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Authors Posts by Ken Durbin

Ken Durbin

Ken Durbin
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An accomplished graduate of the Midwest Culinary Institute, Chef Ken Durbin went on to cook professionally at The University Club and numerous other prestigious local dining establishments before establishing The At Home Chef in 2013 to offer intimate, one-of-a-kind epicurean experiences to a distinguished clientele throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Follow him on Instagram at @chefken and go to www.theathomechef.com to learn more or book a party.

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Hosting a party sounds fabulous, but the reality is much different. Chef Ken explains why, and how you can change it.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re hosting a party at your house. You’re looking forward to seeing friends and family and showing off your newly-renovated gourmet kitchen. The guests arrive. You spend the entire party in the kitchen “in the weeds” cooking, refilling chip trays, refreshing drinks, and mopping up spills. Your guests say goodbye and there you are staring at a sink full of dirty dishes. In your exhaustion, it occurs to you that you didn’t sit down once all night or have one meaningful conversation with any of the people you love.

If that sounds anything like your last party, you’re not alone. A lot of my clients tell me they love their families and friends and that they love entertaining, but it is just so hard to do it all. A lot of my clients are perfectionists, striving to build successful businesses, working hard, trying to raise happy, healthy children. They truly want to celebrate the milestones in their lives by throwing parties that will become lasting memories.

As women, you give so much. In addition to all the time and effort you give to your employer, to your clients, and to your co-workers during the day, you want to give your best when you go home at night, too. When you decide to throw a party for your family or friends, your concern for their comfort and enjoyment often plays into the logistics of how you plan the event. You make sure not to have shrimp if you someone is allergic to shellfish. You buy that one brand of potato chips that your husband likes. You make sure there is a comfortable chair for your aunt who is recovering from hip surgery. 

Your careful planning and execution is important to you, since you want everyone to enjoy the time they spend in your home. But what happens so often is that real life gets in the way. Meetings run longer than expected. Kids get sick. Husbands (dare I say it?) aren’t always helpful.

Over and over again, in both my personal life and with my clients, I see women who give and give. They give so much that they struggle to find happiness. And it makes me sad to watch the women I care about sacrifice so much of themselves in order to make others happy and keep that illusion of perfection afloat. 

When it Unravels

I had a client last year who exemplified the perfect hostess. When I met her to plan her meal, I could tell that she wanted her in-home party to be a reflection of who she is—a polished and poised professional whose house looks like the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. And everything was rolling along perfectly. Then on the afternoon of her party, I arrived at her front door. with groceries and supplies to begin preparing her meal. When she answered, I saw that she was wearing old sweats, the babysitter was late to pick up her kids, and her gourmet kitchen looked like a tornado had hit it. 

I could read the stress and desperation on her face as she apologized and explained, “It has just been one of those days.” So I spring into action. It’s no secret in my business that my clients become family from the day they hire me, so that night I did a lot more than just cook for her and her friends. I pitched in to watch her kids while she got a shower and get dressed. I helped her restore her normally beautiful home to its former state of glory and ready to receive company. By the time the first guests arrived, I could see that she was much more relaxed and ready to put the day’s events behind her and just have some fun.

What that party taught me is that even those people who we think seem to have it together all the time, they have bad days too. We’re all just struggling to get through life sometimes and the only way we get it all done is to rely on the help of one another.

The Parties You Thought You’d Have

If you’re like many of the women I know, you envisioned when you bought your current house that you’d have so many parties there. You made improvements to your home specifically with entertaining in mind. You poured time and money into renovating several smaller rooms to an open floor plan where friends and family could gather around food and drink. 

An earlier version of you was so excited to throw parties. You were the first in the family to volunteer to hold Thanksgiving and were so excited for your home improvement show-style reveal of your new kitchen that you worked so hard to renovate and redecorate. So how did you get to this point where it all just seems like a hassle? What do you do when having a party doesn’t even sound appealing? 

Getting Out Of the Rut

It certainly isn’t that you love your family or friends any less. It’s not that you dislike parties. You actually really enjoy entertaining when you’re not trying to juggle the drinks, the food, your guests’ individual needs, and a million other details that leave you frustrated and a little depressed by night’s end. 

So maybe it means you make some changes to planning your next party. Maybe you talk to your husband about what he can do to help you more. Maybe your kids get a list of chores that includes tidying up the house before they go to the babysitter. And maybe (shameless plug), you hire a chef so that buying the food, cooking, feeding your guests, and cleaning your kitchen are things you no longer have to worry about that night.

One of the main tenets of my business is “Enjoy Life” because I feel like it’s something we need to be reminded to do every so often. Many of us get so wrapped up in trying to manufacture a life that looks good on social media. We forget to reach out and ask for help from our loved ones. We often don’t lean enough on the people in our lives who want to help (if you’ll just ask, and that often includes your husband). Just remember before you plan your next party, it’s okay to give yourself grace. And it’s okay to enjoy your life in the present moment just the way you are, imperfections and all.

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For our annual “Go Green” issue, Chef Ken talks about the ultimate green food with tips to take salads from boring to blissful.

 

What comes to mind when you think of a salad? 

Some consider salad a “diet” food. How common is it to order a salad instead of a burger when you go out to eat since it’s perceived as a healthier choice or lower-calorie option? And, as we all know, so many salads that started with calorie-free vegetables aren’t at all healthy by the time you mix it with dressing, cheese, croutons, etc.

Outside of being a replacement for a main course, a salad is typically a first course. It’s the introduction to a balanced meal. The salad course is what kicks your palette into gear and gets you ready for the epicurean adventure to come. Sadly, though, so many salads are uninspired. How many times do you think you’ve sat down to a plate of iceberg lettuce, a few julienned carrots, and a thin, watery dressing? 

I’ve had a lot boring salads. While we’ll leave the gender stereotypes out of it, it may be partly because I’m a man that I just never thought of a salad as anything to get excited about. Men are not typically brought up to love salads. So even with my culinary background, chopped greens on a plate soaked in ranch was what usually initially came to mind when I thought of a salad. 

My Salad Conversion

When I meet my clients for the first time, I start by asking them what their favorite meal is. Usually, I’ll be told about a decadent pasta dish or a steak that was seasoned and cooked to perfection. I get a lot of people tell me about some phenomenal dish they had at a celebrities’ New York City or Los Angeles restaurants or locally from one of Jean-Robert deCavel’s or Jeff Ruby’s fine dining establishments.

But there was one time that I asked my client what her favorite meal was, and she replied, “It was this salad…”

I listened intently, hoping to develop a custom menu for the upcoming party based on things she loved about the salad. She went on to describe the fresh-caught New England lobster seasoned with salt, pepper and lime juice, rolled inside slices of honeydew melon and topped with hearts of palm, cubes of grapefruit, and avocado. It wasn’t so much the individual ingredients that made it special, but how they all blended together so perfectly like a symphony. She also mentioned that no matter how many times she had ordered it before, her husband would read over the bill and exclaim, “Twenty-six dollars for a salad?!” to which she replied confidently, “That salad is worth every cent.”

How that client described the best meal she ever ate got to thinking more about salads, and how they really get a bad rap. While it’s just the starter course, the salad set the tone for the whole meal. So I wondered, what is it that elevates a salad? What makes a salad so extraordinary that you’re talking about it years later?

I couldn’t think of one that stood out, so I asked my wife about her favorite salad. She showed me a photo she took of a lobster salad that she had ordered at Matunuck Oyster Bar in Rhode Island where we own a second home. We have had some fantastic meals there, which I think is due to its proximity to the water. Because of the plentiful wild-caught seafood that chefs have to work with, they are careful to source produce locally so their lobster, crab, and oyster dishes are accompanied on the plate by the best vegetables available. Together, that makes a huge difference in turning a plain old seafood salad into a spectacular dish worthy of remembering.

Elevating Your Salad

When you’re making a salad at home and want it to be truly memorable, put the time and effort into it by using these tips:1. Go to a farmer’s market or purchase vegetables directly from a family farm. 2. When you do your shopping, get out of the romaine/iceberg rut. Look for greens with different textures and flavors like spinach, arugula, or dandelion leaves and mix them together. 3. No matter what meat you use, it should be just as fresh as the vegetables, so consider whether you are buying meat and seafood that’s humanely raised, antibiotic-free, and sustainable. 4. Think beyond meat. Proteins like eggs, nuts, and quinoa are great in salads.5. Use fresh herbs and mix your own salad dressing instead of buying it in a bottle, and dress your salad before you plate it.

Whether you’re eating it as your only course or as the start of a multi-course meal, your salad should be special! If you’d like more tips and tricks on salads, follow me and send a message on Instagram.

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Our Chef-in-Residence Ken Durbin breaks down the farm-to-table movement, explaining why locally-sourced food is healthier and tastes better.

 

When thinking about the theme of this week’s issue, I considered some of the gourmet food trends that have come into fashion of late. Ancient grains. Oat milk. Sumac. Truffles. (Who doesn’t love truffles?) And then it hit me—the biggest trend in food right now is not a food at all, it’s how we get our food. Sustainability is in fashion.

Take those delicious truffles, for instance. The best truffles are sourced from France. It takes a whole lot of jet fuel to schlep those truffles across the country and across the ocean. Beyond being stupidly expensive (hence the price of truffles), jet-hopping all over the world to find crazy ingredients is terrible for the environment. Yes, that’d be the same environment where we’re trying to grow our produce and raise our livestock. So like many chefs today, I’ve embraced the trend toward sourcing from local farms and markets. This encompasses a lot of related food trends, which you may have heard referred to as farm-to-table, sustainable agriculture, or local sourcing. 

What all these trends boil down to is that the closer the source, the better the food will taste. Knowing where your food comes from is a surefire way to avoid ingredients that you don’t want or need, like added hormones that have been injected into your meat or pesticides that cover your vegetables. You also know that when you buy local foods, they haven’t been loaded up with preservatives, boxed up, canned, or packaged and driven hundreds (or thousands) of miles to reach the store.

Beyond Taste

But the reason that we care so much as chefs about food sourcing today goes beyond the selfish reason of wanting the food we cook to taste good. People in our communities work really hard to grow produce and raise livestock. It’s their livelihood, and it’s important to support our local small farms and farmers markets. 

As a chef, local sourcing allows me to make informed decisions. I can ask questions face-to-face with the farm owner about about how a vegetable is grown or how an animal is raised. Does the farmer use pesticides? Are the animals being raised humanely and eating the proper diet to ensure a quality life? Knowing these answers then allows me to feel confident telling my clients they can trust me when I say that the food they are being served is as organic and environmentally-friendly as possible.

From Land to Sea

So while it’s relatively easy here in the Midwest to locally source agriculture and livestock products like vegetables, beef, or poultry, what in the heck are you supposed to do if you want seafood? We live in an area of the country that’s so far from either of the coasts that it can be difficult to navigate the environmental impact of the seafood we buy. With overfishing being a real threat to our ocean’s ecosystem, it’s become vital as chefs that we become more knowledgeable about sustainable seafood. Luckily, there are organizations that are constantly staying on the cutting edge of this topic and I’m proud to associate myself with them in order to learn more about how I can choose products that help marine life to thrive and continue to feed our bellies for centuries to come. 

Last month, I had the honor of taking part in Off the Hook, an annual event produced by Chef’s Collaborate and James Beard’sSeafood Watch in partnership with the Newport Aquarium to educate and inspire chefs to use sustainable seafood that’s been fished in environmentally-responsible ways. I was honored to learn from and cook alongside chefs from across the country who believe in this mission, including one of few master sommeliers in the country Steve Geddes, who you may remember from Cincinnati’s with Local 127 and legendary Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen, who is nationally known as “The Godfather of Sustainability.”

It’s All About Community
When you buy from the local economy you foster community pride. It is easier to build lasting, trustworthy partnerships with vendors when you can meet them face-to-face. My clients may pay more for my commitment to local sourcing, but I firmly believe there is high value in feeling good about where the ingredients I serve are grown or raised. We’re all stuck on this planet together, we might as well take care of it. And that’s a trend I can get behind.

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Cincy Chic’s new Chef-in-Residence Ken Durbin dishes on GNOs and why a private chef is the secret ingredient to your best girl’s night in.

As a private chef, I cook meals for all sorts of special occasions. While I’ve been privileged to curate cuisine for luxurious birthday parties, anniversary dinners, and even small company functions, I’ve also had the opportunity to work a different kind of event—and they are one I’d never be invited to as a guy! I’m talking about the GNO, or Girlfriends’ Nights Out.

Over the years, I’ve been hired to prepare meals for a lot of them, so here’s the 411 on GNOs (from a guy’s perspective):

Rule #1- No Boys Allowed

My GNO clients (who are amazing, successful, and dynamic women) have told me that the goal of their ladies’-only evening is for the busy women in their lives to have a chance to take a night off from their husbands or boyfriends to focus on celebrating and enriching the connections that they share as women.

Along with no guys, a GNO is typically also a night away from the kids, too. Many of my clients have told me that this is especially needed for stay at home moms. I could not agree more. The SAHMs I know somehow balance weeks full of endless soccer practices, PTA meetings, science projects, drying tears, cleaning up spills, and still managing to get everyone (and the dog) in matching sweaters for Christmas pictures. You deserve a night off from that craziness.

I also think about the women in my life who are rocking out demanding careers, going to school, caring for an elderly parent, or putting in thankless volunteer hours in your communities to make them better. And many of you are balancing many, if not all of all these roles. You all are amazing, and you all deserve a night off.

GNOs By the Decade
In your 20s, your GNO was all about going out on the town, dressing up to the nines, wearing your cutest dress with your highest heels, and dancing the night away in them… which I have no clue how you do, and fully respect when you take them off and just jam out in your bare feet.

But I digress.  

So then, life happens and as you get into your 30s, your GNOs start to look a little different. It might involve back-and-forth texts for months until finally the planets align and somehow you can all get a babysitter on the same night and score reservations for seven at the hottest new OTR restaurant. So you go, you eat, you share, you laugh—and it’s transformative. Your girlfriends have brought you back from the edge of your sanity and brought out the “fun” in you again.
And you vow to keep doing it.

Then your 40s arrive and your GNO gently changes again with every other beautiful imperfection you’ve come to accept and embrace about yourself. You’ve officially stopped caring so much about what you’re wearing anymore or even what hot new restaurant you’re checking into on Instagram. Forget all that because where you’re at doesn’t matter—what matters is who you’re there with. And that’s when you decide to bring the girls night out in.

While your traditions may get altered as careers and husbands and babies and life happen, the spirit of your GNO remains intact. A GNO is about building and nurturing the bonds you have with the important women in your life. Through all of your life changes, your girlfriends have been your constant. You support each other on your brave journeys, motivating one another through everything from husband problems to job stresses to dealing with the gravity of breast cancer. You elevate one another gracefully in a way that, frankly, us guys really don’t know how to do.

The Definition of Eating Well
The women I’ve worked with on planning their GNO have had vastly different dietary needs—some request to keep it light (yet still gourmet and locally-sourced), Keto-friendly, or vegetarian/vegan-friendly. Or, on the flip side I’ve had women want to give their girlfriends a night off from their diets too and make something really decadent. The three tenets of my business are 1.) pamper yourself, 2.) enjoy life, and 3.) eat well. Eating well doesn’t always mean eating healthy. Sometimes eating well means that if you and your girlfriends want to eat bread—I’m going to make sure you eat the best damn bread in the tristate. If you want lobster, I’ll fly it in fresh the same day from Maine.

You’re going to enjoy the best food at an At Home Chef party, but what I’ve come to learn is that a GNO isn’t about the food. It’s about support and empowering.

Last December I had the honor to cook for a group of women who have been gathering for their GNO every single year for the past 27 years. Since the day they graduated high school together, they’ve come back at least once a year and have been there for each other through whatever life brought them.

It struck me the night I was preparing their dinner that it’s definitely not a coincidence that my client and her girlfriends are all so successful in life. Bankers, lawyers, doctors, hairdressers—they all resonated the same theme, which was that supporting one another’s careers has made a key difference in their lives. For them, their GNO honors their bond of friendship in a way that helps them all soar, both professionally and personally.

Bringing the Girls Night Out In
That’s the kind of friendship I see over and again and it’s all because the GNO these women planned in their home with my company gave them a night to just talk with no worries of who’s driving with whom, who had too much to drink, where to park, or what time the dinner reservation is. You’re all there in one house together, there’s no clean up to worry about (because I do all that), and you can have as much wine as you want because you know going in that you can all spend the night.

In the age of social media, it’s so easy to occasionally send a DM or text to your besties and move on with your day. It seems like it’s enough—but deep down you know it’s not. You need those genuinely warm hugs; you need the fits of laughter; you need that closeness that can only be felt when you have a GNO.

If you’re considering where to hold your next GNO, why not do it at home? The At Home Chef can take care of all the details so you can focus on what’s important—supporting your girlfriends, helping one another do this life thing, and inspiring and empowering each other like the extraordinary women you are.

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