When you’re hosting a celebration, it can be hard to balance your desire to just enjoy your companions with your desire to utterly bliss them out with unforgettable food. You have to either jump ship on a great conversation in midstream or risk over-crisping the crescent rolls. Imagine for a moment that you can call on an outstanding private chef who’ll do the catering or even come to your home or venue and work his magic before your very eyes. That person exists right here in the Hudson Valley, and his name is Zach Berger; he’d love to bring his foraged and farm-fresh flavors and turn your dining table into his Cultural Paradise.
Imagine for a moment that you can call on an outstanding private chef who’ll do the catering or even come to your home. That person’s name is Zach Berger.
“I want people to first know I’m a regular human before I’m a business,” says Berger, who grew up near Peekskill and moved upriver in 2008. “Being a private chef, feeding people, is all about creating memories and celebrating culture and the Hudson Valley/Catskills region. My food and reputation speak for my business.” Berger’s eclectic and delectable menus leave his clients sighing with contentment and admiration for his sheer originality. His Facebook feed is littered with tantalizing references to dishes: tempura frog legs with fennel celeriac slaw over black garlic aioli, artichoke ceviche soaked in citrus sweet & spicy leche de tigre, Catskills-sourced Wagyu sirloin roast served with Japanese BBQ mayo.
It’s not surprising that he’s been winning hearts and palates, but like a true Hudson Valley kid, he carries it humbly—even as his new TV show, Wildly Creative, debuts on Eat This TV.
“I never want to feel I am better than anyone or deserve anything more than anyone else,” he says. “I try to focus on dishes and flavors from my travels all over the world, while paying close homage to my home in the Hudson Valley. This means using foraged forest flavors along with sourcing from local farms.
I will say my flavors are bold and different in many ways, largely due to the fact that I use foraged ingredients like pine, birch, shagbark hickory, Queen Anne’s Lace, and many more.” His exotic flair is globally sourced in the truest sense; his path to the stove was a winding one. “Growing up, I was very active,” he says. “I played soccer and music from a young age, which led to touring throughout the world with punk and hardcore bands, working in random restaurants from time to time. Then I spent 10 years working with at-risk teens in preventative services here in Ulster County, still traveling a lot. My travel is my source of knowledge and I’m always learning—there are so many right ways to do it.”
Travel and romance ultimately led to cooking professionally. “During a transitional portion of my life, after an awful breakup I went to Peru,” he says. “I fell in love and that sparked my interest in opening my own restaurant. After some successful years in Peru, I sold the restaurant and was back here trying to figure out what to do while still working my social work job. I was trying to get my name out in the Hudson Valley and Catskills as a chef offering farm dinners and pop-ups. Then the pandemic happened. I saw the influx of people coming to our area, and I made the switch to full-time private chef. The rest is history!”
“Being a private chef, feeding people, is all about creating memories and celebrating culture and the Hudson Valley/Catskills region.” – Zach Berger
“I promise, you’re getting the finest food, with heart and soul poured into it.” – Zach Berger
Last Labor Day weekend, he went from preparing the cheese course at a sit-down dinner for 75 on Bannerman’s Island, one of a select team of chefs led by former Governor’s Mansion Executive Chef Noah Sheetz, to grilling burgers and dogs at a friend’s car show. “I made jalapeno pickle burgers,” he says. “The hot dogs were basically hot dogs—I like to call them ‘squeal pigs’—and I made relish for them with 10 different wild forest mushrooms, pickled beets, pickled onions, and pickled carrots.”
His best grilling tip? “Have a right-hand person who can tend the fire while you do your prep, or just make sure you have everything together where you need it, all your tools and supplies. I’m always getting hung up like that: ‘Oh shoot, I forgot my spatula.’ But really, for fire-based cooking, an accomplice is ideal.” Most of the time, he’s a one-man show: foraging, shopping, visiting sites, planning menus, answering a zillion emails, calls, and texts. “I truly don’t get the hype around me personally,” he says. “I’m enjoying it, trying to get used to it, but it’s a little weird.” Sometimes he squeezes in a hike or a swim, or hosts friends for a potluck.
“Every day is a culinary adventure,” he says, “whether I’m visiting farms, farmer’s markets, clients’ homes, event venues, or whatever, I’m out and about enjoying myself. Every menu is different. Every home is different. I love it, and I love the freedom of being able to choose the direction of my own business.”
He’s found his reputation growing, and loves serving fellow foodies. “My clients definitely appreciate food and usually have the palate to explore the flavors I love to share,” he says. “Being a private chef is considered a high-end service; I try to be as fair in pricing as I can to allow everyone an opportunity to book with me. And I promise, you’re getting the finest food, with heart and soul poured into it. The relationships I’ve built with farms allow me to assure the best meats, produce, and fruits, and I know how to choose. I’ve raised animals, picked from the farm, foraged the woods, and more. When I need to outsource, I use local providers I trust and top-quality ingredients from around the world.” This winter, he’s planning a trip to Southeast Asia, so booking Chef Zach Berger’s Cultural Paradise this coming spring probably means you’ll taste a whole new range of adventures—and hear about some of them if you like.
And in the tradition of the late Anthony Bourdain, the adventures both include and transcend food. “I still jump off stages from time to time,” he says. “I’ll never be easy to characterize; I don’t fit in a pigeonhole. I have my high-end clients who don’t want to talk to me about any of that, and then other high-end clients who are, like, ‘Tell me about all of it…’”
chef zach berger