Erin is comfortably dressed in black, stain-obscuring scrubs, her hair tucked into a pastel scarf. She chats animatedly as she seasons the lobster meat, gently separated from the shells to facilitate eating, with salt and pepper, and massages it with butter. She grills the tails for about two minutes on the outdoor gas grill, then finishes them off in a 375-degree oven, inserting a probe in one tail to ensure they reach an internal temperature of 135 degrees.
Just for good measure, she bastes the pink, sweetly succulent meat with hot melted butter after removing the baking sheet from the oven. She plates the tails on a platter with simply grilled chicken breasts, and pours basil pesto and passion fruit barbecue sauce into bowls to accompany our entrées.
Now this is my idea of beach food.
Bill and I are experiencing St. John for the first time with seven friends. As much as our group enjoys food shopping and cooking together, it occurred to us when we were planning our trip that we might also want to turn over the task of preparing some dinners to someone else — be it restaurants or personal chefs for on-site service — especially for the days we’d be hiking, snorkeling, and sailing for long stretches. We divvied up the responsibility for deciding how to proceed each night.
Prior to this St. John trip, Bill and I had never used personal chefs to prepare private dinners during our travels, but we were happy to give it a go. We hired Erin based on the recommendation of Tiffany, Vida de Mar’s owner.
We’re all gathered in the common area (kitchen, living room, dining room) of Vida de Mar, a secluded property with five bedroom casitas situated on Dever’s Bay on the island’s southwest shore.
We hover as Erin puts the finishing touches on the rest of our dinner – grilled artichoke hearts with lemon and thyme, orange and ginger braised carrots, jerk roasted sweet and white potatoes, and individual chocolate lava cakes and key lime pies.
Our appetites are primed following a day of snorkeling and sunning at beautiful Maho Bay, noted for its white sandy beach fringed with coconut palms and a gentle surf. Once back at Vida de Mar, we continued to soak in the tropical sun and scenery at our outdoor deck-top pool, all under the watchful attention of a family of inky iguanas perched in the tree tops. An even larger, lighter-colored iguana had been chomping on bougainvillea at the driveway when we pulled in.
Seated around the dining table with jazzy tunes playing from Bill’s iPad in the background, the setting was intimate, the ambiance lively, and the food preparation, presentation, and clean up were in Erin’s friendly, professional hands. We brought Erin back a second time, the day of our Reef Bay Hike, to create salad Niçoise with both seared tuna and shrimp, coconut Israeli couscous, and blueberry cobbler.
One of our friends retained Ted Robinson of Ted’s Supper Club, another highly regarded personal chef, to prepare heavy hors d’oeuvres on a subsequent night with his assistant Meredith.
Tantalizing aromas again emanated from the kitchen as Ted brought his menu to fruition: tuna dumplings with ginger lemon soy sauce; portobello mushrooms with mascarpone in handmade brioche dough; prosciutto wrapped shrimp with charred lemon; roasted chicken empanadas with caramelized onions, peppers, and jack cheese; chili dusted mahi tacos with tomato fennel slaw; and crab cake sliders with cole slaw and balsamic drizzle. Like Erin, Ted concluded our meal with artfully presented mini portions of chocolate molten cake and key lime pie.
According to Ted, personal chefs do well on St. John, thanks to the tourism boom. He attributes it to St. John being a “daytime place.”
Ted explains, “People go to bed early and are up early to participate in all the outdoor activities. At the end of the day, they’re tired. They want someone to cook for them as opposed to getting in a car and driving to a restaurant where it could be loud, and you have to deal with parking and driving home after having too much to drink. In addition, a lot of the rental houses are gorgeous, and they want to enjoy them.”
During all three personal chef-prepared dinners, we indulged nearly to the point of lethargy, proving Ted’s point that it was prudent to already be tucked into our own villa at day’s end.
Personal chefs get personal
Intrigued with Erin and Ted’s businesses (they’re both ex-pats from the U.S.) and eager to learn more, I chatted with each chef days later by phone.
The Roads Traveled: What’s your culinary background?
Erin: I went to the culinary school of hard knocks. I learned by doing from the ground up. Growing up in Denver I’d be with my mom in the kitchen and put together unexpected ingredients for monster creations that turned out really well.
Ted: I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. I worked at Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, where I learned how a great restaurant should be and how to strive for perfection every day.
TRT: When did you move to St. John and become a personal chef there?
Erin: My husband and I moved to St. John in 2008 to escape the cold weather. I cooked at two restaurants, and then with St. John Catering. They gave me freedom in the kitchen to make my own creations. I opened my business in 2013. I went around to villa companies with snacks and inserts for their visitor binders to promote myself, and I still do that every year. I donate appetizers like chilled curried carrot soup for the Animal Care Center of St. John’s annual gala.
Ted: I came to St. John 18 years ago. It felt like home because of the nice people, the beauty and simplicity of people getting along. I worked at a couple of restaurants. Many guests asked me to cook at their villas, and my business, which I started eight years ago, just took off. The main thing when I cook is for people to enjoy their time here. After about 10 minutes, it’s like I’m part of the party.
TRT: What’s your food philosophy?
Erin: Cooking is best as a shared experience. Whether cooking for others, with others, or eating with others, food brings people together in a unique and powerful way.
Ted: I used to eat at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. The food was so simple, clean, and fresh, and that’s how I like my food. One of my favorite dishes is pan seared day boat scallops with my own dry spice rub, with smashed fingerlings, white truffle oil, balsamic vinegar, arugula, and parmesan – a great combination of flavors. I also like doing a white chocolate tarragon soufflé. I’m working on a cookbook about living on St. John.
TRT: How have you adapted to the food scene on St. John?
Erin: There’s only one farm on the island – Josephine’s Organic Greens. Almost no vegetables are grown here because St. John is mostly rock, so they’re imported. Depending on the time of year, we have mangoes, papayas, coconuts, and passion fruit galore. I’d never heard of tamarind, a pod grown on trees, until I came here. I reduce its nectar to a glaze, and add honey for sweetness for carrots or green beans. Wahoo is good for grilling and can handle a bold sauce. I cut plantains into cross sections, fry quickly, and mash them for a starch.
Ted: Produce used to be beat up and limited because everything came by boat. It’s much better now with more farmers on St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic, and purveyors flying in high-end products. You can always get fresh fish. I like local mahi with tomatoes from my garden, baby greens, and eggplant.
With sunsets like this from our deck, and personal chefs like Erin and Ted to feed our every whim, eating in is the way to go on St. John.
Passion Fruit BBQ Sauce Recipe from Personal Chef Erin Hraster
(No measurements – she just wings it.)
Mix together the juice of several fresh passion fruits and a tablespoon or so of sugar OR passion fruit puree, along with tomato paste, red wine vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, and salt.