“I had the day off today,” Hamptons private chef and internet sensation Rob Li tells me over Zoom. It’s a gloomy Monday morning where he sits in his apartment in Southampton, NY. Boasting a smart and tidy bookshelf, a fiddle leaf fig, and a coffee table book about — what else? — the Hamptons, the apartment, he tells me, is part of his “b*llionaire” client’s home in the swanky enclave of Long Island.
The summer season out east is starting to dwindle down, but you wouldn’t know it from Li’s Instagram and TikTok, where the 26-year-old, self-taught chef shares day-in-the-life and recipe videos between his duties as a private chef.
Scenes typically begin with Li walking in from his client’s pool area, sometimes from behind the dunes, which reveal the moody blues of the ocean, or rounding the corner on a purpling bush of lavender. Recent clips go through a timeline preparing all the dishes for a dinner at home: a custard whipped over a water bath, ladyfingers soaked in espresso and liqueur (these will soon become tiramisu), vegetables tossed aloft for a lasagna, plates assembled in a row.
A tousled, nonchalant, nouveau chef-type, Li grew up in upstate New York as the child of restaurateurs, a fact that drove him away from restaurants initially. Instead, his career in food began informally during his college years at Binghamton University. “I lived in an apartment all four years, so I had a kitchen,” he says.
“It was just something that I liked doing on the side. I just learned everything I could from YouTube videos, from watching Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White. Just straight off the internet, learning and then trying to make something new every day, not trying to limit myself to one cuisine or one kind of meal.”
Eventually, a cursory interest in food parlayed itself in actual work. And now, Rob Li the internet student is Rob Li the internet instructor, whipping eggs into submission, quietly clipping at chive blossoms, blending banana pudding for an upmarket take on dessert for four. He accepted his first position as a private chef in a seasonal capacity in 2022 and segued into a full-time position after summer ended.
“My client didn’t want someone super cheffy,” he says. “They just wanted someone pleasant and responsible. So I came in and did my best. I try to be as friendly as possible. I think, honestly, I was a personality hire.”
Li’s personality has translated well to social media, where his popularity skyrocketed this year. When he began making videos fewer than six months ago — recipes at first, he says — Li had about 2,000 Instagram followers. He now boasts over 300,000. His videos lack the chaos of the traditional kitchen. He cooks in clean, spare spaces.
Two summers in the Hamptons — in these clean and spare spaces — have taught Li about how to streamline entertaining. These days, he sets up a timeline, preps food in advance, and plans a menu that will best accommodate a hosted party. Here, he shares his tried and true rules for keeping the party fun, tasty, and easy to manage.
Remember your mise-en-place.
For Li, it’s all about the set up, or “mise-en-place,” as professionals like Li call it.
“Prior to doing a clambake for 11 or 12 people, the most I’d ever cooked for — for my client — was four people,” Li says. It was really important, he notes, to figure out how to get his food prepped in advance in order to set himself up for success. “Always prepare food hours in advance,” he says. “Make sure your space is all settled, everything is just ready to go.”
Vegetables that will not brown — carrots, celery, peppers, for instance — can be chopped in advance. Herbs can be picked. Proteins can be brought to room temperature if they’re cold. Having all of the things you need prepped, out, and ready before you start the process of cooking will save time when you need it.
Set up a timeline.
One hack to demystifying the dinner party, Li says, is breaking down its components — and that means making a timeline.
“Always prepare food hours in advance,” he says. “Make sure your space is all settled, everything is just ready to go.”
“I segment my time,” he says. “It’s all about preparation and organization. I segment every hour of that day leading up to dinnertime, like things I’m going to be doing, each hour, and so it’s all about preparation.” Certain things, he says, can take place well in advance, like setting the table, or even dessert. Li favors desserts like tiramisu, or Oreo pie, which can be made at the start of the day and be set aside while the rest of the meal is being prepared.
Consider your courses.
Li plates all of his courses to order. “My client likes things hot,” he says. “Piping hot. Like super, super hot.” With large-format parties, he notes, it may be more challenging to execute hot food, since plating six, eight, or 10 plates at a time will make it harder to keep the courses at temperature.
But food like lasagna, or other casseroles, which can be sliced and plated fresh tend to stay hot for a really long time. “Lasagna stays hot super long,” he says. “Even after you take it out of the oven. Once you put it down and let it set, the internal heat in the lasagna, because it bakes so long, stays hot for longer.”
Rob Li’s Ultimate Dinner Party Recipe: Salmon Burgers
For a simple-yet-elegant dinner that is anchored by technique, Li leans into fresh salmon patties, brightened with lemon, lightly breaded, and fried to order. Plated beneath toasted buns and served with a homemade tartar sauce, they’re the casual antidote to any stuffy, “cheffy” dinner party. Makes four burgers.
1 lb boneless skinless salmon, divided into ⅓ lb and ⅔ lb portions
1 tbsp mustard, dijon or whole grain
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 whole shallot, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves
2 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp onion powder
1 tsp cayenne
1 ½ cup panko, divided into ½ cup and 1 cup portions
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste
Neutral oil, for frying
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tbsp sweet pickle relish
1 tbsp capers
1 tbsp finely minced or grated shallot
1 tbsp finely minced or grated garlic
2 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
4 burger buns, lightly toasted
4 sliced tomatoes
Sliced avocado (optional)
Combine ⅓ lb salmon in the food processor along with mustard, mayo, shallot, garlic cloves, paprika, garlic and onion powders, cayenne, ½ cup panko, lemon juice and zest, and salt and pepper until combined. Dice the remaining salmon into cubes and fold into the pulsed mixture. Shape the salmon into 4 patties, using the remaining panko to coat the patties and to help shape them. Set aside in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.
While the patties are refrigerating, make the sauce. Mix mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, capers, grated shallot and garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. When the patties are ready to remove from the fridge, heat an inch of oil in a skillet over medium heat. and Place salmon patties in oil and shallow fry for 3 to 5 minutes per side; remove, and allow to cool. Spread sauce on buns and top sandos with sliced tomato, arugula, and avocado. Finish with a sprinkle of salt.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Rob Li