By Chris Barnett
Marc Vogel has carved out a nice life for himself. The native San Franciscan is a private chef but he’s not chained to the kitchen of, say, a movie star or a land baron who demands truffles and eggs at four in the morning. He’ a traveling toque who cooks by invitation only for royalty, presidents of foreign countries, corporate chieftains and owner chefs at marquee restaurants worldwide. He is also on the road seven to eight months a year as a chef for hire and filming his “Best of the Best” show on food and travel that is podcast on the Internet.
But this private chef doesn’t travel by private jet. Chef Marc is a working guy like the rest of us. And while he has cooked for upwards of 70 presidents and heads of state and has been a “guest chef” at affairs and galas from China to the Ivory Coast, from Peru to the Philippines, from Saudi Arabia to South Korea, he books his own flights and hotels and slogs his way solo through airports without an entourage to pave his way.
Yet Vogel is not a saucepan-tossing prima donna and Lord of the Stoves, either who suffers the indignities of travel today by cloistering himself in first class or five star hotels. Instead, he’s a genial sort who easily chats up TSA staffers and airline check in agents who doesn’t make waves during a business trip. He’s no pushover, either and is brutally—and refreshingly—candid in spelling out his personal recipes for traveling intelligently to any destination. And for making his journey as pleasant and hassle-free as possible.
From his San Francisco base, Vogel flies frequently to London, as a final destination or a transit point to the Mideast and Africa. “I’m a Virgin fan,” he says unabashedly. “Richard Branson is great, Virgin has the best entertainment system—it would take four weeks to see all their first run movies–but I usually fly Premium Economy rather than Upper Class.” Amazingly, the hefty chef doesn’t mind flying straight economy on a Virgin 747. “My first preference is to get four (seats) in the back on the 4:30 pm flight from SFO and get some precious sleep.”
He’s not married to Virgin, though, and books British Air when it’s more convenient and lower priced. The first American chef invited to cook at Restaurant Le Gavroche next to the U.S. Embassy (“we had 28 cooks in the kitchen—it was wonderful”) who is also a member of the International Food and Wine Society’s St. James Branch in London, also flies Southwest and JetBlue. “I can fly Southwest out of Oakland at 7:45 am, change planes in Kansas City and get to Orlando,” says Vogel, “quicker than flying out of SFO and I save $300 to $400 roundtrip.”
It’s clear that the chef (he has his own website at HYPERLINK “http://www.chefmarc.com” www.chefmarc.com) is no fan of United Airlines, the dominant airline at San Francisco International. “I have United (frequent flyer) miles but I still wouldn’t book it. They’ve lost their flying spirit and it shows. With the large U.S. airlines, we’ve created dinosaurs so God bless Southwest and Jet Blue and their young and hungry staffs.” (As this is written, with fuel prices dropping, fare watchdog Terry Trippler says United tried to hike 35,000 fares, other legacy carriers followed except US Airways
As someone whose lifelong business is making people happy, he finds America West’s service today “deplorable” and claims Alaskan Airlines in-flight care and feeding of passengers has “gotten worse.” Yet he’s not down on all legacy carriers Vogel thinks Continental’s flights to South America are “better than American and comparable to LAN Chile.” Across the Pacific, he regards Singapore Airlines as the top carrier but spends more of his money on Cathay Pacific because he more often cooks in the former Crown Colony plus it gateways to China.
He’s also flown China Southern Airlines several times and opines that “while it is coming along, there’s still too much of that old Communist philosophy. Air China operates very Spartan 747s but a first class seat is half the price of other transpacific airlines.”
In Europe, he’ll book tickets on bare bones Ryanair but not its chief rival, EasyJet. However, he books Hertz cars in Europe through EasyJet’s website and has nailed rates as low as $88 a week for an automobile in Sicily.
Clearly Vogel, one of seven kids raised in a working class family (dad was a court reporter and in the Military Sea Transport Service), wasn’t born with a silver measuring spoon in his mouth. He discovered the kitchen professionally at 14, baking apple pies from scratch and selling them to saloons and restaurants. After college, at 21, he invested in a liquor license and opened Wolfman’s Jazz Club. As an entrepreneur early on, he learned how to shop for bargains.
“I’m constantly scouring for the best price,” he explains. “Check all the airline websites– plus cheaptickets.com, fatwallet.com that gives you all the airline discount codes, lastminutetravel.com—and keep searching.” Sometimes, he has to pony up. It cost him $700 to fly from SFO to Chicago on American, switch to American Eagle for the final leg into Toledo and that was on cheaptickets.com. He saved money staying at the Embassy Suites in Finley, Ohio.
Vogel doesn’t believe in brand loyalty at the expense of hard dollar outlays. In fact, he stays with friends in New York rather than pay insane hotel rates and it’s more enjoyable and, ah, homey. Same for London “where a cheap hotel room is nearly $400.” In fact, he’ll haggle. “If a hotel is quoting 150 euros I say ‘I’ll give you $100 euros for that room otherwise I’ll go next door,” he smiles. “If the town is not sold out, nine out of ten times, they’ll take the 100 euros.”
Chef Marc is frugal but not miserly. He’s also thoughtful and generous to airline and hotel staff. He will take chili and lime cashews from Trader Joes for the flight attendants on Southwest and small and large (five pound) boxes of Joseph Schmidt chocolates for gate agents and airline crews and on international trips. “The difference to being upgraded or sitting in the back of the plane is just one computer key stroke,” he says. “And what does it cost me? A box of 12 good chocolates.”
Bribe? “No, I never ask for anything and never, never ask for an upgrade,” Vogel insists. “There’s always a manager out front walking around and I give him the chocolates and say ‘just give this to your staff. You guys have always taken care of me.”
So where does Chef Marc eat when he’s on the road and not staying with friends? Sipping on a Grey Goose martini at the bar of the Elite Café in San Francisco, Vogel reels off his “musts.”
—-Sparks Steak House, 210 E. 43rd. near Sixth Ave. Order the filet mignon butterflied. “Ask for Walter.”
—-Restaurant Picholine on 64th, half block off Central Park West. Tourist free. “Anything with truffles, especially the potatoes. Best Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan.
—–Les Halles Brassiere, 15 St. Johns off Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Coq au Vin is the house triumph. “Another New York hole in the wall restaurants.”
—-Angelo’s on 146 Mulberry St. “Best capellini pasta.”
—– PJs on 52 Fulham Road. “Great food and people bar. See Kevin.”
—Aubergine in London on Park Walk off Fulham Road. “Chef Billy Drabble is the most underrated chef in London. See Thierry Thomason.
Other choices? In Paris, it’s Le Comptoir and Astrance (“Chef Pascal Barbot is excellent”) and Gaja (“Pierre Gagnaire’s low cost restaurant”) In San Francisco, he likes Myth and Umbria and, in Los Angeles, Valentino.
Though his palate is refined and the restaurants are eclectic, Vogel is a certified bargain hunter who searches for value for his money. He’s also amassed time and money saving tricks of the traveling trade.
In London, he uses two car services—Just Airports and Olympic Cars—that charge 21 to 26 pounds or $40 to $48 for a one way to trip to Heathrow. “They have everything from private town cars to Jaguars,” he says. “If you’re caught in a (traditional London) black cab in bad traffic, it can run you 55 to 65 pounds to Heathrow.”
Chef Marc is not averse to public transportation. Just cautious. “Europe’s biggest group of thieves and pickpockets work in Paris and Madrid,” he warns. Gare du Nord, first Metro station after Charles de Gaulle Airport is extremely treacherous. “Guys dressed in business attire work in pairs. One speaks to you in English and you turn to pay attention and his counterpart grabs your briefcase.”
He’s speaking from personal experience; his briefcase containing his laptop computer, money and credit cards was snatched. Adds Vogel: “In France, police will not chase someone who just robbed you.”
Madrid and Milan’s Malpensa Airport are “swarming with thieves who work with a sluicebox,” he contends. As Vogel explains it, the sluicebox slips over your suitcase, metal feet clamp on to and your bag or briefcase walks off.” Another thieving trick in Madrid, he adds, is a cabbie putting your bag in the trunk where a small man or youngster is hiding. At a stop sign, the thief jumps out of the trunk with your prized possessions—or the suitcase itself.
Other tips? In foreign countries where English isn’t a second or third language, Vogel takes a handful of hotel business cards for cab drivers “or in case you get stuck somewhere.”
He also takes bottles of fine California wines with him, along with the chocolate, as gifts for people who treat him extra well or who can open a door. “I’ve often said, ‘you can slide a lot further on chocolate than you can on asphalt.’”
But Chef Marc Vogel, who says he logs 200,000 miles a year, has one mantra and has nothing to do with the kitchen.
“Be nice to airline people,” he says finishing off his dry martini. “The biggest jerk in the world is someone who yells at an airline ticket or gate agent. They can’t yell back but they can make your life miserable.”
En Route with Chef Marc Vogel
—Prefers Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy class SFO to London but books British Airways if he can secure better fare.
—Southwest, JetBlue and American Airlines for intra U.S. flights. Books Ryanair for intra-Europe.
—On transpac routes, admires Singapore Air, books Cathay Pacific and likes Air China’s low rates for first class.
–Stays with friends in New York and London. Likes
–Chows down in New York City at Sparks Steak House, Restaurant Picholine, Les Halles Brassiere and Angelo’s. In London, it’s PJ an Aubergine. In Paris, Le Comptoir, Astrance and Gaja. In San Francisco, Myth and Umbria plus Valentino in Los Angeles.
—Avoids cabs to Heathrow, hires Just Airport and Olympic Cars for airport runs.
—Scours airline websites including portals like HYPERLINK “http://www.cheaptickets.com” www.cheaptickets.com, HYPERLINK “http://www.fatwallet.com” www.fatwallet.com, HYPERLINK “http://www.lastminutetravel.com” www.lastminutetravel.com.
—-Travels with tins of cashews and boxes of chocolates for airline staffers.