Hiring a Chef

The Best Kind of Home Cooking

Personal and private chefs promise that you’ll never see a slice of cold pizza or day old Chinese food again. Here are the ins and outs of finding home cooking help.

A busy life and eating well. Too often, the two don’t find time to meet. When a typical dinner consists of a slice of day old pizza and a glass of wine, and when you realize you can’t remember when you last turned on that eight burner, double oven Viking stove, perhaps it’s time to consider professional help.

Enter the world of private and personal chefs, where meal planning, grocery shopping, and slicing and sautéing is off your plate and firmly in the hands of someone trained in the art of getting good food on the table. As enrollment at culinary schools jumps and interest in eating well rises, a strong industry has emerged for chefs serving the home market. Here’s how to find the right chef for your kitchen.

Personal chef vs. private chef

There is a significant difference between a personal chef and a private chef. A private chef is employed by a single family to cook most meals for the household, cater parties, and do all the grocery shopping. Like a nanny, or a driver, a private chef is a member of the household staff and often receives benefits and vacation pay, along with a yearly salary. A private chef typically travels with the family on vacations and could hold additional responsibilities such as managing the wine cellar. A personal chef comes to a family’s home typically one a day per week to prepare and store several meals that can be warmed up any time. As a service provider, rather than a household employee, a personal chef also does the grocery shopping for that week’s worth of meals. Personal chefs usually run their own business and cook for many different families. There is typically a weekly charge for the service, and additional cooking requirements, such as party catering, are separate costs. Of course there are hybrids of personal and private chefs, as well. For instance a personal chef may come to a home two or three days a week to prepare meals, or a private chef may split their duties among a few families.

What’s on the menu? Food for your dog and baby, too

The world is your oyster, or your clam if you prefer, because when it comes to food cooked by a private chef, you can have whatever you want. One Silicon Valley exec eats a traditional Japanese breakfast every morning, according to his former private chef. Another private chef in Chicago cooks lunch and dinner five days a week for a couple with strict dietary needs. With the husband on a protein and fat-heavy Atkins diet and the wife on a limited 1,600-calorie meal plan, this private chef says, “I’ve become adept at calculating the calories of a plate of food.” Oh, and in addition to calorie counting, he’s made baby food and meals for the dog, and four times a year, cooks an eight-course fundraiser dinner for 18 people at the couple’s home.

A private chef can be amenable to strict dietary demands, requests for fresh baby food and on the fly dinner parties, but a personal chef really can’t fill that role. Personal chefs typically only have one dedicated workday to devote to a family. Some work part-time, while others only cook a certain style of food. Janet Senger, a personal chef in Orange County, Calif., said she once had a client ask her to make ten separate meals in an eight-hour period, a task akin to an extended Iron Chef battle on the Food Network. Senger declined, citing her limit of seven meals in one day.

The most common service in the personal chef industry is a weekly service that includes the preparation of five dinners for a family of four. A personal chef may also offer catering, cooking instruction and even weight management packages. Before you hire a personal chef you’ll want to work out the basics of weekly menus. For instance, do you need kid-friendly meals or separate entrees for the adults? Do you have any dietary restrictions? Do you want a chef with a wide culinary palate to prepare Thai, Indian, and Mexican food or are you simply looking for more traditional comfort food?

Finding a Chef

recruiting agencies, culinary schools, and the web Recruiting agencies that specialize in household personnel, such as Starkey International Institute, do much of the prep work for you, like pre-screening applicants, but there are also specialized agencies, like Private Chefs, Inc., a Beverly Hills-based elite private chef agency. If you don’t want to go through an agency, try contacting a culinary school, a great place to find a well-trained chef. In New York, the French Culinary Institute and the Institute for Culinary Education both have professional-level culinary training programs. Depending on the city, Craigslist can also be a good resource. Finally, word of mouth is an excellent way to meet good applicants, either through friends or through members of your household staff. A long interview with the applicant is as important as the cooking audition. The kitchen is almost always the hub of the house so it’s vital that his or her personality mesh well with your family, especially if you have children. Much like hiring a nanny, be sure to call references and run a background check. The hunt for a personal chef will likely begin on the web, since most personal chefs run their own businesses. The three major industry associations, the American Personal and Private Chef Association, U.S. Personal Chef Association, and Personal Chefs Network are good resources and each have “Find a Chef” links. When hiring a personal chef, it’s good, though not necessary, to consider applicants who are members of one of the aforementioned associations. These associations keep their members up-to-date on local industry trends, offer training seminars and educational materials, and in some cases provide liability insurance. All personal chefs should have a certification of safe food handling, such as the ServeSafe Food Protection Manager Certification, which is nationally recognized and accredited.

Five things a chef shouldn’t tell you

Behind the numbers
Personal ChefPrivate Chef
Price$300 to $500 a day$50,000 to $130,000 a year
ExtrasFood costs. Price includes service only.Benefits, paid vacation time, employment taxes, and fee to a placement agency.

Culinary schools can be a good resource for finding a personal or private chef, but most personal chefs have not been to culinary school. If you need a daily dose of uber-fancy French cuisine, aim for a culinary school grad, but if you are simply after good, home cooked meals that both you and your kids will eat, a culinary degree isn’t necessary. Simply give the personal chef a trial run to ensure their cooking prowess matches your family’s taste buds.

The cost of a good meal

The cost of a personal chef depends on what kind of service you choose and your location. Major metropolitan area like New York and San Francisco command higher prices than smaller, Midwestern cities like Minneapolis. According to Candy Wallace, executive director of American Personal and Private Chef Association (APPCA), the national average for a multiple-meal service (where a chef makes anywhere from five to seven separate meals) is $300 to $350 per week plus the cost of the food. That’s right, food costs extra.

Private chefs receive a yearly salary, which can run anywhere from $50,000 to $130,000 a year. If you don’t want your chef looking around for a higher-paying position, keep your salary competitive with going rates in your community and even look towards restaurants as a gauge. While kitchen staff in four-star restaurants can actually make significantly less than the waiters, an experienced executive chef at a hot spot can command a strong salary. Most private chefs also receive benefits and vacation pay from their employer. Don’t forget about employment taxes, which are about ten percent of the chef’s salary. Finally, if you use an agency to find a private chef, expect to pay a placement fee of about 10 to 15 percent of the chef’s first year salary.

Due diligence questions
1.Do I want meals prepared for me ahead of time, so that I can heat them up whenever I want?
2.Do I need a chef to travel with my family?
3.Would I prefer to use an agency to find a chef and pay the placement fee, or handle the search on my own?
4.If my assistant is managing the hiring of the chef, have I passed on all my culinary needs and expectations?
5.Am I prepared to share my family’s dietary needs and expectations with an agency or during a chef interview?

The big players

Industry Associations – The top three associations’ websites dish out plenty of information on what a personal chef is all about, as well as provide easy links to find a personal chef near you. American Personal and Private Chef Association is the biggest association with over 3,000 members in all 50 states. U.S. Personal Chef Association is based in New Mexico and has chapters in 22 states, Washington, DC and two chapters in Canada. With headquarters in North Carolina and Texas, Personal Chefs Network was founded by a nurse-turned-chef in 2005.

Culinary Schools – The websites of most culinary schools are designed for prospective students, so you’ll need to call the career services office to place your order for a classically trained private chef. Some of the top schools the country are: Culinary Institute of America, commonly referred to as “the CIA”, which has branches in upstate New York, Napa Valley and San Antonio; New England Culinary Institute in Vermont; French Culinary Institute in New York; and California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

Craigslist – You can find anything on this website, from classic cars to a private chef. Choose your nearest city, the look under Services, Household and search for “chef.” Don’t forget to do extensive reference checks and a cooking trial.

Private Chefs, Inc. – This elite agency represents over 2,000 chefs from seven offices across the U.S and one in London. Founded by Austrian-born chef Christian Paier, the agency’s clientele includes celebrities and members of royalty.