By March, William Bloxsom-Carter will have been executive chef and food and beverage director at Los Angeles’ Playboy Mansion for 25 years. The chef and his staff of 18 are responsible for not only feeding Playboy Enterprises Inc.’s Hugh Hefner and residents of his home, but also guests at a private hotel, a corporate fine dining room and corporate and charity events every year.
He is scheduled to participate in two seminars at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference & Exposition on Aug. 1 as a guest celebrity chef.
Q: What led you to your current position?
A: I started cooking back in 1979, after I graduated from college with a degree I didn’t feel comfortable with, working in a couple small little restaurants on the East Coast. I sort of enjoyed it, and one of the chefs there asked me, if I was going to take this career seriously, would I like to train under a master French chef. I worked for this chef for over two years and traveled through Europe as part of his chef’s brigade.
I moved to California in the 1980s, and it was kind of like I’d hit the lottery as far as fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, chickens. Even back in 1980, there was a real trend of farm-to-table type mindset out here in California. That really was enlightening for me, and I jumped in with both feet.
I went to work at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades probably in 1983 as the banquet chef and I tried to introduce more fresh items to their banquet operation. I was met with a little bit of frustration, so I went to work for a restaurant out in Malibu called Beau Rivage, which is still open today. It’s a wonderful Mediterranean-style restaurant.
I feel that the Mediterranean influence, coupled with the bountiful fresh produce and meats and fish that we’re accustomed to here on the Pacific Coast, it really drove me a little bit further. I responded to a blind LA Times (classified ad) back in probably late 1985, and I interviewed with Playboy. It took four interviews over six weeks to be offered the position, but after the second interview I really wanted it because I could see where the potential was to be cooking not only for Mr. Hefner, but for all the guests from around the world that come to the Playboy Mansion every year. Some may say, “Oh my gosh, 25 years in one place.” Well, you’re only as good as your last meal. I’m always growing, I’m always creating new things, trying new things.
That’s where my vendors come in. My vendors are my partners. What I mean by that is my produce people, my farmers that raise my chickens, my cattle from up in Northern California, also in Oregon, as well as my fish people out here on this side of the Pacific Ocean, as well as in Hawaii and in Japan and Alaska for that matter. I’ve really been able to hit a bountiful basket here and take it in stride and go with it. So 25 years may seem like a long time to some people, but to me it seems like yesterday. It’s a big sandbox that Mr. Hefner lets me play in and I get to create all these wonderful foods.
Q: What is a typical day like? What kinds of things do you do?
A: When I first get into work I’m checking inventories. We’re inventory-driven — we do not have a set menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner at all for our guests. What we do is we try to grab seasonality, things of the moment, things that are delicious, that are eating well, availabile. After reviewing inventories and touching down with some of my other chefs I then meet with the general manager, go over some of the things that are happening that day, then usually slip right into cooking for our corporate dining room. We have a private dining room where execs from our New York, Chicago and Beverly Hills offices come in and have meals with their clients, and that’s where we do some very upscale stuff.
In the afternoon I’m constantly writing menus, and probably around 4-4:30 I do some exploratory reading. I want to look at some new trends that are coming on, see what’s working. I also talk daily (to suppliers). Ironically — and this is a point I would like to make — e-mail has made our world smaller, and to that affect a lot of time vendors will say, well, you can order online or you can do this, or you can e-mail that, but I’ve got to tell you, with my produce, it’s so important to articulate what you want and how you want it and finding the right produce supplier to be able to do that with.
Q: How do you source produce?
A: I work with Melissa’s (World Variety) Produce. I’ve worked with them exclusively for the last three years and they really understand it. When I call up and I have a question about something or I’m looking for something new, they’ll reach out to their suppliers and try to get me a sample on it within 24 hours, 36 hours or so. They understand they are there to make me look good. There is no substitute for fresh, and they understand it completely.
Right now I’m working with them on some great stuff coming up into the summer. We’re starting to see some new items coming online, meaning like tomatoes are starting to eat a little better now, we’re getting some exotic fruits from the South Pacific coming in. We’ve had some great Hatch chilis from the Southwest here, we’ve gotten some different types of exotic fruit, so it’s a very exciting time when I have a partner like that, and I look forward to going into work and knowing that I’m going to be talking to them and being able to deal with them.
We (also) have a farmers market in my little village called Oak Park, Calif., and I go there. There’s also a huge farmers market in Santa Monica, and I typically go on Wednesday mornings on my way into work. It’s nice to be able to walk the stalls, so to say, and look at what evverybody has to offer. That also gives me some good ideas. I establish relationships.
Q: Are you a proponent of the local movement?
A: Yes, I am very much, and I practice that to a certain degree on a day-to-day basis at the Mansion. I like that farm-to-table type mindset. Although it’s a trend that’s really been picking up some traction the last three or four years, it’s something I really embrace. When I’m up in Sonoma County, I’m meeting with my mushroom farmer. When I’m in Ontario and Riverside County I’m meeting over there with my apple people, I’m meeting my stone fruit people, my potato people and also my carrot people. So I have different farms I’m highlighting and using their product on a day-to-day basis at the Playboy Mansion.
Q: What produce item or items do you find yourself turning to most often?
A: I go through phases. Right now I’m going through onions — there are these torpedo red onions. They’re grown here, but they’re similar to what you would find in Italy. They’re torpedo shaped, they’re red, a little bit different, different cell structure going on, so I’m enjoying those right now. I’m also enjoying some fruits from Southeast Asia, the rambutans, different types of bananas, things like that going on. The colored cauliflowers are really fun to serve.
I’m going through another trend right now with microgreens. I’m revisiting those. I’m using the pea shoots, popcorn shoots, and bulls blood microgreens right now because it’s lighter fare. It’s really hot here in southern California, so I want to offer my guests lighter things. When I roll into the winter I’m really nuts about beets. I love beets, I love different types of beets.
Radishes is another thing I like to play with — to offer those unusual types of radishes. Also, small lettuce greens. I like to play with different styles of small little lettuce greens. They call them baby lettuces, but I don’t like the word baby because I don’t serve baby food. But the smaller miniature-type lettuces, I like to use those, as well as things like dandelion greens, baby arugula — there I go, I’m using the word baby again. The arugula has that nice pepper flavor in the mouth right now. Something like that with a nice little lemon vinaigrette on it with maybe a seared sea scallop next to it, taking some carrots, juicing them and making some sort of a carrot juice to go on one side of the plate — those are the kinds of things I’m creating right now with my team of chefs.
I have 18 chefs around the clock, 24 hours a day. Most people realize that Mr. Hefner lives at the Playboy Mansion, but what they don’t realize is that it is a corporate owned hotel, so we have guests coming in from all ove the world every day, and one of my responsibilities is to showcase the fresh produce, fish and meats from the area. So getting back to that fresh farm to the table mindset, that’s what I’m driving everyday.
Q: What produce items are favorites at the Mansion?
A: Mr. Hefner really enjoys his star ruby grapefruit. He has that everyday. He enjoys corn on the cob and fresh English peas when they’re in season.
I’d have to say that asparagus is very, very popular with the guests. Also fresh corn on the cob, which in California we get it all the time. As far as fruits are concerned they enjoy papayas, Mexican papayas, mangoes, strawberries — can’t get enough strawberries — blueberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, honeydew. Sometimes we use the Persian melons when they’re in season. That’s one of my personal favorites. And we work with a lot of different types of apples and pears, as well. And I like the Asian pears, those are very unique and I enjoy offering those to the guests.
Q: What is your favorite thing to eat for yourself and your family?
A: I enjoy tomatoes both raw and cooked — sometimes cooked whole, the smaller-size tomatoes. I enjoy roasted cauliflower with a little bit of garlic in there and then a little bit of black pepper. When you pull it out of the oven and you put it on the plate just finely grate a little bit of Spanish cheese called manchego, that’s really tasty on top of that.
I’m kind of old school, I like hearts of romaine. I eat a lot of salads at home. Also, one of my favorites is golden beets. I love roasting those, cooling them down, slicing them and then making a little arugula salad and then put the beets around it and drizzle some balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil on top of it, and that to me is a perfect little salad with a glass of white wine.
Q: What has changed in your years at the Mansion? What are some of your accomplishments in your time there?
A: I would say my proudest shining moment is to offer the guests a switch from a static menu over to a fresh menu with things that are sensibly prepared, things that are not overly rich with fats, and foods that are seasoned very delicately. That’s my idea of what a chef should do, that you tap into your skills to create with what’s available in front of you at the moment. That’s what we do, how I lead my chefs everyday. We go in, we’re writing our menus, we’re walking our refrigerators, looking at the availability, we’re getting the reports from Melissa’s (World Variety Produce), and from there we’re creating the food to make everybody look good — to make the farmer look good, to make us look good, and for the guest experience — because ultimately at the end of the day, it’s the guest experience that counts. If they have a great meal, that means we have succeeded in offering them that guest experience that Mr. Hefner requires.
Most chefs, when you interview them and you say to them what is your most expensive item, what is your biggest bill coming in the back door on the loading docks, most chefs will say, well, it’s my fish or it’s my meats. But I studied it very carefully years ago and it’s really my produce that’s my largest invoice. The reason being is because you’re looking for fresh items, things that are available, the seasonality the availability of it, and I think the trend in California has always been to eat healthy.
Q: What is your approach to cooking? What sets you apart as a chef?
A: What sets me apart is that I do not trick out the food. I want the food to be prepared naturally with minimal fussiness. I don’t make fussy food, I think that’s what separates me from some of the other chefs. If I have a tomato that I take off the vine and I wash it and I bite into it and it tastes like an apple, it tastes great, that’s what I need to transpire to the guest, that they’re getting that same great tomato that the farmer worked so hard on. So to me, I don’t make fussy food. I make food that’s prepared with minimal fuss and repsented and showcased best on the plate in its natural state.
I’m very, very passionate about food, about cooking it correctly, about making sure that the guest is enjoying the food, and taking things in new directions.
(For example), there is a little thing I’m not presenting up at the convention, and this is called a watermelon quadrata. I just served it the other night and it was the perfect thing to serve. This is what I meant earlier about menus and having non-static menus. When it’s 100 degrees here the guests want something cool and refreshing, so I created this little hors d’oeuvre. You take watermelon and you cut the meat into little rectangles, about two inches long, and inch tall and an inch wide, and you just drizzle a little bit of balsamic over it, and then a little bit of feta cheese. That’s what it’s all about. It’s so much fun to do things like that and create. It’s an experience for the guest who’s enjoying the food and it’s an experience for me, knowing that I created something that was seasonally correct. And I’ve got to tell you, yellow watermelon is eating great right now. It’s a lot of fun to do something like that.
Q: Any tricks up your sleeve for produce preparation?
A: I have found that when cooking, well, there are a couple tricks. It depends on what approach you’re taking to your vegetables. There are so many different ways to do it. I really enjoy roasting vegetables and serving them immediately with fresh herbs in there. I don’t think that chefs use enough herbs to compliment the vegetables they’re cooking.
One of the things I emphasize — at the Playboy Mansion we carry over 20 different types of herbs in our day-to-day basis, so I like to use those herbs to compliment the vegetables when I’m working with them. For instance, when I’m roasting cauliflower, I’m going to add some fresh lemon thyme to that dish, and like I mentioned earlier, a little bit of some just slightly crushed garlic cloves. For steaming vegetables — I really don’t steam vegetables, I blanch vegetables in salty water and then I refresh them under ice water, and when I refresh them under the ice water, I put a little bit of salt in the refreshing water so that you can maintain the color, but also the flavor. Then we will slightly reheat them later on for service, so that’s something that I do. You have to always check your seasoning. A lot of people tend to either over season or under season, and it’s one of those things you have to monitor closely and vigilantly when you’re working with vegetables, fish, meats, very important.
For fresh fruits, you should be prepared to let them ripen a little bit more before you serve them to the guests. I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve traveled and stayed in hotels, the fresh fruit is inedible because it’s so under ripe. So, I think that just taking the extra time to ripen fruit is very important. It’s part of, again, that guest experience.
Q: Have you been to the PMA Foodservice convention before, and what are you looking forward to?
A: No, I have not, actually, this is my first time. I’m really looking forward to it. First of all, working with the students from Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America, the students that will be helping me prep on Saturday for my demonstration on Sunday. I enjoy working with students. They are the next generation and I feel very important handing over the (torch), so to say, to them for them to carry on forward to grow hospitality greater than what it is today. Those students are the scholarship students that are there.
Then also walking the convention floor, so to say, and looking to see what else people have to offer there. So I’m excited about that, as well. Monterey is a beautiful area and I’m very happy that I have an opportunity to attend up there. The opportunity, all the restaurants up there, and of course the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a wonderful place to visit, as well, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a nice break for me.
We’ve been extremely busy at the Playboy Mansion with charity and corporate events and I was very lucky that we didn’t have anything booked that Saturday. Then, of course, my presentation on (Aug. 1), so I’m looking forward to that and sharing with everybody some of the things that our guests at the Playboy Mansion enjoy. It’s a wonderful opportunity and I’m honored that I was asked to come up and do the demonstration, to present and share with the visitors some of the things that our guests enjoy at the Playboy Mansion.