They may be doling out caviar toast, Maine lobster salad and jackfruit carnitas to patrons while on the clock, but off duty, chefs are just like the rest of us, reaching for pints of ice cream, handfuls of fried pork skin, and slabs of processed cheese to help cater to the hyper-specific guilty pleasures that pop up for them once a month — or twice a day.
For Wally Joe of Acre in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s fried chicken — but not from Gus’s World Famous or any other local institution in the Home of the Blues. “It may be a fast-food place, but you cannot go wrong with Popeye’s,” he says. “The flavor, the spices and the crunch are all consistent.” Joe’s cravings started early, when his parents would pick some up at either Popeye’s or KFC, spawning a fried fixing that has grown on the fitness-oriented chef over the decades. “I wish I could eat it every week, but it’s more likely once a month — if that,” he says.
He does, however, make more time for a different kind of vice: ice cream. “Throughout the week I will try to eat right, but ice cream is always on a Sunday night — I’ve got to have the ice cream on Sunday nights,” he says. His flavor picks range but are likely to include something with chocolate, peanut butter or caramel.
For Ed Kim, it’s the popular Ben & Jerry’s flavor Cherry Garcia. But the chef behind popular Chicago spots Mott Street and Ruxbin isn’t the kind of the guy to simply grab a spoon and eat straight from the carton. After filling a bowl, he tops it all off with salt and vinegar chips. “Most people love ice cream, and Ben & Jerry’s is a high-fat, really guilty one that’s comforting,” he says. “And with the potato chips you’re getting crunch and something super-salty, so it hits all of those beautiful guilty pleasure notes.”
Even more than the chips’ flavor, Kim credits the crunch factor for his obsession with the junk food. “I think we’re really hardwired to seek out fats, and we know that something crunchy is likely fried in fat,” he explains. “I could eat an entire bag of chips, and it’s mainly because of their texture.”
That crispy goodness is what reeled in Leah Cohen of New York City’s Pig & Khao at an early age. “My biggest guilty pleasure in life, which I’ve had to deal with, is potato chips — all types. I love chips,” she says. But their carb-fueled makeup has led the chef to find crunch in other forms — namely, the 10-spice chicharróns made in-house in her restaurant and served with a coconut vinegar dipping sauce. “I’ll reach into the container and be like, ‘Oh, I’m just taste-testing them,’ and then I’ll eat three more.”
Because the team scrapes off all of the fat on the super-airy, carb-free snack, Cohen doesn’t feel as shameful as she does when she exercises her other in-house habit: rice swipes. “Because I’m working in an Asian restaurant, rice is so readily available, and it’s what I have to fight off every day,” she says.
Eating rice twice a day was her routine for a while (with one of those times being staff meal), and it’s only natural — it was one of her main food groups growing up. “I was raised by an Asian mother and a Jewish father, and though we rarely had extra food around the house, rice was always available,” she says. “Now to have that at my beck and call is kind of an overload.”
Chef Tim Graham of Travelle in Chicago knows the feeling of cutting samples throughout the workday, and he does it most often with triple cream cheeses. “When we get a good Robiola into the restaurant, there’s a pretty good chance that only 66 percent of it gets sold,” he says. Though he’s always been a fan of cheese, it was Graham’s time at other Windy City restaurants that opened up his eyes, and his palate, to the many cultured possibilities out there. “Tru’s cheese cart introduced me to the world beyond processed cheeses, like St. Andre and Délice de Bourgogne — they’re like flavored butter.”
But not all chefs are after the high-end stuff. For chef Dakota Weiss of Estrella in West Hollywood, California, it’s always been about Boursin, that trademarked garlic and herb cheese spread that’s perfect for last-minute cocktail hours and post-shift snacks alike. “Whenever I’m hungry but don’t want to cook anything, I’ll just whip one of those out with some chips and go to town,” she says. The item has made such an impact on Weiss that she’s incorporated it into the menu of every restaurant she’s ever worked at, in dishes including burgers, pizzas, artichoke guacamole and, at Estrella, cauliflower hummus.
And while Weiss admits to dialing back a bit on the Boursin and American cheese (another favorite) from, say, 10 years ago, she still finds value in throwing caution to the wind every once in a while. “I feel sad for those who are so strict with what they eat, to the point where they beat themselves up for having the smallest bite of chocolate or a little extra butter on their toast,” she says. “You only live once, and food is a simple indulgence in life that is also extremely satisfying when we treat ourselves.”