Kat Turner, a 2008 graduate of the Chef’s Training Program, has spent the last year or so doing something a little out-of-the-ordinary, even by Natural Gourmet standards: world-touring as private chef with Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. We took the opportunity to ask her about her career trajectory since graduation and for an insider’s view of touring with a band as a private chef . . .
You interned at Blue Hill. How long did you do that?
I was at the Blue Hill in the city, and I was an intern there for 4 months. I never actually held a paid position on the line; it was, however, offered to me on numerous occasions, and we still have a standing agreement that if I ever return to New York they’ll keep a spot warm for me.
You returned home to Los Angeles right after your internship. What did you do next?
One day shortly before Christmas I was doing my daily check of craigslist when I came upon a gig cooking for a family. The mother was going through treatment for breast cancer, and they were looking for a chef to make dinner 3 nights a week with her nutritional needs specifically in mind.
I replied to the ad and ended up working for the family for about 6 months until the mother felt well enough to cook dinner again (she was an avid cook herself). It was the perfect first gig. They let me be creative and were totally understanding if something didn’t turn out perfectly (hey, we all make an occasional mistake). I still keep in touch with them, and they occasionally contact me for a dinner party or backyard barbecue.
I’ve had other interesting clients here and there, including directors, producers, screenwriters, etc., all Hollywood types. Luckily this is a town full of people with allergies, eating restrictions, and picky dispositions.
How did you get hooked up with The Smashing Pumpkins gig?
I met Billy at a friend’s party in May of 2009. He was in a mostly raw phase and I was curious as to his motives for choosing that diet. We spoke at length about raw foods, my schooling at the NGI and the curriculum in general.
Mid-conversation I offered him some ice cream I had made for the occasion, which he eagerly accepted. Later on a friend of his came over and said, “Wow, Billy can’t believe that ice cream is vegan!” To which I replied, “What on earth made him think that it was??”
It turned out that he’s severely lactose-intolerant and had assumed the ice cream was dairy-free since I had gone to a school with a primarily vegan/vegetarian philosophy. I spent the next hour panicking that I was going to kill him and/or make him horribly sick, but luckily he was able to laugh about it.
In a funny way the incident ended up being the perfect icebreaker. We kept in contact over the next few months as friends, and by August I was working exclusively as his personal chef, delivering 3 meals a day plus snacks and green juices to his doorstep every morning.
In September he traveled to Chicago for the first of many trips to record his ambitious 44 song Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project. I came along and lived with him at his house off and on through the spring, cooking 3 meals a day, 7 days a week at home and at the studio (he worked 6-7 days a week, for nearly 12 hours a day).
My attempts to flee the New York winters were doubly paid back by spending an even more frigid winter on the North Shore of Chicago. But the overall experience (including “pizza Sundays” using Billy’s in-home, wood-fired oven) more than made up for it.
When it became apparent the new music was well received and Billy was going to tour, I started dropping hints that I wanted to come along.
Where have you been on tour?
So far I’ve been all over the US, Singapore, Tokyo, Osaka, and Mexico City. More shows are in the works, including South America in November and another US tour in December.
What kind of food are you preparing? What does Billy want to eat?
He prefers to eat very simply: grilled meats, steamed vegetables, big salads, green juices, no refined starches or sugars – efficient fuel to keep him on track for performing night after night.
How do you shop and organize when you are always in a new, strange country?
Well in the US shopping was easy because we were on a tour bus most of the time so I always had a refrigerator to keep perishables in, but in foreign countries I have to be very frugal about what I get since I can’t take most items on the planes. Some things I can pack in the road cases, like granola and rice milk, so he can at least have some familiar things in places like Tokyo, where going to the grocery store is basically like going to outer-space.
As far as the actual shopping goes, I generally make a detailed list every morning of his food needs for the day, and then locate a grocery store near whatever hotel we’re at that I either take a cab to or, if it’s a show day, I’ll have a “runner” from the venue take me.
How many hours a day do you work? Do you have any assistance?
That totally varies depending on what country we’re in. In Asia, I’m not allowed in the hotel kitchens, so the bulk of my work is locating places where Billy can go out to eat, or places where I can get take-away for him. In the US and Mexico, where I have full access privileges to hotel and venue kitchens, I typically work about 5 hours a day.
Where do you cook when you don’t have kitchen access?
On occasions when there is no kitchen available (like old theaters and smaller clubs), I have a mobile rig that I can set up, so long as I have a sink with hot water, a work surface and power outlets.
Any culinary triumphs or disasters?
Well, I made the worst dinner of my life in Singapore. The power there is 220-240 volts, and my appliances, being from the US, run on 110 volts. As I was setting up in a tent on the grounds of the venue, one of the caterers assured me that I could plug into the available outlet, which in turn destroyed my electric burner and left my toaster oven limping. To make matters worse, this was all happening while the band was on stage, so there was no option to run out to pick anything up. I ended up with an awful steak that I had to bake, some very pathetic Brussels sprouts, and one nonplussed Billy. Lesson learned: ALWAYS triple-check the voltage and make sure there is a power transformer!
As far as a triumph, I’d have to say making a rack of lamb in what was basically a storage area/garage for a venue in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was my second show of the tour, and it really boosted my confidence to know that I could make a great meal with very little equipment (if the equipment doesn’t blow up on me).
What impact has doing this had on your skill set?
I’ve had to adapt myself to a different environment on a daily basis, from the tour bus, hotel kitchens, the grocery stores (I think I’ve been to a Whole Foods in every state), to the venues. Then throw in the languages that I don’t speak, and things can get pretty stressful. It’s a constant learning experience.
What do you do on tour when you’re not cooking?
I like to try to get out and do some sight-seeing when I have down time. I’m consistently amazed at the interesting places I find in towns like Spokane and Tulsa. And naturally I love trying the street food in places like Asia and Mexico.
I had these amazing octopus balls in Osaka called takoyaki, the freshest sushi of my entire life for breakfast in Tokyo, and a tamale that has pretty much ruined me for all future tamales in Mexico City. I’ve adopted the motto “What Would Anthony Bourdain Eat?” and it’s been working for me pretty well so far.
What would you tell someone considering cooking on tour?
Well, first off, make sure you’re with people you get along with, because you’ll be in tight quarters for extended periods of time. Secondly, it helps if you have a “people pleasing” disposition, as you really have to cater to some very specific wants and needs.
Above all, though, is organization. Moving constantly, you have to make sure that there is enough equipment and ingredients to work with, but not so much that you can’t set up and break down efficiently. You also have to have a well thought-out daily menu plan so you can shop for ingredients to use in such a way that there is minimum waste, but maximum variety. Oh, and it helps if you can operate on little sleep.