27 Nov Chopping Block: Q&A with Grog Verbeck of Hey Chef!
A Professional chef since the 1980s, Grog Verbeck is happiest when cooking in someone else’s kitchen. In 1997 he and his wife Holly founded Hey Chef!, a Truclee-based private chef and kitchen staffing company that places chefs, servers, shoppers, bartenders and baristas in Tahoe homes and locations for dining experiences and parties. In addition to Verbeck’s longtime participation in the annual Best of Tahoe Chefs gala benefiting the Tahoe Forest Health System Foundation, Hey Chef! also gives back to the community via its partnership with the Truckee North Tahoe Emergency Warming Center.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Middlebury, Vermont, and raised in New York in the heart of the Hudson Valley, just a bicycle ride from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).
Earliest culinary memory?
When I was 12, I got a job at the Indian Territory hamburger stand just up the road from my house. My boss was Mr. Tubbs, and he had arrowhead collections mounted on the walls.
Also, I’m one of five siblings and when we were sick and had to stay home from school, we got to cook for ourselves, so playing sick was a big thing for me.
Restaurants where you’ve worked?
I moved to Paris after attending the CIA in Hyde Park and furthered my education at Cordon Bleu and La Varenne. While I was there I worked at La Grenadin. I returned to Manhattan and spent time in New York restaurants—like Arcadia, Keens, City Café, Gotham—but my favorite place has always been in private kitchens for private clients. When I first moved to Truckee I stood in at Le Petit Pier when the chef-owner was ill, and shortly after, we opened HeyChef! so I could return to serving private clients. Since then we’ve grown to include a talent pool of other chefs plus dozens of waitstaff, bartenders and shoppers so we can serve the demand for in-home entertaining in the Truckee-Tahoe area. There’s a lot of great culinary talent in our town and it’s a real luxury when homeowners can experience it on a personal and small-scale level in the privacy of their homes. That’s really my sweet spot and I think the best restaurant should always be your own dinner table.
You’ve cooked for U.S. presidents, celebrities and Silicon Valley executives. Can you share any experiences or stories?
Chef Brian and I were working by ourselves on a Saturday night in the Penthouse of a client on Fifth Avenue when the doorbell rang. No one was home so I answered the door. Dressed in a formal tuxedo and ball gown stood Mr. Walter Cronkite and his wife Betsy ready for the dinner party of the year—except the invitation was for the following week!
How did you get involved with Best of Tahoe Chefs?
Gary Bulmer (a Best of Tahoe Chefs co-founder) and I have been friends and coworkers for decades. We’re a great team because he likes to be the face and personality of events and I prefer to stay in the background and cook. So it’s a perfect match to get behind his and Billy McCullough’s efforts and make a positive impact in our community.
Inspiration/process for creating menu items?
I have a couple simple rules about food: Start with really great ingredients and don’t play with it. Overly composed dishes with too many components just remind me how many hands have been into what’s on my plate. I think good, wholesome, everyday food is fantastic when it’s done with attention to subtle flavors.
Go-to kitchen tool?
When I went to CIA in Hyde Park I once asked an instructor for a spatula. He said, “You have two of them on the ends of your arms.” People often think they need all the gadgets to cook, but I disagree. Most all of these specialty tools take longer to clean than if you simply practice and possess strong knife skills.
Favorite local and regional purveyors?
There are lots of new options coming to town and that’s great news. Years ago there weren’t many choices, but it’s definitely gotten better. Still, I wish I could find really good olives in Truckee. I love the Food Hub, my CSA box from Mountain Bounty Farm and Morgan’s for the best in fresh seafood.
What’s in your home fridge right now?
Fish sauce, an assortment of cheeses, kimchi and buttermilk. I eat fermented foods daily, and I keep a lot of things on hand so I can create on a whim—or, whatever my kids ask for on any particular day.
Are your kids interested in the culinary biz?
Since they like to eat, I guess they are. I’m pleased they are adventurous, wholesome eaters and I love having their friends over so they can discover the joy of trying new foods. My 15-year-old daughter, Tatum, likes to bake daily, and my 20-year-old son, Hudson, makes a mean breakfast when he’s home from school.
Tell us about your interest in the art of flintknapping.
For me, flintknapping, like fire starting, is a skill that’s wired into our human DNA. It’s a lot like cooking—except it reaches even further back into the process: making a tool to kill, cut and prepare your food. When I’m working on stone, my mind is free from any distractions and I feel carried back in time; it’s similar to how I feel when I’m working in my garden.
Ultimate Frisbee is my favorite sport. All I need is an open space to throw, a disc and a few friends. I’m super grateful this chef’s body can still get out on the field to jump and run around a bit each week. Nothing gives me more joy.
Susan D. Rock is TQ’s longtime Food & Wine editor.
Grog’s Go-To Apple Butter
This time of year is all about apples. And so many main dishes are elevated when topped with rich, thick apple butter—pork, chicken and breakfast pancakes, to name a few.
Unlike saucy, light-colored applesauce, butter is thick and brown and has a rich flavor—a little goes a long way. And here are two other reasons apple butter is awesome when the weather turns cold: It makes your kitchen smell wonderful, and you don’t need a recipe.
Just cook apples in a half-inch of water or cider in the pan to keep them from burning (you can just put them in whole if you have a food ricer; otherwise you need to core and peel them). I like to use a mixture of apple varieties to increase flavor complexity. Add about one-third as much in the form of dried apples to really enhance the flavor profile and consistency.
When they’re cooked through and soft, run them through a sieve or food ricer. Then, check the puree for sweetness and tartness; add brown sugar and lemon to your liking, plus pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon. Then cook it some more (low and slow) until it reaches a thick, dark consistency of your liking.
Then, be prepared to guard it with your life. It takes only a dollop to make a meal sing, but people will want to eat it by the mouthful.