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Seeking sweet success in Saugus

Profile: Former Playboy Mansion chef Laurie Rodgers strikes out on her own

Posted: January 23, 2011 3:00 a.m.
Updated: January 23, 2011 4:55 a.m.

Mikayla Garrett and Laurie Rodgers work in the kitchen crafting desserts. The grand opening attracted former Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend Kendra Wilkinson and her husband, Hank Baskett, of the Minnesota Vikings, to Rodgers’ new storefront, which opened in December.

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She’s catered for celebrities and was a private chef at the Playboy Mansion.

Today, Saugus’ Laurie Rodgers is taking on a new role as restaurant owner.

With the help of her family, Rodgers recently launched Carmela Louise Café in Saugus.

Along with a gleaming case of decadent pastries and baked goods and a basic café menu of delicious soups, salads and sandwiches, Carmela Louise Café boasts photos of Rodgers hobnobbing with such stars as Pamela Anderson and
Kendra Wilkinson.

“Just having Playboy on my resumé has opened tremendous doors with my catering. When I had to get a facility to operate my business out of, I thought it would be kind of fun to have a small café,” Rodgers said.

A wife and mother of two, Rodgers strove for Carmela Louise Café to feel like home for her customers.

“I want people to come in, to be able to afford to take their family out for a nice meal, with no stress,” she said. “I want to make a living, not a killing.”

Switching gears
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Rodgers learned to cook from her Italian family. While she loved cooking, she never thought of it as a career.

Instead, she went to work for six government agencies, including the Army, Social Security and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, receiving a high-level security clearance in the process.

She had met and married Gary Rodgers after coming to California in the 1970s. The couple moved to New York for three years, where they welcomed son Kristian and daughter Danielle.

When Danielle was 1, the Rodgers family headed back to the West Coast and settled in Saugus.

“I couldn’t get back fast enough,” Rodgers recalled.

After getting laid off from an aerospace job in the late 1980s, Rodgers decided to be a stay-at-home mom.

As the new millennium came around, Rodgers was ready for a change. 

“One day, I was watching TV, and there was an ad for culinary school. I took a ride to Pasadena, went in and that was that,” she said.

Rodgers graduated from the California School of Culinary Arts in 2001, then enrolled in a two-year associate-degree program and internship.

One of the venues seeking interns was the Playboy Mansion.

“I wasn’t interested in working in a restaurant, which is the same thing, all the time. I’m more the banquet type,” she said. “So I went to my career counselor and asked him what it would take to get into the Playboy Mansion. An act of God?”

Cooking at the mansion
As it turned out, Rodgers’ skills were enough. Her career counselor called the head chef of the Playboy Mansion, and Rodgers started interning shortly thereafter. By 2003, she was hired on as a full-time employee.

As one of seven chefs, Rodgers helped with lavish buffets held three to four times a week at the mansion.

“All of us chefs took turns creating menus, so we’d switch things up. Sometimes it would be Italian, sometimes Mexican. The executive chef let us choose,” Rodgers said.

Then there were Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s famous annual parties on July 4, Halloween, New Year’s Eve — and the Midsummer’s Night Dream Party.

The latter was especially lavish, according to Rodgers.

“It was a sultan’s buffet, with lamb, couscous and Greek salads,” she said. “Hefner was great. He had the certain structured meals that he liked, but he would go all out for the guests.”

Eventually, Rodgers became the mansion’s pastry chef.

“That was fun for me,” she said. “I had carte blanche. When I started, there was no budget.”

Despite its lascivious reputation, Rodgers never ran into anything that made her uncomfortable at the mansion.

“It was great. I met a lot of nice people,” she said. “I still don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t want to know.”

The girls next door
Rodgers worked at the mansion during what she called “The Girls Next Door” era, when Hefner was dating three blonde Playboy models: Kendra Wilkinson, Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt.

The quartet’s exploits became a popular reality show of the same name on the E! Entertainment channel, which lasted for five seasons.

“Holly ate the best. Bridget ate well. Kendra just ate whatever she wanted. She was only 18,” Rodgers recalled with a chuckle.

Wilkinson often would come down to the kitchen and spend time with Rodgers as she prepared meals.

“Kendra was so young. She would hang out and ask for advice,” she said. “I became really close with her.”

When the Great Recession hit, its impact was felt at the mansion. First, came a mandated reduction for food expenses, then a reduction in staff. Rodgers was laid off in April 2009. “It was hard. It was like a family when I left,” she said.

Her own café
Instead of looking for another job, Rodgers decided to branch out into catering.

“I just started calling friends and asking them if they needed someone to cook for their parties,” she said. “Then I got an on-site catering license.”

Clients grew to include such celebrities as Wilkinson and television star Scott Baio. Rodgers also catered corporate events in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills for up to 500 guests, with an emphasis on high-quality, home-style cooking.

“Since I’m Italian, my Italian food is what people request most from me. It’s very authentic,” she said. “I can go all out with foie gras if someone wants that, but most people don’t want that, especially parents. They just want good food.”

Desserts are another specialty. “I make really good fruit tarts, éclairs, cheesecake, macaroons and I dabble in cupcakes, such as red velvet or German chocolate,” Rodgers said. “I also have a secret, family-recipe crumb cake.”

Carmela Louise Café, opened in December, was a labor of love for the entire Rodgers family. Husband, Gary, owner of Gary Rodgers Construction, remodeled the existing space into a charming bistro while children Danielle and Kristian help out at the restaurant during business hours or at catering events. A grand opening in January attracted Wilkinson and her husband, Hank Baskett, wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings.

As she cooks, bakes and watches over her customers, Rodgers does so with a smile on her face.

“I’m nervous but excited,” Rodgers said. “There’s no better feeling in the world than when someone tells you they love your food. I like to see people happy. It makes me feel good.”

Carmela Louise Café is located at 28112 Bouquet Canyon Road, (at Plum Canyon in the La Cocina center) Saugus. Open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. Closed Sunday. Call (661) 263-0349.

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