“Now, see how fluffy and gorgeous these are?” marvels chef Alex Hitz, above the noise of a madly whirring mixer. Dressed in khaki shorts, a blue polo shirt, and a crisp white apron, Hitz turns the machine off to inspect the masses of cloudlike froth, which, just minutes before, took the more mundane form of 16 egg whites.
Asked for the secret to such perfect peaks, Hitz, who is standing in the center of his sprawling kitchen, smiles slyly and drawls: “Just beat the crap out of them.”
Asked for the secret to such perfect peaks, Hitz smiles slyly and drawls: “Just beat the crap out of them.”
Until recently, Hitz’s culinary skills were known only to those lucky (and fabulous) enough to be invited to the dinners he frequently hosts at his elegant home in the hills high above Sunset Boulevard. Today’s egg whites, in fact, are destined for a chocolate mousse he’s preparing for a party where guests will include former first lady Nancy Reagan and heiress Betsy Bloomingdale.
But now Hitz, a boyish Coca-Cola heir who’s dabbled in real estate and theater and movie producing, is broadening his reach. In October, his newly launched food line, The Beverly Hills Kitchen, debuted on QVC. The first offering is beef bourguignon, a boil-in-a-bag concoction that puts Stouffer’s to shame.
Hitz, 40, is unfazed by the idea that a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who had a Julia Child-like epiphany at the age of ten—in his case, it wasn’t sole meunière but mint tea sorbet, at the fabled L’Oustau de Baumanière, in Provence—is hawking his wares on a home shopping network.
“Why not? Why wouldn’t I sell this stuff?” Hitz says, as he shifts from the egg whites to a bright blue Le Creuset pot, in which a thick goo of dark chocolate bubbles.
“It’s not gastronomy,” he says. “It’s comfort food. It’s what people want to eat.”
A taste of the beef bourguignon is enough to assure that Hitz is not overstating the case. After ten minutes in a pot of hot water, the stew comes to life—packed with fresh carrots and pearl onions, generous hunks of meat, and an aromatic sauce with hints of red wine and subtle spices.
An Atlanta native, Hitz grew up on Southern cooking and learned its mysteries from Dorothy, the family’s cook. “She had a sixth-grade education, and she taught me more about cooking and the world than anybody I know,” Hitz says.
Every year, the chef pays tribute to his heritage at his pre-Oscar party, one of the most impressive (and artery clogging) buffets west of the Mississippi: fried chicken; pulled pork with a Carolina barbecue sauce; shrimp and grits; stewed tomatoes; cole slaw, corn pudding; ham biscuits; coconut and caramel cakes; and pecan shortbread cookies.
As he stirs the liquid chocolate (“Are we seeing ribbons?”), Hitz divulges his other major inspiration: French cuisine. He swears by Julia Child and confirms the theory espoused by Julie Powell’s book (and last summer’s movie) Julie & Julia: that cooking your way through Mastering the Art of Fine French Cooking is as good as any fancy cooking school. Hitz would know—he’s done both.
Hitz has always been most at home in the kitchen. In his early 20s, after attending Le Cordon Bleu, he became a restaurant partner in Atlanta, but it wasn’t until he moved from New York to Los Angeles, in 1999, that he began cooking in earnest. Having an enormous kitchen that would make even the most pampered chefs drool helped. (There are perfectly organized stacks of cookbooks, including the Larousse Gastronomique; three editions of Joy of Cooking; and The Cookie and Biscuit Bible; and what seems like 15 varieties of every utensil, from whisks to paring knives.) The more Hitz entertained, the more his friends swooned.
“More and more, I enjoyed [cooking] again,” he says. “And people were very enthusiastic. They were very sweet. They said, ‘Keep going, keep going! This is so good, you should sell it.’”
Nancy Reagan was among the supporters. “Every time she comes here, she’s very generous with her comments,” Hitz says, adding that Reagan is a bit of a foodie, “known for her chicken pot pies. That’s one of the things she served a lot, both in the governor’s mansion and the White House.” In her honor, chicken pot pie is the main course for the dinner he’s preparing.
The final prod came a little over a year ago, when Hitz found himself seated next to Martha Stewart at a luncheon. “She told me that she had three products at Costco and that each of them were having sales of $3 million a week. Each product. That sounded lucrative to me. It certainly sounded better than Broadway!” Hitz jokes, referring to his short-lived stint as a theater producer.
But being accepted by mass market behemoths like Costco is easier said than done, no matter who your friends are.
“It’s drastically hard to get into Costco,” Hitz says. “They’re looking for good product. The highest-quality product and the most inexpensive. They know exactly what will work in their stores and what won’t.”
So far, Hitz has had a meeting at one Costco regional office. A follow-up is in the works, but, as he explains: “It takes a long time to get those appointments.”
QVC was a more instant match, and in October, The Beverly Hills Kitchen made its debut on the home shopping network. For the demonstration, Hitz flew to QVC headquarters in Westchester, Pennsylvania, which he describes as “an alternate universe. It’s amazing. It runs 24 hours a day, and you have no idea what time it is when you’re in there. It’s immense.”
He cringes a little at the memory. “The first time, I was a bit of a goob. I wore a suit…The suit probably wasn’t right. But I thought—it was an anniversary show, and I went on at 7 at night: We wear a suit, right? The Beverly Hills Kitchen: We wear a suit.”
For his sophomore outing, he relaxed his look a bit, donning a hunter green sweater and an apron. He also came more prepared, having hired a “food stylist” and received valuable coaching from top-selling QVC salesmen Dennis Basso and Kenneth Jay Lane, who sell coats and jewelry, respectively, and whom Hitz describes as “QVC idols.”
The beef bourguignon was a hit. Within eight minutes of being on the air, items were shipping. Now Hitz is working on more offerings for the network, though he won’t say just what they are yet.
The chocolate mousse nearly finished, Hitz starts up on dessert item No. 2: pecan shortbread cookies. There will, of course, be butter. Neatly chopping the mounds of pale yellow sticks into cubes, he smiles: “The rule of thumb about butter is, you never tell anyone how much you put in.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.