What the Breakfast Bachelor Learned from Cooking for Strangers
True tales of a breakfast in bed chef
According to the New York Times, I was “The so-called Breakfast Bachelor.” I was a freelance brunch chef, and that was, in fact, the name I went by, thank-you-very-much. I started with a blog (don’t we all these days?) and I happened to get really good at poaching eggs and frying doughnuts and flipping pancakes at just the right moment. A dating site took notice and asked me if I’d work with them to create an experience for their already coupled couples, and so I became their resident “breakfast in bed” chef, serving up cocktail brunch spreads to lovebirds all over New York City.
They’d send me a name, a date, and an address, followed by a short list of keywords indicating my host’s meal preferences. By the weekend I’d be pulling up to an apartment building with a blue IKEA bag full of groceries over my shoulder, ready to cook breakfast for a pair of strangers.
Some struck the highest of home-cooked-brunch highs, while others hit such uncomfortable lows I thought I’d never live to make breakfast ever again. Others yet have factored into my nightmares. But for a few short months these unlikely companions were my whole life, and I came to appreciate each in their own unique way. Even if I am never, ever, ever catering brunch ever again.
Tudor City, Manhattan:
Keywords: Sugar, sweet, cold. In my translation, that meant doughnuts, pancakes, and a prosecco cocktail—a cloying combination to say the least. But Tudor City! A strange Manhattan neighborhood filled with skyrises shaped like Victorian homes! And the apartment number: Penthouse. Things were looking up.
But I’d neglected to buy a bottle of bubbly in advance, and as it turned out, liquor stores aren’t open in the morning. I showed up sweaty and champagne-less, a professional sham pressing “PH” on the elevator.
The doors slid open to a field of mauve: mauve walls; mauve furniture; mauve shag carpeting—all desperately in need of a deep clean. The couple rounded the bend. They could have benefited from a deep clean, too. I breathlessly apologized for the lack of bubbles and told them I’d run out and grab a bottle as soon as the shop opened. Luckily, they said they had one on hand. I felt a little embarrassed having failed on this front, but the sound of an old man yelling drifted in from somewhere in the apartment. Neither of them explained this, and I turned my attention to getting out of there as soon as possible.
I dug around the dated kitchen to find a frying pan, ultimately of the flaking Teflon sort, and a spatula, which was, I believe, pure silver, and etched with a fine floral filigree. I flipped pancakes while the old man continued yelling and I continued to nervous-sweat. When brunch was ready—pools of whipped cream melted off the too-hot pancakes and the doughnuts were sticky with a glaze that didn’t set—the couple pulled a two-liter bottle of Pepsi from the fridge and set it out on the table with their sparkling wine. The old man was still yelling. I put down their plates, threw my dirty equipment in my bag, and made a clumsy exit.
The girl who answered the door was clearly not 21. But she was pretty, probably 20, and wore thick black eyeliner and a backwards baseball cap. She gestured me inside with her phone in one hand before her girlfriend emerged from the bedroom, also probably 20, also in thick black eyeliner and a backwards baseball cap. The two of them sat at the dining table—which also happened to be the only piece of furniture in the place—and I got to work in the kitchen.
They asked me about my personal life like we were old friends. I neglected to ask how they managed to share a brand new luxury apartment in Queens and why there was no furniture except a dining table. They asked me my favorite gay nightclubs (I don’t have any) while I poached eggs and poured the prosecco, which they offered to share with me. By the time I left we were Facebook friends, though I never took them up on that night out.
Not only was I expected to show up at 6:45 on a Tuesday morning with a brunch spread ready to go, but somebody was allergic to eggs, so my pancake recipe wouldn’t fly, and somebody was pregnant, so my go-to cocktail was moot. I was only bringing home about thirty bucks a piece for these gigs, so I wasn’t exactly keen on special requests.
I arrived after spending a frustrating 15-minute cab ride regretting all of my life choices and effectively spending half my prospective paycheck. I was greeted by a quiet man whose family lived on the second floor of a brownstone, one child already off to daycare and a younger one asleep in the back room. The couple was kind and welcoming (and remarkably alert for 6:45 a.m.) and directed me to their tiny kitchen, which opened up into the living room through a wide window with a bar. They each took a seat on the opposite side, ready to watch me cook.
“Thank you so much for accommodating all of our crazy requests," the husband said to me. His wife chimed in, "With me allergic to eggs and the kids always needing something, I can't remember the last time I had a breakfast that wasn't instant oatmeal."
I realized that rather than nightmare clients, these clients were the dream: getting to make this pregnant woman with an egg allergy who finally had a moment of down time the best damn breakfast of her life. I started on the pancakes. My clove-syrup hot toddy was a beauty to behold even without the bourbon. Within the hour they had plates and mugs in front of them and I slipped out the door to the sound of satisfied sighs. I was a breakfast hero.
West Village, Manhattan:
Inside a garden apartment flush with warm wood tones, the defunct fireplace bore a mantelpiece bedecked with framed photographs. One caught my eye: two men embracing on Christopher Street, a rainbow flag unfurled behind them. My people!
And yet I realize this didn’t necessarily mean we had anything in common. The couple looked alike in that way young gay couples these days so often do (my own partner and I may also be guilty of this), and the man who greeted me showed me to the kitchen, just around the corner from the living room. He was joined by his partner, and they sat together at the dining table reading the paper, sending friendly questions over to me while I cooked. I reflected warmly on my own relationship while I slipped some pistachio doughnuts into the hot oil. Once cool, I dunked them in a clementine icing, one by one, comforted by the routine of it all. It was a thrill to feel this normal.
The couple had requested I go light on the bourbon since they were at a James Beard Awards event the night before, so I prepared their toddies with a touch less than usual. We had a brief exchange about jobs and pancakes and hair-of-the-dog, and I packed up my bags and left, with a mutual promise that I’d come cook for them again.
I drove home riding the wave of a fantasy, imagining that one day, they’d once again be indulging in slightly too much wine in the audience at the Beards, when a seeming stranger would be called up to accept an award, and they’d turn to one another and say, “that’s that breakfast guy!”
Murray Hill, Manhattan:
I felt like I’d done something wrong the moment I arrived. My typical enthusiastic greeting was cut short by a “SHHHHH” emitted through a crack in the door.
It was their anniversary, he told me, and his lady friend had no idea what was about to happen. He showed me the kitchen, pointed to a portable wooden tray, and exited quietly into the bedroom. That was it.
Alone in their kitchen, it dawned on me that this was what this service was supposed to be for! What were all these other people doing, ordering breakfast and arguing in the other room, talking to me, eating at tables. This was a romantic breakfast in bed! And in bed it was going to be!
I poked through all their drawers like a perfectly normal human would do, gleaning a bit about their culinary lives in the process. They had an immersion blender; they were doing just fine. I fried a hash of sweet potatoes, Serrano peppers, and Brussels sprouts, and topped each with a poached egg and hollandaise. I poured two glasses of prosecco with a splash of Chambord, and nestled the plates, glasses, and bottles on the tray.
But this is where my instructions had ended. What now? Was I supposed to knock? And then was I supposed to… go in? Or leave the tray by the door and scram so it all appeared to be a well-orchestrated illusion? I went with the former: I was greeted by a grinning man and a genuinely surprised woman still in her pajamas sitting up watching TV from the bed. I put down the tray over their blankets and told them happy anniversary and scooted right on out, closing the door behind me. Squeals of joy ensued. Mission accomplished.