Life of a Personal Chef

By Maggie Shi

Published June 9, 2009

Left: Jill Donenfeld Right: Whiskey Prawn Skewers w/Tomato Curry

Photo: Left: Jill Donenfeld Right: Melissa Ricketts

Left: Jill Donenfeld Right: Whiskey Prawn Skewers w/Tomato Curry

Left: Lamb Racks Right: Burger

Photo: Melissa Ricketts

Left: Lamb Racks Right: Burger

Left: Mini Mac Cups Right: Lasagna with Wild Mushroom Ragu

Photo: Melissa Ricketts

Left: Mini Mac Cups Right: Lasagna with Wild Mushroom Ragu

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It sounds like an idyllic life—cooking inventive meals in private homes, working flexible hours, spending your days shopping at the greenmarket, and getting paid to do it all. Sure, there are a lot of perks associated with being a personal chef. “You really do kind of have a freedom that you don’t have when you’re in a restaurant,” says Rachel Lori, who has been a personal chef for four years. “I go to the market…and [I] buy what looks great that day. And obviously you make your own schedule for the most part, which makes it nice.” But as with any job, there are plenty of downsides, too.

“Everyone has their own issues, and I guess food is a very sensitive issue for most of us,” explains Juan Pablo Chavez, who has his own personal cheffing company, Healthy Meals JPC. “There are have been clients that are very particular, with very strong wills. Sometimes clients have been very demanding, unfortunately without giving much explanation of what they want.”

By far, dealing with demanding clients seems to be the biggest challenge when it comes to personal cheffing. “New York is full of a very diverse cross-section of people, and sometimes people are very picky in New York and very, very, very specific,” says Jill Donenfeld, who runs her own personal cheffing company called The Dish’s Dish. “And while we want to fill any requests that the client has, sometimes we deal with slightly difficult personalities. In the past, we’ve had clients who’ve had very specific requests that make working for them very hard.” Throw in the large number of people in this city on vegan, low-carb, low-salt, macrobiotic or gluten-free diets, and you can potentially run into some challenging cooking situations.

Unlike private chefs, who cook exclusively for one family, personal chefs juggle several clients at once. The demands of individual clients varies; some want a chef to come in once a week and cook several meals, packing them up and storing them in the fridge or freezer to be eaten during the week. Others want a chef to come in several times a week, cooking meals and perhaps even serving them dinner at night. There are also clients with second homes who want a personal chef regularly on the weekends or for the entire summer; they often provide housing, allowing the chefs to be at their beck and call. Many chefs provide additional catering services or teach private cooking classes on the side to bring in extra income.

Though many people assume only the wealthy hire personal chefs, the type of client varies greatly, from families with children who just don’t have time to cook to couples who see hiring a personal chef as a cheaper alternative to dining out every night. “Some of [my clients] were extremely well off and others were not; it was just the choice that they made,” says Rachel. “Also, I do cook for a variety of diets, and one of the families I cooked for had a lactose intolerant person and an allergy to nuts, and the mother was trying to lose weight. It was tough, and it was the sort of thing where they kind of needed somebody.”

For another family client, getting access to good, healthy food “was a real priority for them,” she explains, adding, “Whenever possible I use organic and local [ingredients]… So that was worth it to them.”

In addition to job listings posted at culinary schools and on online job boards, personal chefs attract many new clients via word of mouth. Juan says he gets cheffing gigs “from acquaintances and obviously through clients…they recommend me here and there.” There’s usually a phone interview first, in which the chef learns the client’s needs, likes and dislikes, and schedule. If they pass the initial round, the potential chef creates a tasting for the client to determine if their dishes are up to par. Once the chef is hired, he or she works with the client to create menus each week.

When all the details have been settled, it’s time for the cooking to begin. On a typical work morning, Rachel starts out shopping, gathering all the ingredients she’ll need to prepare that night’s or week’s meals. Depending on the client, she either has a set budget for food or simply buys what she needs and gets reimbursed. Once the shopping is done, she “schleps—with a capital ‘S,’” she says—all her ingredients to the client’s house. She preps and cooks in the kitchen and either packs up meals to be eaten later in the week or stays to serve dinner; either way, she’s responsible for kitchen clean-up, too. In fact, many personal chefs who don’t actually serve the meals they prepare spend much of their time alone in the client’s house prepping, cooking and cleaning while everyone in the family is at work and school.

Rachel has since moved on to Pittsburgh, where she continues to offer her personal cheffing and catering services. She’s also come up with an ingenious new business idea – offering her cooking talents to local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscribers. For a set fee and a five-week minimum, she’ll pick up your weekly share of produce, add proteins and other ingredients, and turn it into enough meals for a week. She’ll then pack it up and drop it off at your house. It’s a great way for CSA subscribers to make full use of their weekly haul and learn how to work with unfamiliar produce. “I’m pretty excited about it,” she says. “The idea that you get this box, and the farmer farmed it, and there’s dirt hanging off the beets…you have this commitment to it…and it’s [really] fun. It’s like, ‘Yay! This week it’s asparagus and strawberries!”


Paul Anthony Webb
said at 2pm
July 21, 2009

Having a personal chef sounds really nice. I'm not picky in the least but it would be nice to have someone prepare custom dishes and such. Lovely article.

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