Lily Chait April 2024

Photos by Emma K. Morris (left) and Nate Zack (right)

Obviously we are friends and I didn't have to do any research about your life, but it's really fun to learn more in detail and share it with the world! Also my mom recently got our home movies digitized and there's footage of you and your brother! It’s very special to realize we've known each other for our entire lives and now we're on parallel career paths.

It's so cool. It's amazing!

So, tell me about where you grew up and what you grew up eating.

I grew up in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. My parents met at an Erewhon.

No! How did I not know that?

Yeah, it's cooler now than it was then.

I feel like it was cooler then.

Yeah, maybe it's better then. But I have gotten jobs from from telling people that my parents met there, it’s a funny little thing. My dad spent a lot of his life in the macrobiotic community, so there were undertones of that in the house. My mom made every dinner for us and our favorite food was arugula pasta. It was a big pot of pasta with handfuls of arugula, tomatoes, and Parmesan. An easy, fresh, Mediterranean vibe.

Cali energy.

Yeah major Cali energy. I remember as a kid going to Erewhon and getting these lollipops that were sweetened with brown rice syrup instead of sugar.

Can you tell me exactly how your parents met?

My dad was working in LA as an acting teacher.

Which is how my mom met your parents. When my mom was an actress, she took your dad’s class!

Yes, exactly. So and my mom had just moved to LA from Kansas and she went into a diner to ask about a waitressing job. At the diner they asked if she had any serving experience. She was like “Yeah I have all this experience in Kansas.” And they were like, “No, do you have any serving experience in Los Angeles?” And obviously she didn’t so they told her to go to the grocery store right behind the diner and that was Erewhon! So she got a job there. My dad came in every day for lunch because he was working around the corner teaching classes. My mom gave him soup samples each day even though she wasn't supposed and then he asked her out. She was 23 and he was 40.

Wow. What did she think?

I think he invited her to a showcase he was working on. So she went and saw it and then they had coffee after. They said they both felt like they had known each other forever.

That’s a really good meet-cute.

I know. It's the ultimate meet-cute, my mom was literally fresh off the boat from Kansas.

Yeah. It's also very LA.

Totally, an acting teacher and a health food store employee.

You should try to get a free membership at Erewhon.

I know I’m like you guys, I'm basically the poster child!

So how did you start cooking?

I've always been obsessed with food and cooking. As a kid I watched a lot of Food Network and I remember in my history class, I would remember when we were talking about the diets of different cultures. That is what my brain has always been attracted to. I would cook at home and make dinner for my mom and her friends. I was always doing it.

And then you started doing supper clubs in college.

Yeah. I was debating going to culinary school or going to college. But I didn't meet my people in high school and I knew I could connect with people more like me at a liberal arts college. So that was a big motivator and I ended up going to Oberlin instead of culinary school. When I was there, I wanted to find a way to incorporate my food interests into my life. So yeah, I did supper clubs and I had a food talk show on the radio station.

I forgot about that! I remember listening to it.

That’s so sweet of you. That was really fun and allowed me to be seen in the space of someone who was interested in food which I find a lot of value in, being identified with food in community. Then I did stages during school breaks.

I remember you worked at that restaurant in France that Ratatouille was based on.

Yeah, La Tour D’Argent, they claim to have invented the fork but I'm like, how?

The fork?

The fork! It can't be true. And then in LA I worked at Lucques one winter term during college and at Mozza in high school.

What a resume! So when did you go to Esalen? Was that after college or during college?

Lily at Esalen!

It was during college. I went there after my freshman year of college. I put so much pressure on finally feeling free and open at college because I wanted something drastically different from my high school experience, but at the same time it was still kind of similar to high school in that everyone was young and all figuring our things out. So I was really attracted to the liberal open vibe that Esalen ended up providing. I went there for a month after my freshman year and then made friends there and I ended up going back every break from college to work in the kitchen.

And how do you feel like that influenced the way you cook now and your approach to food?

It felt very familiar to me. The way they were cooking there felt similar to how we cooked at home. But it was using my skill set of cooking to then be open to this community. I learned so much about myself and how to communicate; it felt like a real schooling. We had a farmer on the property who was 100 ft from the kitchen delivering the freshly washed kale and carrots, and so many other beautiful things with the soundtrack of the ocean behind. It was 10 of us working in the kitchen just stripping kale for an hour, talking and laughing and having the best time. It was so nice. And when I was working in Paris, I felt like, this is hell. That kind of kitchen is so militant and just felt the opposite of what I think food should do, even in the making of it. And at Esalen everything felt very aligned. The environment that we made the food in, was as much about the food as it was about the whole experience of making it. And that feels really important to me in my business now too. I always want to create an environment in which nourishment in energy and nourishment in food are both important.

Wow I feel exactly the same way. So can you tell me about working at Chez Panisse? How was that kitchen different from the kitchen in France and Esalen? Was it sort of a combination of the two or just its own thing?

It was very much like its own thing. So I had gone to Martha’s Vineyard and worked for a catering company there and realized I never wanted to work in a restaurant again. I loved catering, it felt like putting on a show every day and that was really appealing to me. But I also always had Chez Panisse in the back of my head as the only restaurant I would ever work at, which is a really obnoxious thing to say.

I mean, I actually feel that way too about Chez. But I also don't think I'll ever work in a restaurant again.

Yeah, it's so intense.

It's so intense, you make no money, and you have no life and I’m just past the point of wanting to sacrifice my life for work.

Totally. I mean it's such a lucky thing to be able to do that. I feel the same way. And so Chez was always in the back of my head but I didn’t think I’d ever get a job there and if I did, I’d have to commit my life to it. Up until that point I had been living very nomadically; I had never signed a year lease or anything. I was always feeling pulled back to Big Sur or LA. But then I went to Martha's Vineyard and all these doors opened to me in the Bay Area, which is ironic. The owner of the company that I worked for there was friendly with Alice Waters. I also connected with a family who had a summer house there but lived in San Francisco – they told me they’d hire me once a week if I moved to the Bay, so it just seemed like an ideal scenario. Also coincidentally a year prior I went to Chez Panisse for dinner with my dad for my birthday and I ran into my friend Rosie who was working there as a server. It was her second day working there! So fast-forward to after that summer in Martha’s Vineyard, I put together the whole resume and sent it to my old boss from the catering company she sent it to Alice Waters. But because so many people send things to Alice Waters it kind of got lost in the shuffle. So I told my friend Rosie and she put in a good word for me. Then, it just so happened that they were hiring two new cooks. And so I went in for a trial day and then I got a job as a prep cook there.

Lily at Chez!

I remember you came to my mom's Hanukkah party after you had gotten the offer!

It was really wild because it felt like this thing that I had only dreamed of. It was so monumental. So I put so much stress on myself even though it was such an inviting kitchen in many ways. But I wanted to do everything perfectly but when you do that in the kitchen, you just mess everything up.

And then you beat yourself up even more.

So it was three months working really hard and putting so much pressure on myself and then the pandemic hit. So then Chez pivoted to doing take out and then work felt kind of like summer camp and it was so fun. We all became close and I was able to take the pressure off myself. And even though I don't work there now, I’ll sometimes fill in for a shift or I’ll go eat there, I feel very much part of that community. Everything is just so beautiful there. Going back to what we were talking about nourishment in energy and food but doing it on the scale that they do is so inspirational.

I mean, it's the reason they have such a legacy.

Yeah totally. They prioritize the familial space and really delicious food, that's the most important thing. It's really special.

As your friend, it’s clear that the Bay Area has really been your happiest place. I can tell that you've really hit your stride, not just with your work, but with your friendships. I want to know how that community has changed your life.

I always felt that like the Bay would be the place that I could only move to when I was ready to settle. I knew that it would give me a lot.

How did you know that?

Well, it felt like I was living two existences in LA and in Big Sur. They felt very separate and it was disorienting. And I felt like the Bay Area was a middle ground between those two environments. My community was at Esalen and at college, but I noticed that there were all these young people doing cool stuff with food in the Bay and I hadn’t tapped into that community yet. So moving to the Bay and being lucky enough to get a job at Chez just opened this community of people that are kind, into food and fun. I just feel so seen by my friends here in a way that I hadn't felt before. We’re all very encouraging of each other which is important especially with freelance work because it can quickly become competitive and weird. But we’re always supporting and lifting each other up. I feel very lucky, And then also the nature up here! It’s just a nature food party.

I love hearing this! It makes me so happy.

I'm so privileged to be able to live the life that I do. With school and college it felt really hard to do the things that I wanted to do. But with food, ever since I started with an internship at Mozza, doors just started opening, one after another. So it’s always felt like there’s a flow and that this is what I'm supposed to be doing.

And you had some really crazy doors open to you in the last two years when you went on tour with Phoebe Bridgers.

I know it’s really crazy.

I don't know how much you're allowed to tell me, but, tell me anything you can! I’m so curious. Do you think you'll do it again?

Maybe? Yeah, so Varun, the general manager at Chez Panisse is friends with Phoebe's tour manager. One day he texted me, “Are you a fan of Phoebe Bridgers? And at that time, I wasn’t particularly but I said yeah, why not? He told me Phoebe’s tour manager had reached out to see if he might know someone who would want to go on the road with them and cook for the whole summer. He asked if he could give them my information. Varun has a knack for feeling into jobs and placing them with the perfect people. I've heard of other people who’ve had their whole lives change because he just thought of them. And that’s what happened to me. So then it was three days of talking to the tour manager and learning all of these similarities between mine and Phoebe’s lives. It would be like, “well this is how I cook,” and the manager was like “oh, well, that's actually how she eats.”

Oh my god wow.

It all really aligned in this crazy way. So that was in 2022 and then we were on the road for 3 and half months. After that call, I think I left a week and a half later. It was a pretty spontaneous decision and I was really lucky that my friends were able to take on events that I was scheduled for and that my clients are the kindest people ever. They were just excited for me and I was able to pause all my projects and come right back into them which I was scared about.

That all sounds so synchronous.

It really was. They had never had a chef on the road and I had obviously never been the chef on the road, so there was definitely a learning curve for all of us. It was total whirlwind experience, really hard, really fun, and extreme.

I mean you left a week and a half after you got the offer. That's extreme, no time to really process the decision.

I know. I feel like because I went back on tour with Boy Genius last summer and there's no tour this summer, I’m finally able to settle back here in the Bay. I’m still kind of reeling from the last two years of go, go go. When I came home from both tours I said yes to all the events that I possibly could, to be present here and to maintain my business. So it’s been a little crazy how much I was working and now I’m easing back into routines like being in nature, swimming in the ocean, things like that. But reflecting on that experience, I’m so grateful for the people I got to work with. The whole team of people that I went on the road with are the kindest, most generous, and open people. I've been asked if I would cook for other tours and I feel like I have lucked out to an extreme and it would be hard to work with a different crew.

What is your favorite thing you made on the road for them? And what was their favorite thing?

Oh that’s a fun question. My friend Emily is in the band and we talk a lot. She says the chicken I made on the first day was her favorite thing because there was no expectation. We were at Red Rocks in Colorado and I had no idea what to expect. They brought me to where I was cooking for that day and it was a dressing room. I was butchering chickens in there. The guy who's on Phoebe’s team was like “you know, there've been thousands and thousands and thousands of shows here and I guarantee you, you are the first person to butcher a chicken in this dressing room at Red Rocks.”

You’re a real pioneer. Wait, what was the chicken though?

Oh, I don't even fully remember. I think it was maybe yogurt marinated chicken with warming spices and then I usually do charred caramelized onion on top and try to get the skin nice and dark which is not so easy to do in a dressing room.

Yeah oh, my God. That sounds like a good first meal.

I made so much fish, everything smelled like fish all the time. And I made a lot of rice and noodle bowls and things like that because it was kind of a marathon. When I tried to be experimental or try new things, no one would really eat it.

It didn’t hit.

Yeah, they all just wanted nourishment. Like, we’d try the special pastry from the region we were in, but when you're fueling up to have a long work day it's a different mindset. But yeah I made lots of almond meal chocolate chip cookies, lots of gluten free, dairy free, sugar free things, that kind of vibe.

Where did you get the equipment to cook in all these different places?

We traveled with road cases that had a little oven and induction burners. So I would set up a little kitchen each day with those road cases and some tables. We didn't always know how much power was required at each venue so we adjusted as we went. But it was really difficult to get the right amount of power, so it was more guerilla style. Other chefs who are on the road can show up to a venue the day before with a kitchen trailer and have a team. But it was just me and these road cases and I was traveling on the bus with everyone.

And what about finding ingredients? Were you doing research about that stuff while you were on the road?

So in the States the venue would shop for me. I would send a grocery list to them in the same way an artist or performer will do with a rider. Sometimes I would get the ingredients and everything was perfect and amazing. And sometimes it would be like someone who has never cooked and didn’t know how to shop. So instead of five bunches of carrots, I get five bags of baby carrots.

Oh god.

That kind of vibe. But then in Europe on the Phoebe tour I would do the shopping. So I would get to the venue and then take a taxi to the grocery store which was really wild. But then last year with Boy Genius in Europe, we had the venues shop for me.

Wow, that’s a real one of a kind experience.

Truly, really wild.

Did you get to watch the shows?

Yes, I tried to watch the shows every night. Especially on hard days where it felt like everything was going wrong, seeing what a transformational thing it is for the kids who come to the concerts was special. They would all be standing in the front row having the best night of their lives and it all felt worth it. It's really powerful to see and feel that energy. And for everyone else on the crew it was their busiest time during the show. But I could have done the whole tour and never seen the show because that wasn’t part of my job, I think it's really important to experience everything though. It’s sort of like seeing the diners eating at a restaurant when you’ve spent your whole life in the kitchen.

You’re interacting with the whole process.

And it's like that with private cheffing too. You’re able to be outside and inside the kitchen which is I think part of my attraction to that too.

So how's it going with all your clients right now?

It's so good. It’s a little mellower in the beginning of the year, so I’m re-envisioning some things and trying to figure out what the next thing is. But I feel like I've been teetering on burning out so it's been nice also to just have fun and relax and let myself do that. How’s it going with your clients and work in LA?

Things are pretty good here and I'm feeling more connected to the food community. I've been making intentional dates with chef friends who I haven't seen in a while and checking in. So that's feeling nice; it can be hard to really connect with chef friends when you're working together.

Love it.

Love it on your end too. Well, I like to end my interviews by asking people what is something that you’re cooking right now that is exciting you.

Oh I love this question. I'm really feeling spring, I want everything green. I just learned about swamp soup.

What’s that?

That private chef girl, Wishbone Kitchen makes this soup with chicken broth and spinach. You cook the spinach in the broth and then you take it out and you blend it with jalapenos, ginger, garlic, cilantro and parsley and then you pour it back in the chicken broth and it's bright green and it's the most healing thing. It's the only thing I want to eat right now probably because I just had COVID.

Is it super spicy?

No it’s mellow but I feel excited about using that in a bigger dish with some other beautiful things. The weather right now is so amazing and everything is blooming and everything is free and it just makes me wanna cut open sugar snap peas, and crunch into watermelon radishes and, sit in the dirt and eat things from the ground.

I made a swampy soup but it was more of a winter soup. It had roasted parsnips, spigarello and bloomsdale spinach. It looked like slime, but it was really good. There was also some lemon in there and I used Dave's broth which has soy sauce and miso so it was very dark.

Mmm that sounds good. I wish I could get Dave’s broth up here.

It's so nice to hear about your journey, Lily. I’m so happy for you.

You too Chloe!!