-second rice, stinky aged cheeses/any type of goat cheese, eggs, Kodiak waffles, kombucha.

How often in a week do you dine out versus cook at home? Two to three times. If I have a late work day, sometimes I’ll stop for a quick bite to eat on my way home. Alternatively, if I have a quiet day at work, I will make plans to have a nice dinner out. I like to explore new restaurants in the Boston area, and to be completely honest, the last thing I want to do is cook for myself after having cooked for others all day. 

How often in a week did you dine out while growing up? Generally once a week. Friday nights were always pizza delivery nights. My mom was a single mother and a high school math teacher, so by the end of the week she just wanted to relax on Friday nights. 

How often in a week did your parents or guardians cook at home? Most weeknights, so four to five times a week. My dad was a chef, so before my parents got divorced, my mom never really had to cook. She would make very simple stuff—Hamburger Helper, pasta, grilled chicken kebabs in the summer with boxed rice pilaf. When I spent weekends at my dad’s house, he always made a pot of classic Italian Sunday gravy—we were not an ounce of Italian, but he worked in Italian restaurants in the North End so I spent many years thinking we were Italian because of this. 

I also grab a leftover piece of salmon and one little lonely lamb chop from my client’s lunch. 

6:38 a.m. I take the T to work, so I am usually running out the door at this time and eating something quick and filling. This morning I made the same thing I've been eating for weeks—maybe it’s time for a switch?—a Kodiak protein-packed blueberry waffle ($5.69 from Target, previously bought) with crunchy peanut butter (Teddie Brand, $4.49 from Star Market, previously bought). I have been feeling a bit run down, so I’ve also been taking immunity-boosting Vive ginger and turmeric shots ($3.69 each from Star Market, previously bought). I am not sure they’re actually doing much for my immune system but I’ve grown to enjoy the taste now. 

7:52 a.m. A job perk of working on this campus is FREE Starbucks. (#Basic? Yes!) I get the same thing every day, a cold brew with some sort of seasonal syrup and half-and-half. Right now, I am loving the chestnut praline syrup. ($5.41, or $0 thanks to work)

9:26 a.m. I make a Whole Foods run to get ingredients for my client’s lunch that includes him and six guests. I don’t have to run around the city for ingredients too often because our campus has purveyors who deliver to us daily, but today I am forced to shop myself because we have been seeing some supply chain issues. Ingredients include pomegranates (my client’s favorite), persimmons to play around with, fresh herbs, crème fraîche, sweet potatoes, kale, spinach, microgreens, citrus. ($276.54, or $0 thanks to work) I am lucky that my company issued me a purchasing card that covers any out-of-pocket expenses I may have. This definitely comes in handy for these high-priced Whole Foods runs. 

1:44 p.m. Lunch during the work week usually involves making a salad with random bits of food left from the day’s happenings. What I made for my client’s lunch: a family-style meal of baked salmon with an almond-Dijon crust; lump crab salad with curry mayo, Honeycrisp apples, celery, grilled lamb chops with cranberries and citrus glaze; green bean “casserole” with porcinis, chestnuts, crispy shallot (it’s a play on the classic dish, with a porcini-chestnut purée and crispy chestnut and shallot topping); sunchoke and parsnip mash, rosemary, crème fraîche, Pecorino; and kale salad with roasted honeynut, pomegranate, pecan. 

For my own lunch now, I make a salad of little leaf lettuce (the crunchiest little leaves!) and then peruse my salad cook’s station for some roasted beets, shaved fennel, grapefruit segments, walnuts, and shaved radish. I also grab a leftover piece of salmon and one little lonely lamb chop from my client’s lunch. I top it all off with a drizzle of citrus vinaigrette—we make all our dressings in house for my client’s daily lunches and the faculty club lunch service. Every day, we break for lunch at 2 p.m. (I employ union cooks who are required to take 30-minute lunch breaks) and the team usually eats together in the dining room while I generally eat alone at my desk so I can catch up on emails. It can be lonely sometimes and I try to make time to sit and eat with the team once every other week or so. 

6:56 p.m. My goal with a weeknight dinner is something 30 minutes or less. Tonight I make a quick meat sauce of ground beef pulled yesterday from the freezer, garlic, chile flakes, basil, and Rao’s jarred tomato sauce over some rotini pasta and a side of steamed broccoli. I eat steamed broccoli almost every night for dinner. I have a nostalgic love for steamed broccoli with butter and salt. 

8:38 p.m. I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but it was my birthday this past Sunday and my friends got me a chocolate cheesecake, which is like, the one dessert that I will ALWAYS be down for. I eat a slice. At this point, I am just filling the void of realizing I am another year older and not much wiser! 

Monday total: $281.95, or $0 excluding what work covers

I generally always keep wild salmon, dorada, halibut, branzino, sea scallops, and jumbo lump crab on hand—my client prefers seafood over meat and these are his favorite things.

6:26 a.m. Well, here we are again, Kodiak blueberry protein waffle with crunchy peanut butter. I add some banana slices on top this time. I forgot I bought some bananas over the weekend, which is what usually happens to bananas in my apartment. Also, a ginger and turmeric shot. I probably won’t keep buying the shots after I run through this week’s worth.

7:24 a.m. Starbucks, the usual! I also grab one of the green juices from the grab-and-go case. I’m pretty sure it’s just green-colored sugar water and is not doing anything for my physical health except giving me a sugar high and a big sugar crash straight downhill. ($13.41, or $0 thanks to work)

2:05 p.m. Curried honeynut squash bisque, leftover from faculty club lunch service. For my client’s lunch today, I made beet and salmon tartare with sesame and avocado, as well as grilled and stewed lamb meatballs with spiced tomato sauce and mint yogurt. We get fish delivered to us a few times a week from Captain Marden’s, a local fish purveyor. I generally always keep wild salmon, dorada, halibut, branzino, sea scallops, and jumbo lump crab on hand—my client prefers seafood over meat and these are his favorite things. I fabricate the fish as soon as it comes in, removing any pin bones, scales, cleaning it up, portioning it, etc. And I individually wrap and freeze these portions right away. Sometimes I am cooking for my client without much advance warning, so having options is really my key to success. Likewise, I do this with meat as well—he enjoys lamb chops, ground lamb, duck breast, duck leg confit, venison, and squab, which is what I generally have on hand at all times. 

I operate out of a full commercial kitchen equipped with a grill, two convection ovens, a range, still oven, a single-bay fryer, and a salamander, or broiler. This really allows me to cook in a wide range of applications—so for my own lunch, I can grill the salmon belly trim from the sides of the salmon that I broke down earlier.

8:10 p.m. Stopping on my way home to grab a burger ($9.35) and a Hendricks and tonic with lemon ($12.15) from my favorite local spot, Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square. I’ve been coming here since I was a young cook some 13 years ago. They have a tasty and cheap double cheeseburger with fries for less than $10, and the bartenders know that I always have it without the bun, on top of an iceberg salad. This place is my own version of Cheers. Everyone knows my name and it’s my go-to locale to unwind after a hectic day. ($30.00 including tip)

Tuesday total: $43.41, or $30 excluding what work covers

There is something about soda and Chinese food; they just go hand in hand for me. 

7:45 a.m. Ginger and turmeric shot on my way out the door. 

8:30 a.m. I am attending the Massachusetts Conference for Women today at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, so it’s great to be able to sleep in a bit. I was extended an invitation to the event by my boss, who is the food service director for the entire campus I work for. He felt it would be a good opportunity for me—I am the only female chef on the campus, and one of two female chefs in the Northeast region that my company operates. ($299 ticket for the general public, $0 as an invitation) I get a complimentary coffee at the conference when I arrive and eat a few stale and dense doughnut holes (also complimentary) while meandering the exhibition floor.

11:30 a.m. Everyone is given a complimentary boxed lunch at the conference: turkey and cheese on ciabatta, chips, a Red Delicious apple (why does this variety of apple even exist? Yuck), and a cookie. It’s fine considering I have no other choice, but now I am thinking about what I am going to eat for dinner to make up for this betrayal. 

5 p.m. So, Chinese food, it is. I don’t order Chinese food a lot, but I think my body wants the extra sodium right now. I like to have a lot of options, which means I’ll definitely be eating the leftovers tomorrow. My criteria for Chinese food delivery is: (1) Do they have GOOD salt and pepper shrimp? Big, spicy, crispy shrimp. (2) Do they have appetizer combos? I am a single person and have no business ordering three different appetizers. (3) Can I get the pork lo mein without onions? I absolutely hate the texture of partially cooked onions. I digress… 

Number 1 Taste in Watertown is usually my go-to for all the reasons above. I get salt and pepper shrimp ($14.95 for 12 large shrimp), appetizer combo, which included crab rangoon, chicken fingers, and pork lo mein ($10.95 for more than enough for two people to share), and wonton soup ($4.95 for a 16-ounce portion). Plus, a can of ginger ale and Coke. There is something about soda and Chinese food; they just go hand in hand for me. The wonton soup is not what I envisioned—it’s more like chicken and vegetable soup with two wontons in it, and barely any broth. Everything else is as expected. ($45.10 total with tip)

We catered a cocktail reception for some faculty members earlier this afternoon, so I’m picking at random bits of cheese from the event’s cheese platter assembly.

7:05 a.m. I get the usual coffee from Starbucks and an orange juice. ($9.36, or $0 thanks to work) I woke up not feeling so great—it could have been the 5,000 calories I consumed for dinner last night, who knows. I am catering a breakfast this morning for 30 faculty members of the university, so I’m on campus earlier than usual to get the food ready. I usually put together prep lists a day or two out for all of our catered events—this is so the cooks know what needs to be done in advance of an event. This also gives me a clear view into what I need to order from Baldor, our everyday purveyor for produce, eggs, dairy, and some grocery items like nuts and dried fruit. So I brought in food a couple of days earlier. Yesterday, my cooks cut fruit for the fruit bowl, and we assembled the yogurt and granola displays ahead of time as well. This makes it really easy for me to come in early and put out the breakfast myself.

9:30 a.m. Luckily for me, I get to eat a blueberry muffin from this morning’s breakfast. This will totally make me feel better...right? 

2 p.m. We catered a cocktail reception for some faculty members earlier this afternoon, so I’m picking at random bits of cheese from the event’s cheese platter assembly (aged Gouda, Brie, and Bûcheron, to name a few). Most of the cocktail receptions that we cater include a cheese display, and this one includes goat, cow’s-milk, and sheep’s-milk cheeses. We cut the cheese and platter it with grapes, homemade jams (from seasonal fruit), nuts, dried fruits, and fresh berries. 

Arancini are probably our most popular appetizer for events, so I also eat a few of these fresh out of the fryer, burning my mouth in the name of the cheese pull. Plus, I eat a few spanakopita bites, which we purchase frozen from Boston Gourmet Chefs (another purveyor that we use for appetizers) and bake off. I also have a few pita chips, which we make in house. I usually order a few packs of fresh pita from LaMarca and Sons (our bread purveyor) and we cut them into triangles, toss with a lot of olive oil, salt, and za’atar seasoning, and bake until they’re golden brown. They’re addictive. 

9 p.m. I get home after a very long day. I can’t bring myself to eat the leftover Chinese food, so instead I eat a piece of seeded sourdough bread from a loaf I’ve had in my freezer ($8.25 for a standard size loaf) from this AMAZING little bakery in Kittery, Maine, called Lil’s Cafe. Lil’s is best known for their crullers ($3.75 each, I always get two classic cinnamon-sugar ones whenever I stop in). I smear some marinated fresh chèvre on my toast. The cheese is from a cute little farm in Whitefield, Maine, called Fuzzy Udder Creamery. My sister and I visited the state this past weekend for the restaurant The Lost Kitchen’s holiday market in Freedom, Maine! 

Thursday total: $9.36, or $0 excluding what work covers

I woke up to an email that my client will have two guests joining him for lunch and one of them has specifically requested a rib-eye steak on a Caesar salad without croutons because he is following a strict keto diet. 

6:15 a.m. We are back on the waffle train. Just peanut butter on top today. Early morning, another catered breakfast for faculty members to put out at 8 a.m. Is December over yet? Also, I woke up to an email that my client will have two guests joining him for lunch and one of them has specifically requested a rib-eye steak on a Caesar salad without croutons because he is following a strict keto diet. My general manager and I are constantly communicating over text, so it’s completely normal for her and me to be texting about the meal plan even at this early hour. I don’t have a rib eye on hand because my client doesn’t really eat beef. My general manager agrees that she will make the Whole Foods run for that while I head into work to get the morning event out of the way. 

7:07 a.m. Starbucks, the usual. ($5.41, or $0 thanks to work) Another long day ahead. My client is hosting a four-course plated holiday dinner at his home on Monday evening for 14 people, so today I will be kicking off a HEFTY amount of prep. I’m preparing a menu of truffle risotto verde, New England–style bouillabaisse, duos of duck breast, and baked Alaskas, plus a lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser. 

12 p.m. I am told that my client wants to eat at 12 p.m. with his two guests. I have curried honeynut squash that I prepared a couple of days ago, so I refresh it a bit, check for seasoning, and make a little minty Greek yogurt drizzle for the top by blending up some Greek yogurt, Meyer lemon juice, and fresh mint leaves. My client prefers very lightly salted foods so I have to really tiptoe when cooking for him. My devilish instincts are always whispering “mooore saaalt” but I have to ignore the voice and let the food speak for itself. I also make a quick spiced coconut broth with a little bit of tomato, lots of aromatics, and a good amount of heat. I steam some oysters just until they’re open and add their cooking liquid into the broth for a natural brininess that makes up for the lack of salt. I sear the wild bass skin side down in a cast iron and pop it in the oven for just a few moments. My client prefers all of his fish to be undercooked. I ladle the coconut broth into bowls, top with a few of the oysters and lumps of crab, and place the wild bass on top. A salad of shaved Cubanelles and cilantro dressed with a splash of lime juice goes right on top.

For the rib eye, I preheat my cast iron, season with just-cracked black pepper (salt on side), and get a good hard sear on each side, about four minutes per—this is a THICK cut. I take it out of the cast iron and put it onto a sheet tray to go into the oven so the heat of the cast iron doesn’t continue to cook the steak hard on the contact side. I pop it in for five minutes, flip it over, and temp it—we are looking for 120 degrees Fahrenheit before resting. I let it rest for 13 minutes before I slice it…and take the first try off the end. Quality control! 

My salad cook tosses the Caesar salad (we always have a Caesar salad on our faculty club lunch menu) and I place the sliced rib eye on top. 

12:30 p.m. Broccoli and cheddar soup for my lunch. My sous-chef made this for the faculty lunch service. I guess I’ll be drinking my meals for the rest of the day since I don’t have time to chew. 

4 p.m. Just kidding, I will always find time to chew. We’re catering another cocktail party tonight—this one is an alumni event for the health sciences department—so I’m eating remnants of whatever’s around in the kitchen. Two beef sliders with caramelized onions and horseradish aioli. A mini spring roll. Coconut chicken. Truffled potato croquette.

9:30 p.m. Finally home. Okay, whatever—let’s just eat the Chinese food. I hate wasting food and money. Thank God for my air fryer, there’s nothing worse than microwaving food that was once crispy. I also steam some broccoli—you know, for balance. 

Friday total: $5.41, or $0 excluding what work covers

I decided to make individual baked Alaskas for this dinner party because why not light some stuff on fire in a very expensive Back Bay brownstone? 

8:30 a.m. I was looking forward to sleeping in a bit this morning, but I guess this is where we are at. I have to do a lot today for Monday’s dinner party. I make a piece of seeded sourdough toast with some fresh chèvre and an over-easy egg. I make a cup of French press coffee with some beans that I got in Peru this summer. (How long are coffee beans good for?) I am NOT a hot coffee drinker unless I can sit, unbothered, and enjoy it while it is hot. I take the time to do that this morning. All is right in the world.

2 p.m. If I have to work on the weekend, I prefer to do it when no one else is around and I can bust out a lot of prep without distractions and with my music blasting. (YAS, Lizzo.) I decided to make individual baked Alaskas for this dinner party because why not light some stuff on fire in a very expensive Back Bay brownstone? Anyway, genius idea. I bake the cake base—citrus olive oil cake—so I have the scraps for lunch with some hot green tea. 

5 p.m. In the thick of party prep, I find some extra grilled chicken in the walk-in at work from the previous day’s events, so I eat that on top of some greens with some feta, cucumbers, red onions, Greek dressing, and an obnoxious amount of croutons. That’s my type of salad right there. I eat this sitting at my desk. (Did I mention that my desk is basically in the kitchen? It’s in a little alcove next to the walk-in with a clear view of the whole service line. Pretty convenient, but also very loud and hard to concentrate at times.) 

7 p.m. There’s a small amount of duck liver mousse from party prep that doesn’t fit in its container, so it finds its way to my apartment, naturally. I’m scooping it right out of the deli container with some rosemary crackers that I find in the back of my cabinet. They might be slightly stale, we love it. 

Whole Foods’s sushi is not bad and it definitely comes in handy when I need a quick energy boost, but I don’t recommend eating a cold shrimp tempura roll, sad face.

9 a.m. Up and at ’em, in the home stretch of prep for tomorrow’s dinner party. I head to Whole Foods to get the last round of ingredients needed. I get a cold brew from the café right at the entrance (it’s not good, but it’s coffee) and breakfast from the hot bar (scrambled eggs, pork sausage that taste like literally nothing, and some fresh fruit). I just need some energy to get through this day; I’m not sure taste is a factor right now. 

For the dinner party, I also buy jumbo lump crab meat ($36.99), pistachio gelato for the baked Alaska ($44.34, or 6 units for $7.39 each), lemon sorbet ($14.58, or 2 units for $7.29 each), taleggio for the truffle risotto verde ($12.71 for just under a pound), a French baguette for the bouillabaisse crostinis ($3), and some microgreens. Finally, a shrimp tempura roll ($14.99) for me. ($248.27 total, or $0 thanks to work)

1 p.m. Whole Foods’s sushi is not bad and it definitely comes in handy when I need a quick energy boost, but I don’t recommend eating a cold shrimp tempura roll, sad face.

8:10 p.m. I swing by the local hardware store to get some butane to torch my baked Alaskas tomorrow. This place is conveniently located next to Dumpling Palace, a joint with soup dumplings, and I clearly haven’t gotten my fill of Chinese food this week, so here we are. I get juicy pork buns ($10.95). The server also convinces me (I swear) that I need to try the sticky rice shao mai ($10.95). I’m not sure how to describe what the taste is, but it’s kind of swampy? It’s my carb-loving dream come true, but also really sticky (weird, it’s literally called sticky rice) and dense. I also get General Gau’s chicken ($16) and rice ($2) because—options—but that’s a bad idea, with lots of tiny shards of over-fried chicken and the goopiest sauce of all time. ($51.06 total with tip and a piece of my soul)

Sunday total: $299.33, or $51.06 excluding what work covers

By The Bon Appétit Staff & Contributors

By The Bon Appétit Staff

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