The Personal Chef Industry

Personal Chef Spotlight

Chefs Dennis and Christine

PCs of the Year 2013

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With possibilities like these, it's no wonder the personal chef and private chef sectors are among the fastest growing in the field of culinary the professional.

Candy Wallace, owner and executive director of the American Personal Chef Institute and Association, notes that when she began her career in San Diego 10 years ago, she knew of no other personal chefs. Now the APCA has 2,000 operating members and is growing at the astonishing rate of 100 new members a month.

In 1996, Cindy Race and Susan Flynn began working as private chefs in San Francisco Bay Area. A year later, they were fielding enough requests to begin a referral company called Four Star Chefs. The response has been so great that in June last year, they opened a satellite in Seattle with chef Laura Dewell as director.

Steve Kelley, director of career services at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, note that since his department began informally tracking the types of calls it gets from graduates seeking job placements this spring, requests for personl chef leads outnumber requests for restaurant leads two to one.

Last year, Enterpreneur Magazine designated the personal chef industry "one of the 12 fastest-growing businesses in the country," and industry predictions are that within the next five years, at the present rate of growth, there will be nearly 25,000 operating personal chefs in the United States serving nearly 300,000 clients.

What's more, this job option, industry-wide, appears to be most appealing to women, with APCA membership running 60-65 percent female and a seven-to-three female-to-male ratio of students on this career track at Peter Kump's.

So is this job of the future for talented women culinarians? Does it truly offer more flexibily and less pressure than restaurant work? Can anyone do it anywhere? Where do I sign up?

Personal chef. Private chef. Job of your future?

Let's begin with a matter of definition. Although lay people sometimes use the terms "personal chef" and "private chef" interchangeably, industry professionals stress they actually mean two separate things. A private chef works for one client or family, while a personal chef generally has several clients. How this plays out may vary from chef to chef and client to client, but generally speaking, the private chef's life is more intricately involved with that of the client and may include going on trips or cooking for for parties and special events as an expected part of the job.

Private chefs tend to cook in the client's home on a daily basis 4-6 days a week, while personal chefs come to the home weekly or monthly, creating a block of menus at a time, freezing certain entrees to be reheated. Personal chefs usually work in the client's home as well, but if they have access to a commercial kitchen or a home kitchen that meets health standards, they may prepare food and bring it.

Generally speaking, the private chef has a little less schedule flexibility, but there can be extraordinary perks with certain clients. One of Four Stars' chefs follows the family she cooks for on the polo circuit, which means her job description includes yearly trips to Europe, Palm Springs and Jackson Hole, Wyo. She also serves meals on Limoges china and has the opportunity to splurge and experiment with expensive ingredients she might not buy on her own.

In Seattle, a private chef can start at $40,000 a year for full-time work. Steve Kelley of Peter Kump's says a private chef's salary depends on the client's situation but in the New York area, pay can range from $45,000-$70,000 and may or may not include benefits, including lodging. One drawback to the private chef's career: You must live in an area where there are clients who can afford and need your service, and that generally means a fairly large urban market with a certain level of affluence.

Personal chefs are finding job opportunities almost everywhere, however. Candy Wallace notes that APCA has member chefs throughout the United States and in four other countries: Canada, Sweden, Argentina and Scotland. A personal chef's job description can vary, but generally it entails creating a menu to a client's needs and preparing several meals at a time - most to be frozen and reheated - on a regular basis in the client's home.

The largest demographic for clients are homes with two incomes where the income totals $70,000 or more. Candy says that those homes fall into two distinct categories: those without children who want an alternative to the fine restaurant dining they've been doing, and those with children who are concerned that the family gets good nutritious food and can find a way to fit mealtime into busy schedules. In addition, she says there are three other distinct categories of client: the work-obsessed single who typically spends 10 hours a day on the job, then goes to the gym and wants to eat healthy; seniors with a certain amount of income who can no longer shop or cook with the ease they once did, but want to find a way to stay in their nice homes; and people with specific medical dietary requirements.

Personal chefs generally bill per our or per meal or sometimes charge for a "package" of meals per week or month. Hourly prices vary widely based on where the chef workw, and total earnings depend on how manyjobs the chef is willing to take on and what the market provides. Candy says many of her chefs earn up to $300 per day. Steve says that in the New york City region, most personal chefs bring in $20-$25 an hour, with really efficient, experienced chefs able to earn as much as $35-$40. WCR member Kelly Hammers, who works as a personal chef in the Western Kentucky University community of Bowling Green, says, she makes $13-$15 an hour. In all cases, the wage earned by personal chefs is generally higher than standard kitchen work in a restaurant.

In addition, there are other perks to the job. Kelly, an accomplished visual artist who worked for several years in restaurants and as the employee of another caterer in Bowling Green, appreciates the independence of the personal chef and says the creative stimulus is a big plus. "I have a lot more freedom than I did in a restaurant kitchen or even as a caterer, where you tend to work from the same menu again and again, I can make the food I prepare as complex aw I want. I can push myself more as a personal chef. No two days are alike for me. And sometimes my clients push me by asking me to make something that on my own I never would have attempted. I will say sure, if they are willing to take the risk."

She says her job has forced her to keep honing and perfecting her already considerable cooking ability - not always easy to do in a community far from the major cooking schools and isolated from a large restaurant community. Cookbooks and texts from cooking schools are her reference library, and she says she has learned a great deal from cooking shows on television, particularly those she has found on the Discovery Channel. "I learned a lot about the consistency of meringue by finally seeing it done right on TV," she says.

Steve notes that in New York it is pretty common for personal chefs to work one night a week in a restaurant to "stay fresh and get good ideas. It's hard to be challenged and pushed out there on your own, so this is a way they have devised to stay current and inspired."

A personal chef also has a certain flexibility in how often or when they want to work, within the framework of their client's needs and acceptance. Kelly makes a stipulation of her job that there are certain times that she will not be available to her clients because needs to travel or spend time with the family. The downside is that she also must be flexible when her client decides at the last minute to cancel a week of work because of a spur-of-the-moment trip.

So with all these advantages, why isn't every culinary professional tossing in the toque to go the personal chef route?

Steve points out that the job simply isn't designed for everyone. "The restaurant still has a certain element of swagger to it. It's a more public arena, and that appeals to a lot of young people going into the profession. A personal chef also has to have really good people skills and be willing to adapt and work with the individual client's needs. That's not something just anyone can do."

In addition to culinary skills, a successful personal chef must be able to market her service and to manage it from a business standpoint as well as a foodservice perspective. Kelly say the most important skill she brings to the job is not her technique with a knife or the recipe in her repertoire but "time management."

Getting some experience in a restaurant will serve anyone well as a personal chef," Steve advises. "It will give you necessary information about portion control, pricing and economy of movement as well as cooking skills. All of this essential to being successful as a personal chef."

The chemistry needs to be right with the client as well, Steve says. He adds a cautionary note for anyone considering this profession: "It's still a bit of the wild, wild west out there in terms of food jobs. There aren't many regulations beyond the health department codes." That means that there is little if a personal chef encounters discrimination or unreasonable demands on the job, except to leave. "The job is only as good as the relationship between the chef and the client," Steve says. He recommends to his students and prospective clients alike that they work one shift for money but "on spec" to get a feel for how they will fit together, much as a server or cook may trail in a restaurant before signing on permanently.

Interested in pursuing the personal or private chef option further? These sources mentioned in the story can give you more information and may also be able to provide you with support:

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