Jay-Z's Kiwi chef spills the beans

By Amanda Linnell

He's responsible for keeping Jay-Z and Beyonce well sated and spends most of his career cooking around the globe, but chef Mike Shand is still essentially a humble Kiwi lad, as Viva discovers.

Chef Mike Shand enjoys living somewhere that's 'as good as being on holiday'. Photo / Babiche Martens
Chef Mike Shand enjoys living somewhere that's 'as good as being on holiday'. Photo / Babiche Martens

It's a sunny afternoon in the Hollywood Hills and Mike Shand is trying to look fresh for Viva's photographer. Shand is tired, dog tired. He flew into LAX this morning after a hell few weeks across country where he's been working "insane hours" consulting and "taking the food and beverage service up a notch" for the reopening of American rap star Jay-Z's 40/40 clubs in NYC and Atlantic City. This came on the back of the European leg of Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne tour. As personal chef for Jay-Z and his partner Beyonce, New Zealand-trained Shand lives the high life, travelling the world but loves nothing better than getting back to a hammock in his garden in West Hollywood. Shand chews the fat about his career as a personal chef to some of the world's biggest stars.

Chef to the stars. How did you get to where you are today?
Well, I wouldn't have had a chance if it wasn't for the amazing training and experience from chefs such as Michael James, Glen Dentice, Michael Meredith and Martin Bosley. Plus, a little of being in the right place at the right time, always helps.

Through a good friend and chef, Dwayne Bannerman, who I worked on Hayman Island with, I came across a company in London that was looking for chefs to cook on tours to do the catering for crews. So I gave it a crack and the first tour I went on was the Beyonce Experience Tour in 2007.

It was a lot of fun and as the "new guy" I was given a lot of support from fellow Kiwi chef Neil Smith (who is now opening the US's first Kiwi pie shop "Proper Pies" in Richmond, Virginia).

On that tour there was a crew of five chefs and two for front of house and the dressing room staff. As well as the breakfast, lunch and dinner duties for 150 crew, I was responsible for Bey's after-show meals and I guess things just went well from there.

By the way, I'm not sure why but that's the title that I resist the most "chef to the stars"; maybe it's just me.

What's the biggest challenge being on the road?
If I was to sum up most of my challenges in one word, it would definitely be "supermarkets". I just love it when I get back from my shopping to start prepping the next meal only to find that my driver/interpreter has led me completely astray. I think the funniest occasions were confined to Japan, Korea and China. I'm laughing just thinking about it. I'm in the kitchen all excited and cooking away like mad and then I turn to open what I think will be chickpeas and find it's some bizarre fishy product. So, yeah, the language barrier and the constant search for foreign substitutes for American staples.

Luckily I love to travel, so being on the road is great. I spend about 6-8 months of each year on the road which typically equates to a different city/country every two days and, as mad as it is, five years later I still love it.

What makes Mike Shand the chef, different to other chefs?
You'll hear me say this a lot, but just being humble enough and getting on with your business is a good way to be noticed. A lot of people feign attention and run round waving banners saying "notice me", which isn't always necessary, though it does have its place and time. I have to add that being a private chef for me, means letting go of your ego. Cooking privately, your whole aim is to cook to others' taste and be observant to their individual preferences. In the life of a private chef; adaptability, versatility and consistency are king.

How did you end up living in LA?
I've been here for a couple of years. Basically, If I'm at home it means I'm getting some time off, so I wanted to be somewhere that was as good as being on holiday. LA naturally wins that race because of its geography. The Pacific Coast Highway, proximity to Mexico, the Gulf and the Caribbean. It's one and half hours to good snow in winter, there's the beaches, the price tag on cost of living ... I could really go on and on to what attracted me to LA. It really has something for everyone. Oh, and did I mention the weather? As I write this I'm in my hammock in Franklin village, Hollywood, it's a perfect 25C, light breeze, cloudless. I also spent three years in Texas and the one thing I learned there was the true definition and skill of the barbecue: I embrace this at least twice a week by hosting dinners. You can't beat outdoor cooking.

Is LA a hard place to crack?
Only if you're an egg - of which there's no shortage, just like any city. It really depends on your approach. I think the best way to crack LA is to avoid popular tourist destinations and ask long-time locals where they go to the beach, to eat, to walk etc. If you come here unguided you'll more than likely see "tourist LA" which is just that. The traffic gets a bad rap, almost rightfully so, but if you plan around it, live with strategy and plot your residence and timing carefully the worst can be avoided.

Care to name-drop some of the celebrities you've worked with and share some of their culinary nuances?
Oh golly, here we go. I knew you were going to make me spill at some point. I've worked on tour with a bunch really, a lot of tour catering, then a handful of private gigs. Beyonce, Jay Z, Prince, Alicia Keys, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, to name the big guns.

I personally love the quirks and habits of celebs around food, it shows up how human we all are. We all have to eat right?

In all honesty, I think the foods most artists appreciate are comfort foods, the things Mum used to cook. I always make an effort to touch base with their childhoods to bring these kind of elements around every now and then. And I always love hearing from the mums about their recipes, any great chef can still learn from Momma's cookin'.

I love the constant battle celebs go through with naughty vs healthy eating. I love that when they (used very generally as this has been a typical observation of all people I know with private chefs) find something they love that is both nutritious and delicious; they'll wear it out.

What do you love about LA?
Where to start ... Firstly, I love New Zealand. But here it's the live music, the scenery, great access to fresh, local, organic, sustainable ingredients as well as the great imported and international fare. Southern Cali is definitely following in the wake of its northern counterpart in its environmental and health conscious aspects to modern dining.

What do you hate?
Well, I don't work a nine to five so the traffic is no bother. I do think people here get a little caught up in the BS of celebritism, trying to "make it" and all that nonsense. But I stay humble and you can avoid all the riff-raff with ease. I also despise the profession called mixology, mixologists and anything relating to those who care to use such a title undeserved. Practice humility. Blumenthal, Adria, etc still call themselves chefs.

What's your current favourite ingredient?
So many ingredients and I get to choose one? Although I love playing with additives and enhancers with a more scientific approach, it's just not me.

I'm not going to say butter even though it is chemically (alongside the egg) one of the most amazing ingredients in mother nature's supermarket. I've really been enjoying cultured buttermilk of late, I love it in baking as the acidic salts make it easier to use baking soda as opposed to the nasties in baking powder and the way the protein (casein) adds a rich body without fat. I also can't get enough of the southern buttermilk fry, dressings like variations of true ranch and even cheeses. Ask me again next week and the answer will be different. The beauty of cooking is exploring to capacity the limits and uses of each ingredient.

Please share your top culinary tip.
For all those aspiring home/hobby chefs: be brave, experiment, read exciting cookbooks, watch the food network and learn to be liberal with ingredients and keep it fun. It's the best way to be a better, more creative chef.

Also, perfectly executed simplicity will win hands down over poorly executed extravagance any day. I'm currently taking my masters in human science and human health so I'll give you my health tip. To lower salt use, increase your acidic values in food - finishing seafood, poultry and meats with citrus juices and vinegars is a great way to enhance flavours and help raise your digestive pH.

What are your pantry cupboard essentials?
You would gasp if you saw my overstocked cupboards. I would say my seasonings; Oils, vinegars, dry spices, salts etc. The joy of my travels is picking up amazing bits and pieces from all over the world.

How has living in California influenced how you cook?
Definitely the local farmers' market, farm-to-table affair has been a great influence, though I dare say, there's really a time and place for it, and that is not every day. Both the great division and serious mix of food culture here. It really is a city wide example of how to take traditional cuisines and give them the old American booster. Funk them up a little, you know what I mean, right?

Who would be your dream table of guests at your restaurant and why?
My mum and dad for sure, as they spoon fed me for so long it's always nice to return the favour. Definitely the before-mentioned chefs whom I hold in such high regard. I love hungry people, genuine educated food lovers ... no snobs. Anyone who's happy to sit down and appreciate food for what it is. Just that, food. And no one who's going to spend time talking about why it works for half an hour while it gets cold, just shut up and enjoy it. Bourdain for sure, the guy's a bloody champion.

What keeps you awake at night?
The constant night time entertainment here especially in regards to live music. That gives me the excuse to stay up (until 2am that is). But seriously; ideas... always thinking about new ways to make healthy food more delicious and delicious food more healthy.

When you're not in the kitchen what are you getting up to in LA?
Is the barbecue pit considered the kitchen? Nah, studying is a big part; I love taking long runs up through the canyons by my place, jumping over the occasional rattlesnake etc. But for real fun, beach volleyball, picnics with my mates, cold beers, wines, petanque, live music, cognac and cigars seem to occupy a good amount of my time.

MIKE'S LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Piano Bar
6429 Selma Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028, (323) 466-2750
My local for a good Nicaraguan rum and some live music. They have a couple of great acts every night, good service and a friendly, unpretentious crowd.

Fish King
722 North Glendale Ave, Glendale, CA 91206, (818) 244-2161
Where I get my fish, he's got a great selection and never sets me wrong with local and sustainable fish info. And it sure as hell beats getting up at 5am for the markets - that's what he does.

McCall's Meat & Fish Co
2117 Hillhurst Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027, (323) 667-0674
My butcher, both friendly and knowledgable. Great products and choices, and they'll get anything you can't.

Hama Sushi
347 East 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012, (213) 680-3454
If you like fish, rice and none of the glitter then these guys are it. Humble and perfect. Don't bother calling ahead, you just gotta wait it out. This is real sushi.

25 Degrees
7000 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90028, (323) 785-7244
The Roosevelt burger is the best burger I've ever eaten. And if you go poolside at the hotel they can bring you one out. Awesome hang out, great drinks and pretty people.

Cafe Gratitude
639 North Larchmont Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90004, (323) 580-6383
I love bringing people here for their first real raw meal, great prices, super-friendly staff and food that's real.

The Beachcomber at Malibu Pier
23000 Pacific Coast Highway Malibu, CA 90265, (310) 456-1661
Simple perfection, a great view and smashing cocktails..

- NZ Herald

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