Never before has there been such a demand for culinary comfort prepared by private chefs in your home. Movie stars and industry professionals seek out private chefs as a model scout seeks out the next Cindy Crawford. Private chefs are the new rock stars of today.
Food is universal – it’s something we all have in common. The big question is: how do you transition from culinary school or the restaurant world to the elite club of private chefs for celebrities, pro-athletes, and UHNWI (ultra-high net worth individuals). It’s not quite as complicated as the Rubik’s cube. We have decoded the process and created a proven methodical six step process that ticks the boxes of our culinary review board. Remember: the days of chopping away in a backstairs kitchen are gone with the wind. Front and center are beautiful state of the art kitchens. Private chef clients expect you to roll out the red carpet at 6:00 pm with a signature cocktail that accomplices a big smile and an amusing story behind the food you are serving. Before we move forward, let’s focus on creating your culinary foundation.
We have never met a successful private chef that wasn’t oozing passion about their culinary work. Evolved private chefs possess three core points that have made each of them hugely successful. They all have passion, determination, and the ability to tell their culinary story through the meals they create. When you take an idea and manifest it into a working concept, it takes on a life of its own. The key to all successful private chefs is the ability to take an idea inside of you and write it and speak it with clarity.
Take Cronuts for example. The marriage of a doughnut and a croissant was the brilliant brainchild of Dominique Ansel. He needed a doughnut on his menu but didn’t know doughnuts. He’s French for God’s sake! After several attempts he created the perfect balance of texture and flavor. The next day it went viral. Another great culinary story is the impossible burger. Years ago being vegetarian was challenging at best. This decade saw the birth of the vegetarian burger and not being able to tell the difference. The final product is a veggie burger that tastes and even smells like the real thing. And let’s not forget about cricket flour! Gross right? Well, not really. People eat bugs all over the world. Believe it or not, they are filled with protein, fatty acids and B vitamins. Charles Wilkin needed to find an alternative protein for his diet. Hence, the creation of cricket flour. What about white castle cake on a stick or cauliflower pizza? Get the idea?
The artist chef is a mere vessel for the divine being that partners with the artist. Find a special place in your home where you can quietly create and more importantly learn to celebrate life not only for you but your clients. Remember you are the vessel that brings culinary celebrations into a clients home on a daily basis. I spent over three decades living between New York City and a small fishing village in Sri Lanka. It was here that I truly learned how to celebrate life and swallow the sun. My Buddhist son Lasantha, who I raised in Sri Lanka, always reminds me that “life without celebration is a life not worth living.” It was here in this small fishing village that I truly learned the meaning of true luxury. I was surrounded by incredible poverty in Sri Lanka and redefined the phrase the haves and the have nots. My neighbors were all poor in rupees but rich in heart, soul and the ability to celebrate life through food, dance, music and religion. When the daily catch came in abundance they celebrated with family and friends! Life is about history and the time in which people lived. I was blessed to have worked very closely with the pioneer of modern dance: the late Martha Graham. Her most famous choreographed piece, “Appalachian Spring”, composed by Aaron Copeland centers around the Spring celebration of the American Pioneers of the 19th century after building a new Pennsylvania Farmhouse. This highlights the simple core things in life: Family, friends, food and love. It’s all about the freedom of self-expression – which is the core of any private chef’s work.
All true creative chefs need to delve deep into their creative core to give something special to themselves and their clients. Get inspired by regional ingredients! Beautiful spices and herbs create a plethora of taste and flavors unique to their area. My chef in Sri Lanka, Asanka Wadaya, knew how much I loved cinnamon. When friends were visiting from abroad, he created a beautiful Cinnamon Love cake to celebrate the love that I had for friends that traveled thousands of miles to be with me. A private chef’s job is to inspire a family to continue to celebrate life to its fullest through food!
One of the key components of being a successful private chef is understanding your clients personally and professionally, as well their culinary habits. We all know by the thousands of self help books that communication is the most important skillset in being a successful human anywhere in the world. Truthfully, most chefs really don’t like listening to clients’ gripes, complaints and they seem to be rehearsing their rebuttals. Getting the chef’s client relationship on course takes work, patience and a good set of ears. Realize that there is a huge amount of new money in the entertainment and dot com world. Most private chef clients never grew up with a housekeeper, never mind a private chef. You have, for many clients, a huge job in teaching them about the art of eating!
Many chefs are very sensitive about their food being dissected. After all, they have spent hours preparing a delicious four course meal and are waiting for a standing ovation. When it doesn’t come and all they hear is a quiet clap from the dining room, desperation sets in. Stop. Put on a fresh apron, sit down with your principle and LISTEN. Don’t tune out certain aspects of the conversation – that will put you in a cold sweat. Most chefs tend to listen with the intent to reply not to understand. Many times, clients are expressing frustration and it has more to do with their external life. Your job is to understand what’s directed to the chef and what’s external. Head off disasters like a missed birthday, anniversary, or memorial of a family loved one. Remember, family celebration is the key to family happiness. Keep a monthly calendar in the kitchen of the standard holidays, vacation schedules, birthdays, anniversary dates, memorial dates of departed loved ones, and milestones in family members surviving a serious illness. Try to create special festivity dates like the date that Jimmy got accepted to college or a member receiving a special award for achievement. Try to create fun meals for Chinese New Year, Groundhog Day, or even National Astronauts day, set to the soundtrack of 2001 Space Odyssey! For the first few weeks try to get a fifteen-minute face time either in person or via video conferencing in order to get a facial reading on the family. Next, menus: likes and dislikes. Many clients follow strict diets and have an army of people advising them on what to eat and what not to. Get specific with your client from the beginning. Always seek to understand! Communicate with your clients with phrases like “Tell me please if there is anything you don’t like!” and “I’m happy to remake it on the spot!” Food is emotional for so many people. My departing word on this topic is that Mother is always right! And I mean always. There is always someone’s mom who pops up occasionally or sometimes daily to check in! Make her your new best girlfriend! Some classic lines you will hear are “Is this how Bobby likes it?” and “this is how I make it!” End of story. Have a professional relationship with your principles – always call them by their surname unless otherwise instructed. Try to be invisible. This can be difficult in an open plan living room. Many clients today work from home and rarely leave their premises. They really don’t want staff around. Some other things to note: They may request that you label food in the refrigerator! Never never buy store bought food, unless someone likes kosher pigs in a blanket from some frozen food company. Be prepared to work 24/7. Remember most HNWI rarely leave
their home and need staff but really don’t want them. They may want reheating instructions – remember, certain foods don’t reheat well!
My culinary partner Sally Austen and I have never interviewed a talented private chef that wasn’t wildly passionate about food, wine, and exploring life globally. These chefs are always great at spinning beautiful stories for anyone who will listen. A good story educates, entertains, and enchants it’s listeners. Storytelling through food has been around since the beginning of time. Private chefs do everything with passion, purpose and expertise. They are intense about every aspect of their professional life. They seem to possess razor sharp vision in their creative endeavors and most importantly are able to tell creative stories through food. The most successful stories are told when there is an obstacle that was overcome with a glorious outcome. The dining experience becomes much more memorable when there is a wonderful story attached to it. A chef must tell stories that are beautiful and incredibly relatable. Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s wrapped around their next culinary feast. One of our Italian private chefs from Rome tells his San Francisco politician client the story of his internship in his early career at the Pope’s Summer Palace at the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo about twenty-five minutes outside of Rome. The Summer Palace is a sprawling fifty-acre estate that produces century old olive trees and beautiful citrus gardens with lemons and orange trees. These beautiful gardens cover acres of rolling hills with grazing cows, organic chickens, bee colonies, and a beautiful wildflower and vegetable garden. It was here that our Italian chef at the twelfth hour was asked to prepare the first course for a standard Sunday lunch that the Pope had hosted for his 11 highest ranking Cardinals. Massive anxiety held court in his spinning mind. What to make? Thousands of possible courses scrambled his brain. He decided naturally to use everything from the palace farm to make a beautiful butternut squash ravioli. He started the dish by toasting pine nuts with pink sea salt. Then he tossed crunchy day old Italian breadcrumbs that he stuffed with homemade mozzarella and cheddar cheese in a combination of butter, sage, and thyme. The finale consisted of drizzling precious 25-year-old year old balsamic from the cellars of the summer palace. The balsamic flavours can only be described as thick, deep and fruity – almost like a liqueur. The chef sheepishly peeked out the kitchen door as the Pope took his first bite, then a second! His heart was in his throat as the Pontiff asked the head chef for the recipe to be put in the white book full of the Pope’s favorite dishes. He got huge applause from the kitchen. The family who heard this story were transported back to this majestic Papal Estate and decided without question that this was the best butternut squash ravioli they have ever eaten. In fact, the chef was able to arrange a private tour of the Pope’s summer house on their upcoming visit to Rome. The late Anthony Bourdain was one of the great culinary storytellers of our time. He used food to get to the deeper bond between people and cultural borders. After all, food is a language that speaks to the soul.
Research is key when preparing for any interview. Learn about a potential clients’ lifestyle as well as their family life. Google the client’s residence and the surrounding area. Clients that live in an older residence that have a basic kitchen that hasn’t been renovated since the 60s probably are not interested in innovative new American cuisine. It’s critical you do as much research as possible prior to the interview. You will understand a lot about a potential employer by the type of home they live in. New money tends to live a bit flashier than older more established families. Warren Buffet is a great example of the idea that simplicity is the key to happiness. In 1958 he bought a modest 6-bedroom house for 25,000 dollars. Today it’s worth around 600,000. With all his billions why hasn’t he moved into a mega mansion? His answer was quite simple: “if I thought a different house would make me happier I would! Warren Buffett’s dietary habits are also quite simple. He loves junk food and eats at McDonalds 3 times a week. He could care less about new age fad diets. Google photos of your clients. A huge giveaway is a picture of the two principles at a major societal event. Should the woman look like twiggy it’s a safe bet she lives on air and lettuce. They also probably entertain a lot with a focus on healthy new American cuisine. You can now reshape your resume and focus on healthy organic farm to table food with lots of skinny food recipes and photographs. Potential clients need to relate to your portfolio. Lead off with food photos a client will relate to. You can keep more elegantly plated dishes at the back of your portfolio; these photos can be presented at the end of your portfolio presentation as special occasion ideas. Make sure all photos are high quality – both in resolution and style.
The Practice Interview:
Have a friend do a mock interview so you can actually articulate your thoughts and ideas. Write down 5 key ideas that you feel a client needs to know about you. Here are a few suggestions:
1. You’re incredibly flexible.
2. You’re a great listener.
3. You have the ability to create a wide variety of cuisines.
4. You’re trustworthy.
5. You care about their health and try to incorporate healthy food that is delicious and visually beautiful.
Key Interview Questions:
1. Do they entertain a lot?
2. What is their entertaining style, casual or formal?
3. Any dietary restrictions and food allergies?
4. What meals are they expecting the new chef to cook?
5. What is the most important quality they are seeking in a chef?
6. Would the chef be required to travel with the family?
Dos and Don’ts:
Have your culinary portfolio ready with high resolution photos of your proudest creations. I would include photos of the following:
Finally, the thank you note! Send a thoughtful email to the person that interviewed you. Highlight a few key facts on why you would be perfect for the position. Make sure you spell-check and have a third eye proofread the note! Keep it professional and send it within six hours after your interview.
The key in being a happy private chef is the partnership you create with your employer. It’s imperative you get it right from the beginning. During the interview process you’re interviewing each other. Before you even begin your job search, think about what characteristic you’re seeking in an employer. Are you looking for someone that will step back and let you run the show from menu creation to buying the family silver and China? This mental process will give you the foundation to successfully evacuate your potential boss. Trust your inner you, being focused only on getting the job can blind you on what you’re buying into. Be acutely aware of how you are being treated as a candidate. Ask your boss to describe what the family chef will do on a day to day routine. Many chefs assume they will create menus a week at a time, Shop for groceries, visit farm stands for in-season fruits and vegetables prepare 2 to 3 meals a day. Many employers are complete control divas. They end up shopping or ordering from fresh direct and want you to stand by as their assistant chopping and dicing as she prepares dinners for her family. For some chefs this is fine but for many it’s a deal breaker. During the interview if you find yourself bantering back and forth and smiles are flying with food philosophies, personal antidotes and you maintain great eye contact chances are they will likely be open to hearing your ideas should you be hired as their private chef.
Be a good student… Do your homework. The biggest pitfalls in the job search is not doing your due diligence. Do a deep dive into their family life. Check their social media. A few years back I
took on a new client in Connecticut that was in the market for a chef. My go to question to any new client is are we replacing the chef. She said well it just wasn’t working and quickly changed the topic. This was a big red flag. I went online and discovered she was arrested for physically abusing her chef who was hospitalized. These clearly are not the type of clients anyone wants on their roster. Run chicken run!
The devil is in the details. The lady and gentleman of the house normally expect a perfectly set table. This includes beautifully positioned flowers, polished silverware, glittering candles and beautiful glassware that all creates a memorable meal. Many restaurant chefs spend their careers solely in the kitchen and have actually never set a table in their professional career. Table settings are divided into two categories. Formal and informal. You’ll be expected to create a lively presentation that represents your client’s taste.
Most clients like to enjoy a breezy dinner together. Whether it’s casual or fancy a pretty floral centerpiece is always expected. Should floral design not be part of your bag of tricks research the best Florist in your town and with your principle’s permission ask for a weekly delivery of seasonal flowers. Take note of the color scheme in the dining room. An installation of white flowers, white hydrangea, and tulips all arranged on their own make a beautiful statement. Wheat grass also makes for a beautiful centerpiece. For a more casual lunch, a silver bowel with beautiful red apples can really make a table come to life. As a rule, make sure your bouquet is about one and half times taller than its container. Remove any leaves and thorns. Decide what mood you want to inspire with candles (no scent). Our sense of smell is highly inspired by our sense of taste. Stay away from Roses and Lilac as they give off a beautiful scent but can easily compete with your meal presentation. William Shakespeare famous line, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Beautiful words but not at a dinner table. Whether the table setting is casual or formal the place settings remain the same. Forks go to the left of the dinner plate. The dinner fork is directly next to the plate followed by the salad fork. The knife goes to the right of the plate with the blade facing the plate followed by the teaspoon and soup spoon. The truly formal dinner party has relaxed considerably. Even the royal family and well-heeled families from around the world have uncomplicated their style of entertaining. The present-day world is on fire. People of all economic and social class are more
focused on family values and creating an all-around dining experience. I have had a love affair with my dining room table since I was 5 years old. My grandfather made my cherry dining room with his own hands. It has travelled around the world with me. It has always been the focal point of my family’s daily life. It is here around the table you share things! real things. People that spend their lives in restaurant don’t get to be a real family. It is around the table that family members spill their guts. It is the one time of day that everyone gets to be together. It is the chef’s job to make this a joyous occasion. The oldest form of theatre is not Shakespeare but the dining table. It’s a new production every night. If it looks good smells good, sounds good, taste good guess what it is good! Like the dining table, a chef needs to create memories and moments. The goal is creating a complete experience for your principle, not just producing imaginative food. The secret to creating a successful dinner or lunch party is creating complete chill, the hostess takes her cue from the chef. The objective is to completely take the stress out of entertaining.
The chef’s energy is infectious. Smile smile smile! It really doesn’t matter if it’s a potluck dinner in the family kitchen, a beautiful buffet in the dining room, or an ultra-sit down for 14 in the main dining room, it’s a lot of fun to experiment with new and complicated dishes with the immediate family. However, when you create these imaginative dinners for guests, it’s best to focus on recipes that allow you to do as much meal prep in advance as possible.
The Beautiful Buffet Table:
The fully seated buffet table is formal but allows the guests a chance to move around the house and mingle with each other. Salads and desserts are plated and served by staff. Since all of the guests have a designated seat formal dinnerware is needed. Lap buffet is a popular way for guest to entertain. Guest help themselves to a beautiful appointed buffet table. An abundance of food is required and displayed in beautiful serving dishes. Beautiful silverware wrapped in crisp linen napkins make a big splash in the overall dining experience. The food is normally served on the dining room table. Guest have the liberty of visiting with other friends in the library, living room or anywhere a seat is found. Guest normally place their food on their lap or nearby table. I would recommend large plates no less than 13 inches in diameter. It anchors the meal and prevents spillage. Use extras large hotel size dinner napkins 18.9x 18.9. This adds an elegant feeling to any dinner party. There is a wonderful element of surprise with a large dessert table. I would serve no less than 6 desserts. Stay away from sauces; these always seem to end up on the hosts’ carpet or sofa.
You don’t have to live in an 18th century manner house to understand the rules of etiquette a private chef is expected to abide. Setting a proper table goes directly to the top of the list. A great trick my mother taught me; A fork is a four-letter word like left and should be placed to the left of the dinner plate. Spoon and knives are five letters like right and should go to the right of the plate. As a private chef, you need to have proper table manners. Many clients have buckets of cash but lack in the personal style department. Italians can’t really help themselves at a dinner table with hands and arms flying off the table over very engaging conversations. The hands under the table rule can be a bit off putting. My rule of thumb is keeping your hands near the tables edge. The French place their wrist at the edge of the table and it’s ok to rest your elbows on the table in between course but never during a course. Place cards are underrated. I use place cards when I’m hosting lunch for four guests. I even use place cards when I’m hosting a dinner at a restaurant. Guest tend to get anxious just before dinner not knowing who they are seated next too. You can buy beautiful place cards online. Make sure the
stock is thick and always use black ink
The table should be large enough to provide multiple wine glasses. Most principles like to offer a dry white French, white like Sancerre to accompany a salad course. Perhaps move to a red wine for the main course. Don’t be afraid to serve a chilled Pinot noir with a light seafood like scallops or shrimp. Heavier chewier seafood like tuna or swordfish do better with a bolder stronger red wine. Several years ago, I attended a beautiful dinner in England hosted by the Duke of Marlboro at the orangery at Blenheim palace. We were celebrating his daughter Henrietta Spencer Churchill’s new book. I was impressed that the chef served a beautiful dry Domaines Ott rose with perfectly roasted Salmon. Many red wines pair beautifully with fish and exploring the possibility is part of the culinary discovery.
The bread plate elevates the dinner to a whole new level. This is a special opportunity to wow your guest with your baking skills. Freshly baked bread at the start of a meal is a huge crowd pleaser. Beautiful herbed olive oil fantail rolls or homemade croissants from tartine bread is a stunning beginning to any meal.
The Classic American Flip Flop:
I spent a great deal of time as a teenager in Europe, especially Lucerne Switzerland. My best friend John Thomson’s family had a beautiful lake cottage on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Johns mother was an excellent cook and always set a beautiful table for lunch and dinner. She always said: I had very good manners “for an American… but still American.” She wrote my mother and told her she wasn’t allowing me to return home until she properly trained me in European Table Manners. She referred to American table manners as inefficient and inelegant. She jokingly referred to it as the Star Spangle flip-flop or better known as “cut and switch” Europeans keep their fork in their left hand and the knife in their right hand as they cut and eat food. The American method is very complicated. Americans cut a piece of meat or fish lower their knives to their plate then switch the fork to their right hand. Fork swapping is plain old tedious and outdated. American dining should be seamless. Europeans have a much more elegant way of eating. Bon appetite!!