I remember that night clearly. It was February of 2009. I was sitting on my bed, talking to my friend Blaine about the private chef job I had just landed. He was patient with me as I was breathless with excitement, feeling like the finish line I had invented was just about to be crossed. That’s how it feels when you get a new job. The time you’ve spent applying, the bank accounts you’ve emptied, the grey hairs you’ve sprouted; they all flip upside down in that moment. I got the job. I got the job. Everything’s going to be ok.
She was a friend of my mom’s masseuse. She had been an actress and then had opened an acting school with her husband. She had gained a lot of weight after her husband passed away a few years earlier and was feeling weak and unhealthy. I spoke with her on the phone and she sounded desperate. I was inspired to empower her with nourishment. I felt a call to action. I really could do this. She sounded optimistic by the end of the conversation and we decided I would start the very next day.
“She wants me to cook for her twice a week, like the other clients I used to have in Los Angeles. And Blaine, I’ll be cooking in THE PLAZA!”
“What’s her name?” And I told him. (We’ll just call her Blah-di-blah for now.)
I chattered on, “She’s exactly the kind of client I need right now. I can focus attention on helping her regain strength and feel more like herself. Then she might tell other people in The Plaza or her students or her friends and before you know it I’ll be cooking all over town.”
I was giddy. The connection felt right and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Blaine made a sound. A wary “hrm”.
“What, Blaine?” I was annoyed because he can be a bit of a pessimist when good things are happening. I didn’t want his attitude to ruin my night. I was flying.
He said, “Hundreds of former victims, or “students,” of Blah-di-blah and her husband gave accounts of families being destroyed, emotional abuse, slave labor, and brainwashing. As of late October 2011, Blah-di-blah was believed still to be running the cult in New York City.”
Now, Blaine is brilliant… brilliant and twisted and likes to play games. But these words came quickly out of the phone. Too quickly for him to have just made them up.
“Stop Blaine, that’s not funny.” I was really confused.
He wasn’t laughing.
He read more. He had found a website devoted to Blah-di-blah and the work she had done with her husband and the theatre-group-turned-cult they had established.
“STOP, Blaine! I can’t deal with this right now. I am going to cook for this woman tomorrow and I need to get to bed now.” I hung up abruptly and then I lay there in bed feeling the grey hairs burgeon once again.
I shopped for her food the following morning. The menu was simple but nourishing. She had heard good things about the South Beach Diet, so I took my lead from that. Proteins and veg. No carbs. Easy peasy.
When I arrived at The Plaza, it was as if 40 years had disappeared from my body. I skipped through the residential entrance, though my grocery bags were heavy. I announced to the front desk that I was going to cook for Blah-di-blah and that I would be back in a few days to cook for her again. They responded with a numb sort of “good for you, ma’am” but I was too zippy to hear anything other than “Hooray for Alison!”.
I chose the middle elevator, which I shared with a tall man in a nice suit and a slim brunette woman with a fancy feathered fascinator. They smelled divine. I felt a little guilty and exposed for wearing jeans and not smelling better. I told them goodbye when they got off on the third floor. They hummed back with a slight wave.
I got to Blah-di-blah’s floor and took a deep breath. This was it. A momentary memory of Blaine’s words popped into my head, but walking through the halls of The Plaza helped me forget quickly. I was thinking about Eloise, of course. Thinking of how I’d dreamt of this building after listening to “Eloise” as a bedtime story over and over. Of running through these halls. And Weenie the pug and Skipperdee the turtle and Nanny too. Here I was. I had made it inside. I took my folded chef coat from my bag and gave it a hard snap. One sleeve at a time. Knot buttons. Now a mint. Knock, knock.
The giant door opened to reveal a woman in an indigo caftan and big dark sunglasses. Her long red hair was like straw and a menthol cigarette dangled from her mouth. Her furniture was ornate and antique with half full ashtrays on every table. The floor-to-ceiling windows were hung with burgundy wool damask fabric. There was almost no light whatsoever and a cloud of cigarette smoke just sort of hung, mid-air. It was like walking into a box of Pall Malls and having the lid shut behind you. She kept her glasses on as we discussed her diet. She said she also wanted me to teach her how to cook when she started feeling better. I nodded, staring at the dark curtains obstructing one of the most prized views in all of New York- Central Park from 59th Street.
“So, now let’s see that kitchen!” I was trying to pluck myself up as I felt my energy ooze away. The kitchen was tiny and lit with fluorescent tubes that burned my eyes when they came on suddenly. I thanked her and told her I would be about 3 hours.
“THREE hours! I can’t imagine what you’re going to do in all that time!!!”
Cook. I’m going to cook your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, asshole is what I didn’t say. I just wanted to start chopping and sauteeing and braising. I needed to get back to who I was because nothing was feeling right anymore. I cooked for three hours and left her fridge full of food.
Three days later, I returned to the same dark glasses and a different dark schmatta. She announced that there had been a problem. She could not find the food I had cooked.
“What?!?” Her fridge had been almost empty and I had just stacked one container on top of another. I couldn’t imagine that I’d hidden them behind other things. We went into the kitchen together and I grabbed the refrigerator handle. There it was, stacks of the food I had worked so hard to perfect for her earlier that week.
She said that friends were helping her through these troubled times and they couldn’t find it and I really should make it easier on them.
“But it’s right here, see? Here. This is it.” I pointed to the containers.
“Anyway,” she held up her hand, “please get started. And next week, I’m going to need you to pick something up for me before you come in. Will you please grab 4 tall low-fat café lattes from Starbucks with 8 packs of sugar on the side. Thank you.” And out she walked.
I had been back in New York for about a year and a half. I was floundering with everything in my life; having very little work, no love life whatsoever, and losing my best friend to alcoholism earlier that year. I had done one thing though. I had gotten sober. I had three months to my name when I entered The Plaza and I was holding on for dear life.
A few days later, I showed up with her four Starbucks. There is a very specific humiliation involved in buying coffees for someone you dislike, especially when you are also carrying their groceries for the week. I did it though. It was my job. Or kind of my job, anyway. It was job-adjacent. No, I’ve never picked up Starbucks for any other client. It’s not my job at all. Fuck.
Blah-di-blah had found the food in the fridge by the second week but thought most of it was tasteless and told me so, point blank. She also said that she felt hungry after every meal, which I suggested was a side effect of being on a diet, but she poo-pooed that and told me to get to work. I started to cook and noticed that the garbage can was full. Cigarette butts, Starbucks cups, and empty mint chip ice cream pints. Pints– with an s, but who am I to judge? There was one thing that she did like: the egg muffins. I thought, ok cool, I’ll make them every time and at least I will have done one thing right. They were South Beach’s take on a quiche/ muffin- with no floury crust or doughy insides. They were all protein and veg and actually yummy, diet or no.
The next week, she opened her door sunglasses-free. It was the first time I saw her eyes, though I didn’t look too deeply. Progress, I thought. There are always rough patches in the beginning of private cheffing as I try to figure out what they like and they try to discern how far they can push me.
She leaped for the Starbucks cups like a puppy for a treat and then disappeared into another dark room.
I went into the kitchen and started to unpack the ingredients and opened the fridge to find most of the food still there from three days prior. She said that someone had brought her food and she just ate that. I should pack the rest up for the homeless. I didn’t know what to do with that suggestion. I took the containers and put them into my empty grocery bag. I wondered, would the homeless population of 59th and 5th appreciate the subtlety of the South Beach Diet? Do I get to charge for the time it takes to find and feed them? Should I bring them your utensils too, Madame? I was spinning.
And for some reason—mostly because there were still 8 of them in the fridge—I did not make new egg muffins that day. It felt ridiculous. It was wasteful and they were still good.
Two days later, I was in the middle of prep for a big cocktail party for awesome clients and Blah-di-blah called. Where were the egg muffins? How could I have not made more egg muffins? This is an outrage! Egg muffins, egg muffins. What the hell was I thinking? Blah blah blah from Blah-di-blah. I don’t like to be screamed at, especially when I was wrong, but I had to give myself credit… I found a way out. I arrived at her apartment later that day and the glasses were back on. I said, “I think I should find you another chef” and she responded breathily, “I think it would be best” as though she were on her death bed and I had violated her beyond repair.
Every day I worked for her, I had arrived full of energy and left almost unable to walk. In 3 short hours, I would be drained. She was a powerful person. Could she have been a cult leader? Could she have hoodwinked thousands of people out of their common sense and cash? I don’t know. I do know she could devastate my vital force through dark sunglasses three rooms away. That day though– that day I skipped out of The Plaza. She tried to take me down, but she could not. I made it out alive. And I did not drink.
I was reminded of this story because Francis and I have been on a diet for just over a week. We’re doing The Fast Metabolism Diet which has 2 intense carb-free days a week. I immediately thought of these muffins because, as I said, they are really good, especially if you’re doing a low carb, high protein diet. Here are two versions of the same muffins to show you how flexible and easy they are to cook. Experiment with your own ingredients. Make them your own!
Mini Egg Muffins with Turkey Bacon, Spinach, Tomatoes, and Basil
Makes 12 mini muffins or 9 regular muffins
- 2 pieces turkey bacon
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
- 1/4 red onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup baby tomatoes, cut in half
- 1 cup of baby spinach
- 1/2 cup of basil, cut into chiffonade
- 6 eggs or 1 1/2 cup egg substitute
- Preheat the oven to 350 and lightly spray a mini muffin tin (or regular muffin tin) with cooking spray.
- Heat a small pan on a medium flame and sear the turkey bacon for about a minute each side. Transfer to a cutting board but keep the heat on the pan.
- Add the oil into the warm pan and then the onions. Season with salt and saute until the onions become soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes into the pan and turn the heat up to medium hot. Add the spinach, which will release water and wilt down quickly and cook on medium flame until the liquid has evaporated about another minute. Toss into a bowl.
- Chop the turkey bacon into small cubes and toss that into the bowl with the vegetables.
- Break and whip the eggs in a separate bowl and then add to the veg/ turkey bacon mix. Season mixture with salt and pepper. Stir in the basil chiffonade.
- Using a small cookie scoop, transfer the egg mixture into the mini muffin cups a little more than 3/4 full.
- Bake for 15 minutes for minis, 20 minutes for full-size muffins.
- Let cool. Enjoy!
Egg Muffins with Caramelized Onions, Spinach, Tomatoes, Zucchini, Basil and Goat Cheese
Makes about 9 full-size muffins
- 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 cup of washed baby spinach leaves
- 1/2 tomato, seeded and chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup chopped zucchini
- 5 basil leaves, chiffonaded
- 1/2 cup goat cheese
- Preheat the oven to 350 and spray a mini muffin tin (or regular muffin tin) with cooking spray.
- Heat oil in a small saute pan and add the chopped onions. Season with salt and saute until the onions become soft and translucent. Add the spinach, which will release water and wilt down quickly and cook on medium flame until the liquid has evaporated, about another minute. Add the tomatoes into the pan and turn the heat up to medium hot. Add the zucchini and then the basil. Let cool.
- Break and whip the eggs in a separate bowl and then add to the vegetable mix. Season mixture with salt and pepper.
- Using a small cookie scoop, transfer the egg mixture into the mini muffin cups a little more than 3/4 full.
- Add the crumbled goat cheese into each muffin tin, about a tablespoon or more per tin.
- Bake for 20 minutes for full-size muffins.
- Let cool. Enjoy!