So You Wanna Be a Private Chef?

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[Photo: Mark Eskenazi]

Some people wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and know that they need to make a change; others wait for an intervention to hear what they already suspected was true. I knew it was time for my career overhaul when the quantity of Advil I had to take surpassed the number of hours in my shift. I lasted almost a decade as a restaurant line cook—in both fine dining venues and more rustic regional Italian spots—before becoming a private chef. But it wasn't just the creaky knees (not to mention the excruciatingly low pay) that prompted the shift: I was tired of being stuck in a restaurant kitchen every night. I wanted to 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: multi-course dinners prepared in the client's own kitchen, served tableside with wine pairings (or other drinks). Some private chefs work for many clients throughout the year, like I do, while others work for one family exclusively. Many of those chefs sign non-disclosure agreements, and are therefore forbidden to cook and tell. That is precisely why I don't do that type of work. After all, telling my friends—and now you—about my clients' antics is half the fun.

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 (or biweekly or monthly) to make several meals, packaging them up for the freezer and refrigerator and leaving 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 grueling work experience. But not everyone in the field comes from a professional restaurant background—these days, many passionate home cooks make their way into the private and personal chef business, often starting with an apprenticeship or some time in culinary school. No matter what your background, if you're considering getting into this line of work, you'll want to know the good, the bad, and the uncomfortably awkward. Let me be your guide.

The Good

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[Photo: Kim Brauer]

My biochemist brother 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 that grows on my client's face after her 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 favorites off the menu. I love that as a private chef, each booking can be an entirely new creative endeavor. A vacation to Tokyo inspired me to dive into Japanese cuisine, introducing me to the oily-silvery sanma fish, the homestyle pork and tofu stew called tonjiru, and the humane fish-killing technique known as ike-jime. After hearing about the journey, a regular client encouraged me to create two Japanese menus based on what I had just learned, and bam, just like that, I was into the sandbox to play.

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, though I'll work with a sous chef or a server to pull off bigger dinners. I always know 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, tipping is 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.

The Bad

I'm not going to sugarcoat 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 diaper on the countertop 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 refrigerator 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 refrigerator.

When you're a private chef, you are your own boss, but that comes with city, state, and federal taxes, business licenses, website maintenance, invoicing, scheduling, shopping, heavy lifting, schlepping, unpacking, lots and lots of dishes, and the next day, another round of dishes. So many goddamn dishes.

You will find it hard to get wholesale accounts with suppliers because you rarely meet minimums; 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.

The Uncomfortably Awkward

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 first-row, third baseline tickets to a Seattle Mariners game and a crisp $100 bill. It was 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 morel 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 BECKY we loooooveyou." I knew their praise was a combination of sincerity and alcohol-induced hyperbole, but I took the compliments gracefully, never letting on how badly I needed a drink of my own just to tolerate their boozy behavior. This was back in the days when I refused to accept drinks from my clients. After all, I was a professional. I had a job to do.

Staying sober keeps you perfectly focused and professional, but it doesn't put your dinner guests at ease. Sometimes being hospitable means joining the fun just a little bit.

The first time I drank with clients was a night when they wouldn't take no for an answer. It wasn't just a celebratory sip of Champagne, either: it was a shot of what they called a 'mind eraser.' All I remember after that was serving up the fourth course with a side of "Who wants some more sauce, BITCHES!?" And the rest was a blur.

Typically, though, I'm the most sober person in the room—my clients and guests frequently have a significant head start. I once showed up at a first-time client's home and noticed that his keys were dangling awkwardly out of the front door lock. I took them out, turned the knob, and tentatively called out a hello. No response. I went in, set down all my stuff, chalked it up to some absent-mindedness of some sort and got to work. An hour later, I went to use the bathroom and noticed some clothes on the ground. As I turned the corner, I saw that my client was in bed, the door open, passed out on his face and wearing nothing but underwear. Guests were coming in one hour.

I ran back to the kitchen, called my wife, breathed into the phone: "What do I do?"

"Slam some pots around. Or—I know—call him on his cell!" she suggested.

"Call him from his own kitchen?" I whispered, "That's like a horror movie."

I braced myself and called, and when he answered groggily, I said, "I'm in your kitchen and your guests will be here shortly. I have your keys."

And then I took a big slug of my cooking wine.

The Nitty-Gritty

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[Photo: Mark Eskenazi]

What's the best path to becoming a private chef? Being a passionate home cook is a great start, but the added structure of culinary school can help you build the solid foundation you need for professional work. I'd argue that the most important thing is to find a few good mentors, whether that means working as an assistant to a private or personal chef or starting with some time in the restaurant business. The discipline I learned in restaurants helped shape me as a chef, and learning to perfect someone else's vision helps you figure out a vision of your own.

Once you've had some basic training, you'll want to find (and shadow) an experienced private or personal chef—someone who's been doing the exact work you want to be doing for awhile and can tell you what it's really like. Keep in mind that this will likely be volunteer work. Just keep your head down when they're busy, bust some suds to help them out, and watch carefully to see how they work and interact with their clients.

Look into how you'll register your company's name and get a local and statewide business license. You'll need to find an accountant or learn how to do your own business taxes. You'll have to decide how you want your business to be structured (sole proprietorship, LLC, or as a corporation, for example), and figure out if you want to get business insurance, which can protect you in case someone sues you for finding (or eating) a bone in their fish, or picking up one of your knives and cutting themselves.

And while you may be getting into this business to cook, you're also going to need to do a little PR. You'll need a website, business cards, and a way to get the word out about what you do. Teaching cooking classes around town is my best form of advertising—at the end of each class, I tell the students what I do for a living and leave my cards on the table for them to pick up on their way out.

Of course, word of mouth is really the best form of advertising. I cultivate that by working my ass off to please my clients and hoping that they will tell their friends.

Do You Have What It Takes 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 ultimately, 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 to Italy. You are part of the party. And, sometimes, you are the party.

A private chef doesn't just need to be sociable, she also needs to be flexible. While I always try to bring essential tools with me (my knives, a Vitamix blender, my tongs, fish tweezers, fine-mesh strainers, and a trusty cast iron pan), I often get to a job and realize 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 Morton's 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 truly love to cook, 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, extreme drunkenness, and some occasional nudity. Did I mention nudity? Because, well, there's that, too.