Chef Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick O'Keefe - Chef Sean Patrick as his clients know him - got his first, and deepest, culinary lessons in New Melbourne, Trinity Bay. O'Keefe was just a youngster; the teacher was his grandfather and best friend. That early appreciation for well-prepared food has led O'Keefe on a winding path, which eventually landed him in Los Angeles, where he is now a sought-after teacher, caterer, consultant, and celebrity chef.
Don't ask who his clients are, though - he's under contractual obligation to keep his lips sealed. "It's a list of pretty important people in the political and economic and entertainment industries," he says, carefully. "I've also been at the helm of a vineyard, doing estate management, menu development and wine pairing and things like that …"
Although raised in St. John's, O'Keefe says he always had more of an affinity with New Melbourne, "this small little charming outport," where his mother had grown up.
"I think at four or five years old I was learning to clean codfish and throw blueberries up in the air so the wind would take the leaves out," O'Keefe says. "How to make a good bowl of porridge, how to make soups and stews and braises - heavy, hearty Newfoundland fare, but it was (my grandfather's) pleasure to give me all the tools he had amassed. He was very much a seasonal fisherman and hunter-gatherer: 'This is how you snare the rabbit, this is how you clean the rabbit, this is how you make the stew.' So I took it from him."
O'Keefe grew up and moved to Toronto, focused on various things that weren't food-related. While in Ontario, he hit a personal rough patch - and that's when he decided to make his hobby his career. "The universe has a way of getting you back on track," he says by way of explanation. From there, things moved along quickly. He started working at a small restaurant in Toronto and within a year had a client list and was working privately. Two years later he was introduced to a "big-time LA talent manager" who sponsored his immigration 'Stateside.
That was 10 years ago. While waiting for his green card and all the paperwork to go through, O'Keefe couldn't leave the country - but he's kept himself more than busy.
He's been the household chef for a variety of high-end clients, has had more than 2,500 culinary students, and has travelled the US, tasting and learning and adding to his repertoire. "There's an 'eat drink America' aspect to what I do," he says. "And in doing so I really jumped and dove into it … the only way to do it is to go to the people that produce the food, the cheesemakers, the artisinal winemakers …"
He also spends considerable time in the local farmer's market - which in LA is a massive set-up with hundreds of vendors and (for example) 80 or 90 varieties of tomatoes to choose from. "There's no stop to learning," he says. "Every time I go I see something new."
O'Keefe says his first California employer took an immediate shine to him, encouraging and allowing him to develop his talents. He sent O'Keefe to Europe with a delicious assignment - a list of restaurants to eat in and dishes to try. "So I go in, I order, I eat, and I deconstruct the meal," O'Keefe describes. "I try to find as many flavours as I can in a particular dish … I start at the end and go backwards, dissect the meal, the list of ingredients, the method by which it was prepared." When he returned, he was asked to recreate the food he'd experienced. "And then, when it's fly or crash, that's when the learning kicks in."
Being a chef to celebrities takes more than food know-how. It requires confidence, flexibility, discretion, trustworthiness, energy, and great sensitivity. "Anyone can cook, but what do I bring? Humour, personality, appreciation of the situation the celebrity might find herself in," he says. "Dinner for two, on the way back from the studio, becomes dinner for eight - and how do you create dinner for eight out of those two pieces of salmon? "So the grilled salmon becomes a salmon cake on a salad or something like that."
He says he's been fortunate to have only met and worked with genuine people, A-list celebrities or not. "There's something about money plus celebrity that equals insanity," he says with a laugh. "And I'm really comfortable with the insanity … I develop a diet based on the needs of the client and their idiosyncratic wants and desires."
Just recently, O'Keefe received news he'll soon have his green card - and he's planning a trip home this summer for the first time in over a decade to celebrate. "I'm not destined to be in LA forever, but I think it will be my home for a while," he says. "But I may go back to Newfoundland and fall in love all over again."
When it comes to his own eating habits, O'Keefe says he prepares all his own food, and keeps his meals simple. "Most people I know are afraid to invite me to dinner," he says. "But gourmet food, by my definition, is simply the best ingredients that you have available to you at the time, prepared the minute you want it, by someone who loves you.
If it's macaroni and cheese with sliced tomatoes on top, that's for your heart and your pantry and you've made it to fuel me and my life and my thoughts and I will enjoy that as a gourmet dinner."
O'Keefe pauses, then laughs. "Just don't ask me to pair a wine with it."
Chef Sean Patrick will be in Newfoundland this summer, and available for catering and private culinary instruction. Call (310) 498-0852.