As Seen On TV: Chef Jeff Philbin talks holiday feasts (w. recipe)

The big holiday feast can be stressful in the best of times, but nowadays…

Fortunately, help is at hand. Tampa Bay is home to a number of high-quality private chefs who can take over the turkey (or whatever you’re serving) while you relax. 

One such chef is Season 8 MasterChef competitor Jeff Philbin. Philbin was among the top five finalists, creating dishes for Christina Tosi, Aarón Sánchez and the king of mean, Gordon Ramsay. Talk about stress!

But, while getting feedback from Ramsay and the gang might have sparked some gray hairs, Philbin says cooking for a high-end client is more nerve-wracking, because, as he puts it, “No one is tasting the TV.” 

A private event with anywhere from 10 to 20 guests, all of them relying on a flawless dish, can make or break a local chef’s reputation.

“I deal with people who are in the [Tampa Bay] market, and word of mouth can go a long way,” Philbin says with a laugh.”Word can spread like wildfire.” 

But can expectations be set too high? What exactly should you expect from a private chef?

Simplicity is crucial.

“I am a one-stop shop. My method is all for one and one for all, meaning every person is going to have the same dinner. You got one person cooking for 10 to 20 people, and you don’t want it to be harder for the chef to give your guests the full experience.”

In other words, keep the modifications to a minimum, and select a menu that will work for all of your guests, whatever their dietary or religious restrictions.

One of his most elaborate private holiday feasts pre- COVID was an event for a party of 50 in collaboration with Toast on the Town, the pop-up private dinner series.

“While the guests were interacting, they were able to see me prepare and slice a massive Beef Wellington. The theatrics of the performance of executing for 50 people simultaneously for the holiday season was quite the undertaking.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic has made elaborate events with extensive guestlists a cringeworthy prospect. Accordingly, Philbin predicts that this holiday season will look different from the ones before.

“I think everything will be unique because of COVID. You’ll see people leaning more toward intimate gatherings rather than a big affair like years past.”

That means a lighter meal, with an emphasis on hors d’oeuvres and appetizers and more mingling outdoors to take advantage of the cooler weather. Having guests swing by on a rolling basis to limit the crowd could also be a viable alternative.

The chef has been tailoring his Zoom cooking courses to this type of menu, with recipes like his feta meatball flatbread (see below).

While the celebrity chef and caterer hopes traditional large holiday parties will make a comeback in the future, he’s still happy to offer an escape through food for his clients and their loved ones, even if it’s a small family dinner.

“Food can get people out of whatever problems they’re having. All it takes is one good meal that could turn it around for everybody. I’m thankful to be in a position to bring people together to celebrate one another, with good food around the table.”


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1 pound lean ground beef 

1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs 

1/4 cup chopped fresh leaf parsley 

3 tablespoons grated onion 

1 clove garlic, grated 

Zest of a lemon 

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 

1 egg 

1 tsp dried oregano 

1/2 tsp ground coriander 

1/2 tsp ground cumin 

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon 

Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste 

2 ounces feta cheese, cubed or crumbled 

1 medium red onion peeled and sliced crosswise into half-inch planks 

1/2 tsp sugar 

1/2 tsp salt 

3/4 cup white vinegar 

1 small clove of garlic, halved 

1 cucumber 

1 pack of pita flatbread 


  1. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line a baking sheet with foil and spray it with cooking spray. 
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the panko, parsley, grated onion, garlic, lemon zest and juice, egg, spices, salt and pepper. If you aren’t planning to stuff the meatballs with a cube of feta, add the feta crumbles to the mixture. 
  3. Add the ground beef to the mixture and combine with your hands, being careful not to over-work the meat mixture. Form approximately 1 tablespoon-sized meatballs. If you are stuffing the meatballs with feta, stuff a small cube of feta into the center of each meatball, making sure it is completely covered. 
  4. Place the meatballs on the prepared baking sheet, spray the tops with cooking spray, then place the baking sheet on the center rack of the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. 
  5. Peel and thinly slice the onion into approximately quarter-inch moons. Peel and cut the garlic clove in half. Place onions in a bowl to the side. 
  6. Add into a small saucepan sugar, salt, vinegar, garlic and flavorings. Stir to dissolve as you bring it to a quick boil. 
  7. Slowly pour the boiling liquid over the onions and stir gently to evenly distribute the flavorings. 
  8. Toast the pita bread in the oven for the final 5 minutes with a wet paper towel. 
  9. Remove the meatballs from the oven. 
  10. Slice thin ribbons of cucumber using a mandoline or chef knife. 
  11. Add a layer of Greek yogurt onto a pita, smear, then place meatballs, followed by pickled red onions, cucumber ribbons and any remaining feta cheese.