Onetime restaurant owner Bram Fowler is now a culinary artist for hire. And he doesn’t miss his former life one bit.
Bram Fowler has the sly good humor of a professional chef and the relaxed air of someone who’s secure in a very competitive business.
Fowler is the three-time winner of the Chef Challenge at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, a charity event that pits local top chefs head-to-head. One of his courses at the 2011 challenge (where he battled James Beard award nominee Kevin Fonzo) featured, as it said on the menu, “chorizo breadcrumb-coated meatball of quail stuffed with a quail egg.” You could tell by the bemused look on Fowler’s face that he knew he was serving an old school British pub dish, the Scotch egg, reinvented for an upscale audience.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, and raised in Johannesburg, Fowler, 47, owned the popular Journeys restaurant in Longwood for six years. In that cozy space, dishes like a Brussels sprout salad (sprout petals, strawberries and tempura-fried goat cheese) earned him a reputation as a low-key but eminently creative chef.
The original Journeys, opened in 2003, was a labor of love. “We had a ball; it was party time. I was very satisfied with the ‘small’ place,” says Fowler, “but moving to the ‘big Journeys’ seemed like the next step.” At the invitation of Alaqua Country Club in Longwood, Fowler and his wife, Geraldine, relocated their small bistro to the massive golf course in 2009. It proved to be a mismatch.
“The next step” lasted a exactly a year, in the door and out. Short of educating diners with every plate he served, there wasn’t much Fowler could do to please the golfers’ tastes. “I was a fine dining chef,” Fowler says, “and the golf membership was looking for something else.” He scrambled, looking for a new restaurant for a while, but nothing quite matched his needs—luckily, as it turned out.
Now doing business as Chef Bram Catering, Fowler regards himself as a freelancer, working in a busy, but curiously invisible, segment of the Orlando dining scene: the private chef.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” he says. “There are a lot of personal chefs.”
The shift from restaurant owner to chef-for-hire was a revelation. “It opened my eyes,” he says. “Working an event is a much easier, rewarding experience. You only have to worry about three people—the bride, the person paying and yourself.”
Fowler and his wife do everything from shopping to cleaning up. He loves the freedom, working, he says, one or two dinners a month, and taking time to coach rowing teams at Lyman High School in Longwood.
“Rowing is actually my first love,” he says. “I gave it up to get into the restaurant business.” His early cooking memories are enmeshed with his high school rowing days, when he would come home after crew practice to sit in the kitchen and watch his mother cook. All of his subsequent kitchen training was on the job, hanging out with Portuguese chefs while apprenticing at a Mediterranean restaurant.
The family business, printing, brought Fowler to America 20 years ago, to open a business that he still owns. “Eventually, my dad told me, ‘I’ll move to the States and run the business, and you go open a restaurant.’”
Half of Fowler’s freelance business is large corporate catering, but the real joy is going into people’s homes and cooking in their kitchens. A private chef, unlike the restaurant owner, has no uncertainties about how many people will walk in the door or how much food to buy. Fowler whips up his inventive creations for small dinner parties of six to 12 people, and business events for 50. He might mix Asian and Italian flavors by infusing Japanese sobe noodles with balsamic vinegar, or create fork-tender quail by slow-poaching it in single-source virgin olive oil.
“I cook in their homes, in their kitchens. I’m part of the entertainment. My restaurant comes to your house, and after I’ve left, it’s like nothing ever happened.” Dinners generally range from $25 to $200 a person and up, depending on the menu.
On occasion, Chef Bram will drive past the original Journeys location (currently the site of the wonderful Chef Henry’s) and think, “Thank God I’m not in there right now. I’m having way more fun on this side.”
Unlike most giant catering businesses, personal chefs offer their services to individuals looking for an intimate fine dining experience in their own home. The website of the American Personal & Private Chef Association (florida.personalchef.com) offers listings of chefs in the state, but here are a few local standouts.
• Jamie McFadden has cooked at the James Beard House and runs the chef’s table restaurant barJme and catering company Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine (cuisinierscater.com).
• Le Cordon Bleu instructor Andy Williams (thechefandy.com) specializes in preparing and serving private dinners with a Spanish flair.
• Angelo Bersani is both a private chef and a member of the International Guild of Professional Butlers (chefangelo.com)
• James and Julie Petrakis, the chefs of The Ravenous Pig (theravenouspig.com), can prepare their farm-to-table magic in your home.
• Food truck pioneer Tony Adams of Big Wheel Food Truck (bigwheelprovisions.com) will leave the truck at home and cook in your kitchen.
CHEF Bram CATERING
chefbram.com (under construction)