If you love to cook, yet dread standing on your feet 60 hours a week in a restaurant, becoming a personal chef can be an excellent alternative. Running a large commercial kitchen tends to be more about managing people and tracking numbers than sprinkling just the right amount of cardamom into an entree. A personal chef gets to know his or her client’s preferences, adjust seasonings to fit personal tastes and hear appreciation firsthand.
If you're unfamiliar with this world, keep in mind that the term personal chef may describe slightly different responsibilities. Some personal chefs cook in a client’s home a couple of times a week or handful of times a month and prepare several meals to reheat later. Alternatively, a private chef can offer a mix of entertainment and food, preparing food and also educating the clients along with his or her guests. The American Personal and Private Chef Association estimates that there are currently 9,000 personal chefs serving 72,000 clients. Many industry experts expect those numbers to double in the next five years.
Who becomes a personal or private chef? Very often they’re former restaurant cooks who appreciate the reduced hours and increased freedom of working a freelance role. However, some culinary school graduates and talented self-taught cooks are bypassing a career in catering or restaurants to start as a personal or private chef. The pay can actually be better than in the commercial food industry, although the benefits vary with the client and level of engagement. As with any job, advantages and disadvantages exist. Here are some to consider.
Restaurants have to serve regular clients and take into account budget constraints. If a dish is popular and has a nice profit margin, it’s probably going to stay on the menu forever. Of course, there are gourmet outposts that change their offerings with every season, but those are relatively rare.
The right client may be excited about trying new dishes. He or she may even want to suggest ideas to experiment. Even if your client has a favorite meal she or he wants every week, you’re probably free to tweak the recipe a little with few repercussions.
Many line cooks consider their two or three square feet of working space their domain, an office that no one gets to trundle through without asking permission. A home kitchen is very different. Will a curious toddler waddle underfoot while you’re just about to take a hot pan from the oven? How will you react when the counter space you were about to use is suddenly covered with keys and the mail?
The home kitchen isn’t yours and any cook who forgets that may wind up needing to find a new job. Like any office or professional relationship, personalities can get in the way. Most temperamental quirks can easily be overlooked for a one-night class. Grating personalities may wear on one’s nerves over the course of months or years. The wonderful thing about being freelance is that you can usually end an engagement, even one that isn’t working out, with a polite conversation and thank you.
On the other hand, you may also find yourself with hosts who are looking to party and expecting you to join in. Having a glass of wine can be relaxing. Much more than that can get awkward, even if you’re chummy with the clients.
Most home kitchens won’t have professional equipment or the specialized tools many restaurants have. A personal chef will need to be flexible and willing to bring tools, if necessary, and, yes, improvise. Even simple decisions need to be considered. Which recipes will stand up best to reheating? What containers keep the food fresh? Does the client have room to store a week’s worth of meals?
At a large restaurant or hotel, you can give a list to the procurer and expect the ingredients will be waiting for you in the walk-in cooler within a day or two. As a personal cook, you’re on the hook to find the freshest fish and plumpest tomatoes. That search for superior ingredients be a wonderful thing when you stumble onto a small batch of farm-made cheese you know will thrill the client. On the other hand, you may not want to wake up at 5 a.m. to haggle with swordfish sellers. Plus the wholesale suppliers may not give an account because your needs to meet their minimums.
That said cooks who appreciate the importance of excellent ingredients can take heart that being your own shopper also guarantees that every element of your food will pass muster.
Restaurant work helps develop professional habits, from learning how to properly make stock to sautéing a steak the same way, day after day, so it always tastes as expected. Being an experienced home cook doesn’t always build the same culinary muscles. Shadowing an experienced personal cook can go a long way to understanding how to make due in a beautiful kitchen that isn’t exactly built for professional cooking, or learning the best way to entertain clients while also getting the food finished. Even volunteering to assist an established private chef can be worth your time to learn the best way to approach working in another person’s kitchen.
Being a Business and Finding Jobs
As your own business, you’ll also need to establish yourself as a legal entity and do a little promotion. A website and business card are both musts. In restaurant terms, personal chefs
are responsible for both front and back of the house; not only cooking food, but also making sure the customers are happy. Teaching cooking classes can be a great way to network and establish one’s name as an expert. Students may wind up hiring the teacher for an in-home class along with a meal. Sites such as Cozymeal
make it easy for potential students and hosts can book a class, caterer or personal chef online. If you’re just starting out, a site like Cozymeal can be a great way to start your network and sharpen your skills to a fine point.