27 Nov Here’s What It’s Really Like to Be A Private Chef
BE A PRIVATE CHEF…THEY SAID…
Some people wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and know that they need to make a career change. Others wait for an intervention to hear what they already suspected was true. I started offering private chef experiences so I could connect with the people I was feeding on a more intimate level. I wanted to be part of the party.
As a private chef, I facilitate ‘fancy-restaurant-in-your-home’ type events. Small multi-course dinners prepared in the client’s own kitchen, served table side. Some private chefs work for many clients throughout the year, while others work for one family exclusively.
While many people use the terms ‘private chef’ and ‘personal chef’ interchangeably, the jobs are actually quite different. Personal chefs go into a client’s home once or twice a week to make several meals, packaging them up for the freezer or refrigerator and leave instructions for reheating or final preparation. Private chefs, on the other hand, offer a mobile restaurant experience and often educate their clients and guests as part of the evening’s entertainment.
Private chefs are typically ex-restaurant folks who are looking for saner hours, better pay, and a less gruelling work experience.
My scientist friend sometimes works for six or seven years before getting any research results. And even then, the experiments can be inconclusive. As a private chef, I know I’ve done a good job the moment I see the smile on my client’s face after their first bite. Witnessing the pleasure that I bring to my clients and their guests firsthand is a career perk that I do not take for granted.
But what really drew me to the field was the endless creative opportunities and constant room to play. At a restaurant, regulars come back again and again for a certain dish—it becomes theirs. Then it’s hard—if not impossible—for the chef to take those favourites off the menu. I love that as a private chef, each booking can be an entirely new creative endeavour.
And then there’s the practical stuff. As you move up in the restaurant world, your days are filled with managing others and worrying about overhead. As a private chef, I’m usually flying solo. I know exactly how many people I’m cooking for, so planning is straightforward and food waste isn’t a problem. I’m not worried about rent or equipment: If the client’s stove or dishwasher malfunctions mid-dinner, it might throw a wrench into my night, but at the end of the day, I’m not the one who needs to get it fixed.
The pay is also far better than restaurant work and, while not expected in Australia, tipping is becoming more common. But my most treasured perk, above all else, is that I get to share in the most special occasions of my client’s lives, including birthdays, anniversaries, and reunions. There’s an intimacy to these events; maybe that’s why some of my clients are now dear friends.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this: You may or may not have the family dog humping your leg while you cook. There’s a chance your client will place a toddler with a dubiously clean nappy on the counter-top where you’re about to chop your onions. And don’t be surprised if the entire party decides to stand right between the oven and the fridge to chat about what you’re doing, which, of course, isn’t much of anything at all since they’re standing right between the oven and the fridge.
When you’re a private chef, you are your own boss, but that comes with all the usual business overheads and the laborious tasks of shopping, heavy lifting, schlepping, unpacking, lots and lots of dishes, and the next day, another round of dishes. So many dishes!
You will find it hard to get wholesale accounts with suppliers because you rarely meet minimum order amounts; instead, you’ll be forced to hunt and gather your ingredients for each and every job. When you finally track down the special aged fish sauce you’ve been looking for, it will spill in your car and you will have to set your car on fire to get rid of the stench. You will get a new car, and then your fermented Indian dosa batter will spill and creep like the Blob into the wheel well. It will proceed to reek like a particularly putrid blue cheese that burns the inside of your nose until, at a stoplight, in a delirious panic, you jump out and set the new car on fire.
One of the best things about being a private chef is that you get to watch your clients and guests really relaxing. Really, um, letting go.
This can also be one of the worst things.
One recent night, a client helped me carry my equipment to my car and slipped something into my back pocket as he slurred in my ear, “thosewerethe bess suhcallops of my life.”
The something in my back pocket? Two concert tickets and a crisp $100 note (which I both returned). It would’ve been more than a fair tip for an evening that started with the entire party—three couples in their late thirties—already pre-loaded, doing shots of Jägermeister as I walked in the door holding the bags of ingredients for their multi-course tasting menu.
The good news was that my wild mushroom agnolotti with fried nettles and brown butter sauce paired beautifully with the anise-and-caraway-scented Jäger fumes coming off the guests’ skin. Everything they ate “was the bessssst thing they everrrhad” and I can’t tell you the number of times one of them slurred, “Ohmygod MATT we loooooveyou.” I knew their praise was a combination of sincerity and alcohol-induced hyperbole, but I took the compliments gracefully.
DO YOU HAVE THE GUTS TO BE A PRIVATE CHEF?
If you love cooking but hate being on stage, this job might not be for you. There’s no hiding out in the kitchen when you’re working as a private chef. These days, most of my client’s kitchens are open and facing the dining area. It’s common for guests to eat right at the kitchen counter bar because they want to see the show. In the intimate space of your client’s home, you are part of the experience for the diners: You are their chef, bartender, teacher, friend, and for some private chefs, eventually, their drinking buddy. They want to know what you are working on and how they can improve their own cooking techniques. They will ask what knife you are using before launching into a detailed account of their latest trip overseas. You are part of the party. And, sometimes, you are the party.
A private chef doesn’t just need to be sociable, he/she also needs to be flexible. While I always try to bring essential tools with me (my knives, sous vide machine, a blender, my tongs, fish tweezers, fine-mesh strainers, and a trusty non-stick pan), I often get to a job and realise that I’ll just have to wing it on certain things. If my client only has those infuriating, knife-destroying glass cutting boards, I roll with it. If I forget to bring salt and I have to rely on my client’s doll-house-sized shaker of Black & Gold iodized, I roll with it. And if my knife bag doesn’t make it into the car and I’m forced to use my client’s horrible collection of serrated—all serrated(!)—knives…You guessed it. I roll with it.
Still, if you’re a chef who’s truly passionate about food and have the wherewithal to run your own business, it’s a damn fine career choice. That is, as long as you can handle intimate conversations, loquacious clients, the odd drunkenness, and some very occasional nudity. Did I mention nudity? Because, well, there’s that, too.
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