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A private chef walks a curious line between culinary professional and home cook, as I learned from a day with Kenny Jervis, chef for a wealthy Boston-area family. On the one hand, his employers expect a restaurant-quality meal on the table each night—three full courses, five nights a week—with the best seasonal ingredients the area has to offer.

But on the other hand, Kenny isn’t prepping for a full night of covers—he’s usually cooking for four. (Though with two athletic teenage boys at the table, it often seems like a lot more.) A restaurant can arrange for ingredients to be shipped in wholesale, but for a single family, special orders are impractical. Whereas most restaurants rely on a more-or-less constant roster of recipes, Kenny has to keep things fresh, serving the same four people every night. Professional cooking in a personal kitchen poses its challenges.

Yet it also gives the chef a certain freedom he might not find elsewhere. Jervis has liberty to experiment—within reason, of course, and with attention to the family’s likes and dislikes, but without fear that a dish will go un-ordered. He can seek out quality ingredients at any price—again, within reason, but without a restaurateur’s obsessive concern for the bottom line. And with a family that trusts his judgment and culinary skill, Kenny is free to cook whatever grabs him that day.

After all, Jervis has earned his culinary chops. A self-taught cook and native Bostonian, he started in the kitchen eighteen years ago at a now-closed waterfront lobster joint, one prep chef among many. Offered a position at another restaurant owned by the same group, he worked his way through the ranks—eventually becoming an executive chef, at Metropolis in the South End, before taking the helm at Grafton Street in Cambridge.

Jervis then saw a Boston Globe listing for a private chef gig, almost six years ago (back when people still took out ads in the papers). He replied on a whim. “At first, I didn’t actually want the job,” he told me. “I just had to see what it was all about.” But he went in for an interview, received an offer, and has been with the same family ever since—cooking dinners, organizing functions, and flying along on family vacations.

Special events make the job more interesting, of course, giving Kenny the opportunity to plan menus that showcase his skill. He also takes the occasional side project, recently catering a New Year's Eve dinner at the James Beard Foundation. But in cooking the daily meal, he rarely thinks ahead. “My food is always market-driven,” he says. “I know what I’ll make when I see what’s fresh.”

So where does a private chef go to bring home Boston’s best? I tagged along with Kenny—and his two-year-old son, Nigel—to find out.

New Deal Fish Market

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Our first stop: New Deal Fish Market in East Cambridge. That night, both parents would be gone, leaving Kenny to cook for just the boys, who would rather have a casual, single-course meal. “It’s kind of a relief to have these dinners once in awhile,” Kenny laughs. “Gives you time to reset, so you don’t run out of ideas.”

Since their mother can’t eat some forms of shellfish, bivalves in particular, Kenny jumped on the opportunity to use clams and mussels. He was considering a simple pasta frutti di mare, and headed straight for the fish market. “For somewhere that loves seafood as much as Boston,” he told me, “this city doesn’t have that many good places to buy it. But New Deal is as good as it gets.”

Despite its Roosevelt-era name, the New Deal Fish Market actually predates the Depression—on the same East Cambridge street, owned by the same Italian family, since 1928. Current manager Carl Fantasia left a lucrative career in the energy industry to move home and run the family business, and clearly knows what he’s doing. In a heavily Italian and Portuguese neighborhood, New Deal caters to the locals, stocking its shelves with artisan olive oils and imported baked goods—but also with nori and rice vinegar for the sizeable Japanese clientele that relies on New Deal for sushi-grade fish.

Carl greeted Kenny with a wave, and they started talking sports as I gawked at the display—beautiful salmon and cod, sure, but also bigeye tuna and enormous uncut tails of monkfish, headless baby sharks and whole octopi oozing over a bed of ice.

It was immediately clear that this was superior seafood. Except for piles of rough-cut fish chunks in the back of the display, no scrap of flesh going to waste, very little of New Deal’s fish had been cut. When Kenny asked for two pounds of monkfish, Carl slapped a three-foot tail on his board, sharpened a knife, and went to work. Fish were filleted on the spot.

20090429ndcarl.jpgAnd as he worked, every other customer in the store, sensing a newbie in their midst, started sharing stories about the market. “I live nowhere near here,” declared one woman. “But I made a detour from the airport because I had to stop by.” Another regular chimed in. “I used to go to other seafood stores,” he said. “Hell, I used to go to restaurants. But you’ve spoiled me. I can’t get fish better than this anywhere.” Carl may have paid them off after I left, but I doubt it.

New Deal, it was obvious, was the place for fresh seafood. Just don’t expect to drop by in a hurry. Carl ambles about his shop, hand-picking the best clams, wandering into the back for more mussels, with little sense of urgency. But none of his customers seem to mind. They mill around the counter, chatting with Carl (and each other) about their families, their health, the Bruins—just like I’d imagine any small-town market of yesteryear. "People like the theatrics of this place," Carl told me proudly. We walked in looking for monkfish, shrimp, and a few cans of tomatoes; Carl tallied up the order—on the back of a paper bag, no less—forty-five minutes later. “Typical Italian,” Kenny laughed. New Deal Fish Market: 622 Cambridge Street, Cambridge MA 02141 (map); 617-876-8227; www.newdealfishmarket.com

Lionette’s Market

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20090429lionsign.jpg“I shop like a European,” said Kenny. “I go to one guy for fish, another for meat, another for cheese. It’s the only way to do it.”

So we headed across the Charles to Lionette’s, another family-owned market: this time, a below-ground butcher shop and deli in the South End. The aroma of duck confit greeted us. “I always confit a few duck legs where there’s a bit of a breeze,” said Jamey Lionette from behind the counter. “Draws people right in.”

Almost every purveyor these days will express a devotion to local, sustainable food—but at Lionette’s, the commitment is evident. Each steak, pork chop, and chicken leg is labeled with its farm of origin. Their dairy selection has an obvious local bias, with only a few imported cheeses among dozens of New England products—including six different kinds of fresh burrata from Fiore di Nonno in Somerville. (I nearly swooned).

Once each week, Lionette’s butchers whole animals, generally pig and lamb, and uses or sells every bit of that meat. The usual cuts are in the display case, or in Lionette’s prepared foods, but they sit alongside small tubs of offal—brain, heart, kidney—also available for purchase. And posted signs inform the customers of “Today’s Fat Selection: We Render the Fat Ourselves!”. During my visit, the options were fresh lard, suet, and duck fat. Be still, my heart. Lionette’s Market: 577 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02118 (map); 617-778-0360; www.lionettesmarket.com

The Butcher Shop and Plum Produce

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If Kenny can’t find what he’s looking for at Lionette’s, he pops across the street to The Butcher Shop. Barbara Lynch, owner of widely acclaimed No. 9 Park, manages a veritable food empire in Boston: new restaurant Sportello, cocktail destination Drink, miniature cooking school Stir, and seafood spot B&G Oysters. And branching out into the market scene, she also operates our two destinations, The Butcher Shop and Plum Produce.

A healthy bit of tongue-in-cheek went into the naming of The Butcher Shop. There are no blood-stained aprons in sight. Half-market, half-restaurant, with a varnished wooden bar along one wall and eerily beautiful cuts of meat on display in the back, this modern space is about as far from a typical butcher shop as you can imagine.

So it’s a bit, well, pretty. But the selection of meats and prepared foods is phenomenal: duck rillettes and game birds en croute, slow-roasted Berkshire ham and skinned whole rabbit. Given the Barbara Lynch group's strong relationships with providers, Kenny told me, they could coordinate almost any custom order, for a large event or special occasion, without difficulty.

And, he confessed, The Butcher Shop let him take the occasional shortcut. “Barbara Lynch’s Bolognese recipe is basically the same as mine,” he confided. “Learned from the same old Italian ladies. So if I don’t have to take all day on it…” Fair enough. If I could pick up No. 9’s fresh chicken stock—or, hell, bright green ramp butter—I might not spend hours slaving over the stove, either. The Butcher Shop: 552 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02118 (map); 617-423-4800; www.thebutchershopboston.com

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We then stopped next door at Plum Produce, a tiny green storefront that could easily be mistaken for a jewelry boutique. A single shopgirl waits inside, lovingly arranging tomato clusters on the table, as if handling gems, or artwork. Four kinds of mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, fresh ramps, baby artichokes—spring had clearly arrived in Boston.

As in all boutiques, however, the fewer the items, the higher the cost. No question the arrangements were beautiful, and Kenny told me the quality of the produce was hard to match. But this didn’t feel like a place where I could squeeze or feel or smell the fruit. In truth, I’d be intimidated.

“She gets products like no one else can get,” Kenny told me. “But in the summer, I’d rather go to the real markets. I follow them around. Copley one day, Downtown Crossing one day—they move around. But I know the farmers, and I know their products, and I’d rather shop at the market than anywhere." Plum Produce: 106 Waltham Street, Boston MA 02118 (map); 617-423-7526; www.plumproduce.com

South End Formaggio

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One last stop, at South End Formaggio. (This was Kenny's son Nigel's favorite, so enraptured is he with their candy display.) Formaggio first arrived in Cambridge three decades ago—one of the first serious cheese shops in the area, Kenny told me—and opened a branch in the South End a few years ago. If Lionette’s is a champion of local eating, Formaggio reminds us why we import in the first place. Their selection of internationally-sourced cheeses, pantry goods, and charcuterie is absolutely staggering. First to catch my eye were the Spanish Jamon Iberico, and the even more highly prized Paleta Iberico de Bellota. And the cheese display was almost too extensive to contemplate.

These cheeses are kept in the climate-controlled cheese cave below their Cambridge store—brought out to display each day, and safely tucked away each night. Formaggio arranges the import of all products themselves, guarding their cargo from start to finish. Once in the store, every single item, down to the last jar of preserves, gets a tag explaining the product’s name, origin, and story. If those snippets aren't information enough, the cheesemongers are more than happy to chime in. Educating customers is clearly a priority. South End Formaggio: 268 Shawmut Avenue, Boston MA 02118 (map); 617-350-6996; www.southendformaggio.com

The Chef Gets To Work

After a few hours of shopping, Kenny brings the day's wares back to the family kitchen and gets down to work. Seeing the products he's armed with, one might say he has a bit of a head-start. Would that every meal began with such quality ingredients.

Of course, having a personal chef is a luxury most can only dream of. For that matter, so is setting aside two hours to shop for dinner. Kenny recognizes having this kind of time is a privilege. "Our whole culture is set up against proper eating," he says. Strapped for time, hunting convenience, it's often far simpler to head to the nearest Shaw's. "But that's the fault of the system," he continues. "We have to get back to a system where we're eating real food."

For most of us, heading to five different markets before dinner may not be feasible. But taking advantage of a farmer's market, getting to know our grocers, or paying an extra dollar for that locally raised chicken—little steps like that just might be.

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