Photo by GE Anderson
By Marji Wisniewski
I can’t tell you how many times over the last year I dreamed about a personal chef coming to my home and cooking healthy meals for me and my family. I, like many others, have felt the pandemic burnout in my kitchen this year. Chef Allison Anastasio, from Last Bite Chef, understands this and offers her families creative cuisine that she classifies as contemporary comfort food. In our time together, I learned that Chef Allison offers personal chef services with a fresh global-inspired menu every week and accessible online cooking classes. With the support and inspiration of Chef Allison’s culinary creativity, her families and students are bound to get out of a cooking rut and satisfy their kitchen boredom — and their hunger!
It’s a quiet Friday night at home. I’ve just finished cooking at one of my families’ kitchens all day. Although I have ingredients to cook myself a number of dishes for dinner, I start making a grilled cheese and put on some music. For me, a grilled cheese is the ultimate comfort food; it’s what my mother used to make for me.
There’s something about going back to that place of comfort. It echoes what food is for me — the point of comfort where there are no words. Where you feel memories instead of speak memories. My mom would butter both sides of the whole wheat bread and add ample amounts of real cheddar cheese. For me, it meant she was taking care me, even though it was something so simple.
I was born and raised in New Jersey in an Italian-American family where food was used as a general display of love. Small things made an impression on my young palate: my grandfather’s intense dark coffee, my uncle’s fresh salad dressing with bright ginger, my mother’s smooth asparagus flan, and the salad bar at family dinner, complete with bitter escarole and radicchio. My young inner chef was savoring and studying each element.
As a middle school student, I made homemade marinara sauce — a family tradition — a Home Ec assignment with a formula to execute to perfection. In high school, I worked at a bakery as a cashier, but I was drawn to the kitchen. I treasured those hours in the back organizing, taking inventory, cleaning, and portioning ingredients for the next morning. However, in college, I had an entire new menu of studies in neuroscience, psychology, education, and vocal performance. On paper, food and cooking took a back seat, but my most treasured moments were at my best friend’s parents’ house, fifteen minutes from campus, where we’d go to get a home-cooked meal after classes.
Shortly after college, I moved to Ann Arbor and taught first grade for a year in Detroit. There are few things that I love more than a classroom full of kids. That kind of chaotic energy is something that I live for. Hopeful frenzy resonates with me and is why I have my little brood of my own four children.
PURSUING A SIMMERING PASSION
When I started my family, I stayed home for about ten years. During that time, I did a lot of cooking. When I was home with four young hungry mouths to feed, there was constant cooking (and cleaning up afterward). However, my approach to food back then was more of an independent study. I was inhaling cookbooks. I began to realize that my cooking wasn’t just out of necessity or a hobby, but rather it was something that I was skilled at, something that fed my brain in a way that no other thing had.
However, I’ve always struggled with my imperfect career path. With my psychobiology degree, I might even say I had imposter syndrome for much of my early days as a chef. I’m grateful that I could stay home when my children were young, but I do feel as though the price I paid for that was a compromise to my career. Most days, I don’t regret this part of my journey; however, some days I hear an internal argument in my head saying that my career path wasn’t strong enough. I struggled for years with being the type of person who hadn’t had a linear track. My path looks more like cobblestones than concrete.
One of the decisions I made to help overcome these feelings of inadequacy was to enroll in Schoolcraft College’s Culinary Arts School. A culinary arts degree provided me the tools to dream, plan, and execute what has been simmering for a long time. After completing the program, I stayed on as an employee, spending time as head sous chef and doing R&D for culinary competitions, and ultimately passing the Master Chef exam of the American Culinary Foundation.
BEING PRESENT IS A GIFT
In 2016, I started my personal chef company, Last Bite Chef. I wanted to be able to cook during the day when the kids were at school. As a personal chef, I typically cook for four to six families each week. A family gets about five hours of my devoted time where I’m just cooking for them. This allows me to be a present parent and also a present chef. I’ve found that restaurant chefs tend to be “married” to their job, most days working from noon until midnight. You have to physically and mentally be there. You can tell which restaurants have chefs who aren’t present; the restaurants just aren’t that great. Part of why Zingerman’s is amazing is because Ari is there pouring water into glasses. He doesn’t have to, but he knows it’s part of the customer service experience.
I chose the tagline “Contemporary Comfort Food” for Last Bite Chef. My food is dynamic, bright, and satisfying, and the quality is optimized when heated and served for a family meal. The dishes are more plant-based and designed to showcase the vegetables instead of the meat, which is ends up being more of a side than the main attraction.
Part of the creative process for me is to write a fresh menu every week. It’s intellectually satisfying for me. Families choose meals from that menu every week that focus on lots of fresh vegetables, different flavorings, and cuisines from around the world. It’s restaurant quality, but a little healthier.
FORAGING FOR FRESH
Eating local and seasonal foods is ideal for your health. When you eat seasonally, you’re responding to your body’s needs. When it’s cold outside, you need to listen to your body and eat things that are heavier, like hearty squashes. When it’s hot outside, your body wants foods that are lighter and brighter. It’s how our metabolism works; our body intuitively wants us to eat this way.
I’m not always able to buy 100% locally, but whenever I can, I like to support our farmers for the local economy and for nutrition. The less time an ingredient spends in transit getting to your plate, the more nutritional value it has. We are lucky that there are so many people passionate about fresh food living in this region.
I love this time of year when fun and unique food items pop up at my favorite farm shops like Argus Farm Stop, The Produce Station, and Agricole. I frequent these smaller shops where they care about finding local, seasonal products. Right now, I’m cooking with ramps — making ramp butter, pickled ramps, and dehydrating them for seasoning. Ramps taste like a cross between a scallion, a leek, and a green onion. They have a little bite. Ramps can’t be grown; they can only be foraged. Foragers go into our local woods and find ramps and bring them to local markets. Ingredients like this in the spring show the earth is coming to life again.
Asparagus is also starting to come up. Asparagus straight from the garden just tastes so much better than when purchased off the grocery shelf. Flavors are much more vibrant when we have the opportunity to eat something really fresh and closer to where it came from. It’s like you can taste the love and the passion in growing and picking it.
MUSIC FEEDS THE SOUL
Speaking of tasting love and passion, I often listen to music while I cook. Sometimes I wonder if people can tell when I’m listening to Billy Holiday or Tchaikovsky. Does that music taste come through to the food? Does it taste different based on the music I have playing that day?
Music runs through my veins the same way my family’s marinara does. I’ve been a musician my whole life, primarily as a vocalist. I’ve studied classical voice and used to be a member of the UMS Choral Union. I loved the power that coursed through me when I was surrounded by a hundred singing voices. Besides when I’m cooking something fantastic, I feel more alive than ever when I’m singing.
I taught my kids to sing and make music at the same time they were learning to speak. There’s always music in our house. Sometimes one of my children will just pick up an instrument and start playing. I find that if I sit quietly and wait, another kid will join in and start playing another instrument. And on my luckiest of days, all four kids will join in and play, and when that happens, I feel as if I could die of happiness right then and there.
Music and cooking have many similarities. There’s an artistic element to both. There’s a visceral feeling that’s expressed when you’re indulging both arts at the same time. I find that music has the ability to convey an unspoken set of emotions and ignite our senses the same way that food does.
FACILITATING A CULINARY COMMUNITY
I often hear my friends and clients say, “I don’t know what to cook anymore — I’m tired of it.” Some of this fatigue is definitely from the pandemic. But sometimes, people just need to invest a little time to learn a few new things in their kitchen and climb out of that cooking rut we all find ourselves in at some point.
I recently launched a weekly curriculum of online cooking classes. These one-hour “Bite Sized” classes are designed to be completely accessible and inclusive. Through my journey of accepting myself as a personal chef, I realized that I love to nourish people. Being able to teach others how to cook has been a wonderful part of my work.
The concept of the classes is that the students will learn a new cooking skill and make a recipe on Sunday night. After the hour-long class, they can then log off and enjoy what they’ve created with their family. To me, that’s a beautiful gift that I can give to my clients.
Currently, my classes are only offered online, but I do envision the classes moving to in-person at some point in the future. I would love to find a brick-and-mortar space (and an investor to support me) that includes a kitchen with a workshop. I dream of a space that feels as much like home as your own kitchen — where people come and feel so welcome and comfortable that they don’t want to leave. This would allow me to continue to combine my passion of being a personal chef and teaching, as this has proved to be my personal recipe for success.
CONTINUOUS LEARNING IS THE KEY INGREDIENT
The other day I was browsing in Patel Brothers, a small grocery store that sells Indian foods, and I realized I didn’t know anything about the products on the shelf in front of me. To me it was an electric feeling, because it showed me how much more I have to learn. There were aisles and aisles of ingredients at this store I’ve never cooked with. I felt the urge to taste each one and figure out how I would include it in a dish.
Whether you’re chef or not, experimenting with food keeps things interesting. What else do you have to do three times a day in order to live? What you eat gives you life. We all can get tired of adulting, but it’s the little points of light out there still left to explore that ignite the soul.
I love nourishing families with food full of spirit and full of life. I’ve always had an instinct for food, an obsession with high quality, a passion for experimenting with ingredients, and a devotion to deep, complex, and global flavors. Just like my toasted grilled cheese in my pan, my career has seen a slow and steady growth instead of a quick burn. And I’m grateful for that. This path I’m on might not be the linear one I had envisioned when I was younger, but I’ve learned it’s about being patient.
As I’ve grown older and more white hair takes over the black hair on my head, I realize that slow and steady growth is what drives my journey. I have parlayed all of my interests into one exciting career and adventure, and it tastes delicious.