Story by Sara Smith
Photos by Jana Morgan
Styling by Melissa Padilla of Opihi Love
Florals by Christina Hartman of Wildheart
Chef Jana McMahon makes a living cooking in other people’s homes, so we grilled her on how best to cook in ours. Here are her tips for summer entertaining.
When it’s too hot to cook indoors, take the party outside. For advice on cooking an effortless and downright delicious summer barbecue, we couldn’t think of anyone better to turn to for help than a private chef. Jana McMahon, owner of Chef Jana McMahon has spent the last 10 years cooking for world leaders, movie stars, tech stars and many others. With her quick wit and vivacious humor, it’s possible she’s never met a stranger. Her approach to food, however, is decidedly more austere. She insists: simple, seasonal, approachable.
A private chef brings in raw ingredients and cooks in a home, providing an interaction that is unique (not to mention a valuable tie to the local food scene for the client.). Here at a private home, Jana prepares a fiery summer feast for friends. Her menu is shopped from local farm stands and largely inspired by what she finds, a process she calls “riffing the market.” From there, the ingredients just need to be “dressed with a light hand.”
“Start with quality, fresh local ingredients and don’t set a menu until you see what’s available,” Jana says. “I had asparagus in mind, but found gorgeous purple peas at the farmers market instead. They inspired my entire crudités platter.”
Cooking around a fire provides a main event, Jana says, because it’s “primal and molecular, it just resonates with us.” Jana fearlessly slaps her steaks directly on hot coals, a method called clinching that she tells us more about in the recipe. She serves it up with homemade mustard, of all things. Sound complicated? It’s not.
“Whipping up sauces and condiments is my forte. They define a dish, elevate it, brighten and compliment,” she tells us. It’s this extra effort with the details that sets her food apart.
Another thing that sets Jana apart is the heart she pours into her work. In addition to her business on Maui, she serves as the culinary and ag consultant for TERI (Training, Education, Research and Innovation), a North County San Diego nonprofit agency that advocates, teaches and houses people touched by autism and developmental disabilities. Jana got the job through cooking for a client on Maui, the agency’s CEO. “I was bringing down organic veggies I’d grown on the farm and I’d just happened to make cheese that day, so I looked like a real freak,” she recalls. She was a keeper, the CEO decided.
Jana spends three to four months a year in California, and in five years she’s helped blossom a seed-to-table program, install organic kitchen gardens at group homes, and turn lawns into urban farms. Under her guidance and insistence upon clean, fresh food, the client obesity rate has dropped from 85% to 15%. The TERI gardens just received USDA organic certification, no easy feat and an amazing commitment to quality for their clients.
A can-do attitude and unfussy approach to cooking infuse Jana’s entertaining style both as a chef and hostess. She shares her secrets with us in the Summer 2014 issue of the magazine.
Find some here.
Menu: Maui Summer Barbecue
“This menu defines everything I am as a chef: fresh, easy, simple, delicious.”
- Farm stand crudités with compound herb butter and tahini dipping sauce
- Clinched steaks with homemade mustard
- Fresh corn polenta
- Grilled sweet potatoes tossed in honeyed hot sauce
- Fresh green salad
- Coconut sticky rice with mango and Kaffir lime
Ten Tips For Home Entertaining:
- Know your audience and any food allergies that need to be accommodated.
- Create a vision for the evening (casual vs. formal)
- Think about color; you don’t want three yellow things on the table.
- Keep flavor profiles in the same family.
- Keep it simple: quality ingredients do not need to be fussed with.
- Don’t do too many things in the oven.
- Visualize the timing of how things will be prepared. Cooking should be fun; failing to plan ahead takes the fun away.
- Make sauces ahead of time, and always cook extra.
- If you offer dessert, make sure it can be pre-made so you don’t have to leave the party to prepare something.
- For groups larger than 12, do a potluck!