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Celebrate the holidays with a culinary secret weapon: the private chef

The holidays are a stark reminder that not everyone looks at uncooked poultry and sees golden, roasted perfection, carved and served in a rosemary-scented puddle of warm cherry sauce. For that, you need a chef with imagination and skills.

North Forkers are learning what city and Hamptons dwellers have known for a long time: Talented chefs are available to create a meal for you in your own home, an experience that is closer to curating a meal than catering it. The best part? There’s no set menu or limit on their imagination or yours.

How do you find these people — professionals who can discern which fish, meat and vegetables are at their peak in our fields and waters, who know how to turn them into dining magic and who love to cook at the highest level for a discriminating, appreciative and often very small audience? Fortunately for you, we’ve scoured the East End for the top chefs for hire.

Meet four of these North Fork culinary wizards, who are creating intimate holiday celebrations, small dinner parties and date nights for discerning patrons from Riverhead to Orient. 

To ensure availability, give them at least two weeks’ lead time in the off-season (and a month in the summer) to plan and execute a bespoke meal. Clients should expect to pay more than they would for a comparable meal in a fine-dining restaurant. How much more depends on the ingredients and wines they choose. 


JESS DUNNE

Rustic Roots and Recipes 

@rusticrootsandrecipes on Instagram

PROVENANCE Jess Dunne was born and raised in Southold, and after college and a brief foray into acting, she returned to the North Fork’s rich food scene with a dessert company called Ginger Goods. She started North Fork Coffee Roasting Company with Jennilee Morris and is now manager at Southold General, in charge of the coffee program. “I stick to the North Fork,” she said. “It’s an inspiring place to be.” An appearance on “Chopped” in 2017 brought her national fame, and a reputation as a creative chef with a big personality. The carrot cake she created for Tom Colicchio’s birthday in 2020 cemented that reputation.

CLIENTELE Dunne can cook for 40 or 50 on her own, but prefers to do intimate dinners. “I like to get to know people. I’m kind of a personality; I like to go and cook in front of them when they are entertaining in their family room or their dining room, and I bring out the courses. For a group of 10 to 15, I don’t even hire a server.”

She has clients she cooks for often, doing special parties, birthdays and anniversary dinners, and some of them have become friends. “I had a client, who wanted to surprise her wife with dinner. So, she took her out for a while, and I was there making dinner when they came home.” 

SIGNATURE DISHES Dunne’s philosophy of cooking is rustic and generous. For example, she likes to do a welcome platter for guests at a holiday party, with whipped feta dip, roasted strawberries and homemade everything bagel crackers. “I don’t like things to be perfect. I like to use fresh herbs. I still cook meat, but I typically go more toward pescatarian. That is the style that I cook in.” She is known for celebratory cakes; whimsical and often decorated with flower petals.

BOOK HER FOR An intimate dinner, where the cooking and serving are center stage.

Dunne believes that part of the appeal of her dinners is showmanship, and her acting experience was clearly not wasted. “I put on a kind of show for them — I am part of the party, but not in an obtrusive way. I love getting to know people and I think that’s a big part of why people like me to come into their home and cook for them.”


JASON CASEY 

chefjasoncasey.com

PROVENANCE Jason Casey grew up in the Bronx, attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked at Beacon and Café Centro in New York. He’s spent the last 10 years on Shelter Island, where he’s worked as a private chef for a family, and wrote a cookbook, “The Shelter Island 36.” In 2019, he moved to Southold and began doing events as well as private meals.

CLIENTELE If Jason Casey can make an elegant multi-course meal on a boat (and he can) then he can work magic in your kitchen. Casey has worked in Alaska, Hawaii, on yachts, in backyards and fish markets. He made dinner for Barack and Michelle Obama in Maine in 2010 while working at The Havana, an American restaurant with Latin flair. 

SIGNATURE DISHES The tattoo of a pig on Casey’s arm signals his expertise in whole hog cookery, but he has a reputation as someone who can do it all. “A Mediterranean meal, something super local, a meal with a lot of dietary restrictions, something with venison, I am versed in all of it,” he said. “I can fish and base the meal on what I catch.” 

BOOK HIM FOR Your bold dining idea. Pig roast? Dinner aboard a yacht? On a private island? The man likes a challenge.

With a few weeks’ notice he’ll create a meal that is tailored to your location and tastes.

He prefers to hear from a client one or two weeks ahead of time to pick wines and dial in a menu, and he prefers a client with an idea of how much they’d like to spend. A three- to five-course pig roast can cost $80-$120 per person, and for these and all his meals he prices all the food ahead of time. “I’m not a fan of hidden fees.” 


ADAM KAUFER 

Grace + Grit

graceandgritevents.com

PROVENANCE Adam Kaufer grew up in Rockville Centre with a mom who didn’t cook, but appreciated good restaurants. He went to design school, confronted the fact that his salary as an artist was unlikely to support his love of gourmet meals and decided to learn to create that experience himself. He got his start cooking for friends at home on the North Fork: “Fifteen people on a Tuesday was not unusual. Everyone would come over and I’d cook.” 

As Kaufer moved into cooking for big events, he got commercial kitchen experience, doing prep and wedding catering. People started to notice his flair. “I’m not doing anything outrageous or different. I set out to take the best stuff I can possibly buy and not screw it up, make everything work harmoniously and let the food speak for itself,” he said. 

CLIENTELE Kaufer’s clients range from society types to special occasion “throwers” for a birthday or bachelorette party. His best customers incorporate private dining into their lives for the convenience, and the peace of mind that comes with enjoying a bottle of great wine without having to drive afterward.

SIGNATURE DISHES In the winter months, Kaufer feels a pull toward classic dishes. “I like to make short ribs or a beautiful coq au vin, starting with a sear and a mirepoix, using a wine you would actually drink. I like the Lenz merlot or Anthony Nappa unoaked pinot noir.”

BOOK HIM FOR When you want to splurge on a very special private dinner.

With growing interest in private dining, word about Kaufer’s cooking is getting around. “I’m known for producing very high-end food with a little bit of a twist. Not frou-frou. It’s putting one flavor with another flavor that is unexpected, like making something that sounds like a salad a soup, or making a soup a salad.” Kaufer likes to use unusual ingredients. One of his favorites is shiso, which is similar to basil or mint and great with meats. It’s common in Japanese cuisine, but less so here.


MEGAN HUYLO 

meganhuylo.com

PROVENANCE Megan Huylo came to food through her study of wellness at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. Moving from there into private cheffing, she found the North Fork through her New York clients, who relocated for the summer to what Huylo came to see as a foodie mecca. 

CLIENTELE Throughout Huylo’s decade of being a private cook, people have found her through word of mouth. “Tell me how many people you are expecting, what you want on the menu, and I’ll send you some options. I arrive with all the ingredients, I prepare everything, and I leave the house like I found it.” She is committed to private clients in the city during the week, but on weekends, she accepts private jobs on the North Fork with at least two weeks’ notice.

SIGNATURE DISHES Huylo’s food is seafood-focused and vegetable forward. “I love the quality of the Treiber and Deep Roots produce, the interesting herbs and fruits and vegetables that not everyone grows. I like to use a tuna or striped bass from a friend who went fishing.” She loves 8 Hands for animal proteins.

BOOK HER FOR A creative vision of healthful and thoughtfully sourced food.

She especially enjoys small events, where she can be more creative and customize a personal menu with whimsical platings, use of botanicals and flowers and use of local ingredients in unusual ways. “I once poached a local fish in Matchbook Distillery gin.” She charges a flat fee per event, and the client reimburses her for the food costs.

Fall is Huylo’s busiest time for private dinners on the North Fork. She has more clients here than on the South Fork for a reason. “The North Fork really is a culinary destination. Between the farms and the distilleries, there is such an attention paid to the quality that comes out of the farms and the kitchens. When people come here, they know what to expect.”

Celebrate the holidays with a culinary secret weapon: the private chef