Peter Berley never planned to be a private chef, let alone a chef at all. While growing up in Roslyn Heights, NY, he thought he was going to become a musician. Had he stuck with that plan, he most likely would have been a fine free-form jazz artist. At least that’s who he is in the kitchen, maybe even in life.
From Would-be Musician to Executive Chef
Over the years, Chef Peter managed to whip up quite a culinary career with minimal premeditation. After graduating from the Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY he left home at seventeen for Manhattan, then for Brooklyn, then for Blue Hill, Maine where he owned Fire Pond Restaurant. Eventually, he returned to Manhattan, where he brought great success to Angelica Kitchen as the vegan restaurant’s Executive Chef. All along the way, Peter learned to cook, mingling and merging the lessons he learned in restaurant kitchens and in cooking classes, from mentors, through self-teaching, and by teaching others.
Chef Peter’s freedom to be really free-form in the kitchen came soon after he removed himself from the restaurant scene, after realizing that there was nowhere left for him to grow. Back then, in the late 1990s—when publishing was still hot and when he could receive a fairly decent book advance that allowed him some financial freedom—he discovered more inspired approaches to cooking and to making a living. He began to ad-lib a life of writing (his first book was The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen), teaching, and just plain having a good time catering dinner parties in Manhattan. He felt happy to be out from under the constraints of a seven-day workweek.
The Schedule’s Locked In, but The Food and The Life Are Not
It was at one of those dinner parties where restaurateur Phil Suarez popped into the kitchen to compliment Chef Peter’s cooking session and to do a bit of impromptu Manhattan matchmaking. Phil informed Peter that he had some friends out in the Hamptons who needed a private chef and thought that Peter would be great for them. Since Peter’s recently found freedom naturally came with a bit of uncertainty and risk, since “everything was iffy” at the time, Peter decided to take the job at the South Fork estate. The newly private chef soon realized that not only did he really like the people he was working for, but also that he could cook fully free-form.
Ever since that first season in the Hamptons fifteen years ago, Chef Peter has returned annually to freely improvise flavors in that same South Fork kitchen. “My schedule from May through September is locked in, but the food is not,” he explains. “It’s a very creative position. I have total control over what I do.” That means that Peter has total control over his freedom in this summer space. Three to four days a week, he goes in unrehearsed. Except for when there is an especially heavy weekend (when he might be plating for a maximum of thirty-five people), he plans no menus. Instead, when he’s cooking for an average of twelve people at the table, he makes meals by interpreting and adapting his ingredients according to the weather, the guest list, the activity, and the daily offerings at farm stands and the fishmonger’s.
It’s thanks to a very special chef-client connection that Chef Peter has had the great fortune of being able to extemporize and use the South Fork kitchen as a culinary studio of sorts. “My relationship with my clients is very unique. I could not have concocted this one, could not have ever imagined it. And it’s all dependent on the fact that they are unique in their values and in their tastes.” Having a real simpatico relationship with his clients, Peter knows their palates and understands what foods they enjoy. He recognizes that, like him, they are not impressed by things like foams or gels. “They just want honest food that is super-fresh and presented in a tasteful way, without drama. They don’t want restaurant food in the home. That’s what restaurants are for.” Peter appreciates that his clients’ tastes allow him to be creative in their kitchen. “I don’t have to repeat myself there. It’s where I work a lot of my ideas out.” It’s also where he discovered his compositions for The Flexitarian Table and Fresh Food Fast.
Now Playing and Always Learning
As for the ideas that Chef Peter is currently working out, what flavors and tones he’s blending together now as he cooks on his feet and plays it by palate, he’s taking advantage of the very fleeting seasons of tilefish and blackfish and the produce of the South Fork estate’s garden. So far, Peter’s clients have enjoyed grilled and sautéed blackfish and tilefish, but with a Peter Berley twist. He’s been fusing together “a beautiful, gorgeous green sauce, a raw sauce with a lot of olive oil, green chili, garlic, ginger, and a TON of herbs, cilantro, mint, arugula, basil, parsley—all puréed really well. It’s spicy, and when I add a bit of vinegar or citrus, I love this sauce for fish.”
Chef Peter’s also playing with rhubarb—“The acid of rhubarb is great!”—incorporating the fruity stalk into fish curries as well as dreaming up and laying down a harmonious cherry-rhubarb compote for the fish and for duck. He even mentioned the possibility of combining this same cherry-sweetness and rhubarb-tartness to invent his own Northeastern adaptation of a Hungarian Chilled Sour Cherry Soup.
Additionally, he’s “really jazzed about cooking other people’s recipes” from the Food 52 book Genius Recipes (in which his Balsamic Green Beets & Greens recipe makes a showing). Chef Peter explains, “I’m cooking my way through the book, weaving different techniques, concepts, and approaches into my own stuff. I love to study other people’s cooking. It’s important to constantly do that.”
Peter Berley’s freeform cooking and life does not stop when he returns full-time in September to his North Fork Kitchen and Garden Culinary Studio in South Jamesport, NY. Along with his teaching gigs at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and The Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, Peter loosely composes his raised garden beds while also instructing others in his very own culinary studio—his home kitchen.
In his inspired space, without curriculum constraints, the chef shares and explores with everyday people (including groups from the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn) the tools and techniques of cooking, baking, pickling, tofu- and tempeh-making, and the list goes on . . . all so that his students can go back home to riff in their very own culinary studios.