Profile: Personal Chef Margarita Paiewonsky
Margarita Paiewonsky is a very good cook. A few weeks ago—in her calm, modern kitchen in Eagle Rock, California—she made us sturdy espressos and talked about how she became a personal chef.
She was born in the Dominican Republic, in a family of European lineage, and grew up eating wonderful food, a combination of Italian and Caribbean cuisines—rice, beans, fresh herbs, stews with plantains, yams and malanga—always made from scratch.
“We would roast a whole suckling pig on the beach every summer, and all my aunts, uncles and my grandparents would come,” Margarita said. “My grandfather was a fantastic cook; he immigrated from Italy and made his own cheese, pasta and bread.” They had family pizza nights, a whole-day affair with every family member pitching in with prepping the toppings. “As a little girl, I was a finicky eater, but pizza was my favorite, and I loved grating the cheese for it.”
When Margarita was 36 years old, she moved to New York City to be with her girlfriend—and now wife—Veronica. Till then, she worked as an editor and didn’t think much about food. But her sister suggested she try cooking school after she had success overcoming an illness by changing her diet.
Margarita went to the Natural Gourmet Institute, a holistic culinary school in New York, and immediately liked it. “It was great—like a whole universe just opened up for me,” she said. Stints in health food restaurants followed after graduation, first on the East Coast, and later in L.A., after she and Veronica relocated.
The prospect of creating her own recipes—mostly whole-food-based, gluten-free, anti-inflammatory, sugar-free and Caribbean-inspired—and being the only cook in the kitchen led to her current gig as a personal chef. “I enjoy the whole process very much: get the ingredients, cook the meals, vacuum pack them, and personally deliver them to my clients.”
Age 54 — Hometown Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic — Where do you live? Los Angeles — Occupation Welness Consultant/Personal Chef — Signature dish Pasteles en hoja. This is a quintessential Dominican comfort food. Pasteles are similar to tamales in that they are made of masa and a filling of choice. There are as many pasteles recipes as there are Dominican cooks and I have developed a pretty good recipe with the ingredients I can source in L.A. I make my masa with malanga, green bananas and green plantains, and the filling with ground beef. The pasteles are then wrapped in banana leaves (or parchment paper) and boiled. — Who taught you how to cook? I went to a cooking school. When I moved to the U.S., I was at a loss in the kitchen, and quickly realized I had to learn to cook if I wanted to eat healthy. So I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute and fell in love with cooking. But cooking takes practice and I have to credit recipe books and cooking magazines for a lot of what I now know. — Favorite kitchen tool Hard to pick just one. My Wusthof 6-inch chef knife — Always in your pantry Best olive oil and balsami vinegar I can afford, and Herbamare seasoning salt—I'm hooked on that stuff. — Go-to snack I normally don't snack. On occasion I might have some smoked oysters on plantain chips with homemade cucumber pickles. — Favorite cuisine Just about all Asian cuisines. — Do you diet? Not really, though these days I no longer eat wheat. — Food addictions Wheat — Food allergies None unless you count wheat. — Food fad pet peeve Obsession with ingredients that are marketed as must-haves for your health, especially when they come from abroad at the expense of other people's source of nutrition, e.g. quinoa — Who’s your sous chef? My wife, but it's mostly an honorary title. — Drinking while cooking? Yes! Dinner might take a little longer but it's so much more fun. — What’s for dinner tonight? Roasted sweet potatoes with miso butter, ragu Bolognese, roast Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and balsamic vinegar — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? No — Best meal you ever had Chinese meal in a Shenzhen restaurant picked by a local friend. Every dish was incredibly fresh and tasty. Even the dessert was outstanding.
Braised Beef Casserole With Mushrooms, Green Beans and Malanga
This show-stopping, luxe casserole is composed of five different layers: feathery, braised beef that melts on your tongue; earthy, herby mushrooms; crunchy, silky green beans; subtly sweet root purée doused with cream and butter; and melted mozzarella. Each plays a key role in the exquisite final taste and texture.
The prep time is a bit longer, especially for the beef—after all, it needs to break down to develop its texture, and that takes at least two hours—but pretty easy once you get going.
Malanga is a starchy root vegetable with brown, leathery skin. It is a common ingredient in South American and Caribbean cooking, and one of Margarita’s favorites. You can find it in ethnic markets in the United States.
- Serves 6–8
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 pounds boneless chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 small yellow onion, peeled, diced
- 2 carrots, peeled, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 cup beef broth
- 1 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, diced, juice preserved
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 pounds white mushrooms, sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 teaspoon dry thyme
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- Green Beans
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ yellow onion, peeled, sliced lengthwise
- 1 pound green beans, trimmed, cut into 1-inch slices
- 2 tablespoons water or beef stock
- Malanga Purée
- 2 pounds malanga, peeled, diced
- ½ pound potatoes, peeled, diced
- 3 tablespoons butter, melted
- ½ cup milk or half-and-half, heated
- ½ pound mozzarella
- Prepare the beef. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Salt and pepper the meat on all sides. Heat the oil on high heat in an oven-proof pot or Dutch oven. Brown the meat in batches on all sides. Transfer to a plate. Add the onion, carrots and celery to the pot, and sauté until soft. Stir in the garlic and bay leaf, and add the red wine. Deglaze the pot and add the broth, and the tomatoes. Mix well, cover with a lid, and braise in the oven until fork tender, about 3 hours.
- Prepare the mushrooms. Heat the oil in a medium-size pan on medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, garlic and thyme; sauté, stirring often, until soft. Add the wine, and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Prepare the green beans. Heat the oil in a medium-size pan on medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add the green beans and water or beef stock, and sauté, stirring frequently, until soft. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Prepare the purée. Place the malanga and potatoes in separate medium-size pots, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Add one teaspoon salt to each pot, cover partially with a lid, and simmer until soft. Drain the cooked malanga and potatoes, and combine in a bowl. Add the butter and milk, and mash with a potato masher until smooth. Season with salt to taste and set aside.
- Prepare the casserole. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the beef evenly over the bottom of a 9x13-inch casserole dish. Layer with the mushrooms, followed by the beans. Top with the malanga purée and mozzarella cheese, and bake in the oven until it is bubbly and the cheese has melted and is beginning to brown, about 30 minutes.