A small girl, just two years old — and ravenous on her birthday — asks her mother what she’s making for dinner.
“Apple pie and duck.”
The girl falls silent for a moment, until mingled horror and outrage take over. Her little feet spread wide and planted firmly, her arms akimbo, hands pressed firmly on her hips, her eyes uncharacteristically sanpaku, her normally bright face now incandescent, she can splutter but one word — a significant portion of her tiny vocabulary.
As flabbergasted as the Donald Duck she can’t get out of her mind, she storms off to ponder — in explosive silence — the iniquities of an unjust world. She would remain a vegetarian for the rest of her life.
Sarah Chianese —no longer that two-year-old —grew up in multicultural Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, in an artistic family (her mother and sister are both writers; her father and brother are both actors – her father played Junior Soprano on TV). As the only vegetarian in the household, she quickly learned to cook for herself, “out of necessity,” but she began to incorporate the tastes of her neighborhood: Asian, Caribbean, Cuban, Jamaican, and Jewish elements all influenced her Italian palate.
For twenty years, she led a life on the fringes of the arts, doing production for fashion, film, live theatre, multi-media events, music, television, and web-series. She took up painting, but it wasn’t enough. Her work had given her the chance to travel widely – and everywhere she went she was tempted by a host of ethnic flavors and aromas. She still loved to cook, and she incorporated everything she’d experienced into her increasingly eclectic Italian cooking style. Changes in the economy, and the production business, gave her a chance to think about what was important to her. That came down to food and family – and, for an Italian, it’s hard to make a distinction between them.
Much of her life has been devoted to taking care of the people for whom she cares so much – not just feeding them, but catering to their needs (needs they might not even know that they have), then serving something special to wildly exceed their expectations.
In an enlightened moment, she realized that she could do this for others. She began a new career, not on a production stage, but in kitchens. Sarah became a private chef. Her new career made use of her culinary, artistic, and organizational skills to accomplish something that pleases both her and her clients. Her clients have ranged from musicians and actors, to “regular” families; she’s cooked in their kitchens: rustic country kitchens; tiny NYC apartment kitchens, with not much counter space; beautifully-equipped kitchens in large estates in Westchester or Long Island.
She never wanted to be “one of those flaky vegetarian chicks,” so she added seafood to her diet (she thought of fish as “brain food,” even though her well-balanced meals were providing plenty of all the right amino acids). Professionally, she’s cooked for vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores of every stripe. Sarah’s clients have two things in common: they care about their food – where it comes from, how it was raised, and how it’s prepared; and they’ve had every one of their gastronomic socks knocked off by her cooking. Sarah is endlessly inventive, and excited about any opportunity to create custom menus that will amaze her clients.
Breakfasts (which can be served, for the truly decadent, in bed) might feature: her Mangia Mango Bango Wraps™ (mango, avocado, fresh herbs, veggies and special sauces) served with black mission figs topped with melted sweet baby blue cheese; or BLT deviled eggs; or organic turkey, Swiss cheese, and yellow rice, in fresh local veggie wraps with BBQ aioli; or toasted Israeli couscous salad with Moroccan spices; or pastrami/smoked-salmon omelets with curried potatoes and sauteéd vegetables. Her breakfasts generally include sliced fresh in-season fruits – and, naturally, fresh roasted coffee, tea, or fresh fruit spritzers.
Dinners might be: slow-cooked Pulled (natural) pork roast with roasted potatoes and vegetables cucumber salad, and warm soft tortillas; homemade BBQ sauce and mojo, Spanish rice and garlic-infused yucca; or Mesquite wild salmon filets with organic basmati gingered rice, fresh sauteéd local organic vegetables and fresh arugula salad; or tilapia filets with a sweet-spicy chipotle glaze, with sweet curried quinoa, vegetables, and sweet potato crisps, fresh salad with granny smith apple slices and smoked cheese.
Needless to say, everything is organic and, whenever possible, locally grown.
Today, Sarah lives in Woodstock – but she’s available to cook, long or short-term, privately, anywhere. She can cater events, or prepare custom platters of take-home meals. She’d love to be a destination chef, where she’d accompany a family as their private chef, anywhere they’d like to go – ‘though she could also imagine having a food truck, and there’s even a producer who’s interested in doing a TV show with Sarah.
There’s always a lot on Sarah’s plate, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
She says that her goals are pretty straightforward. “I just want to cook for those who wish to love what they are eating, and that’s that. I want them not to worry about details or managing the affair at hand. I truly just want them to celebrate those they are eating with.”
Sarah recently served some of her dishes for guests of the Woodstock Writers Festival, including its Executive Director, Martha Frankel. Among the appetizers, a plate of her signature tender organic medjool dates stuffed with mascarpone cheese — garnished with a couple of spiced and crisply-fried hazelnuts and a miniscule sprig of fresh thyme. Frankel exclaimed, “I hate dates. Never eat them. And this was the best one-bite I ever tasted.”
Sarah loves it when people try something they’ve never eaten — or have never liked — and are won over.
For more about Sarah see her website: mangiaandenjoy.com
All photographs, unless credited, and featured photograph, by Donatella di Rosa
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us