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Tips for success as a private or personal chef

If you’re exploring a career as a personal or private chef and want real-life stories and essential tips about working in this profession, this post is for you! Whether your focus is being a personal or private chef, or a blend of both, Part three of this series examines real-life independent chefs and the essential tips that increase their success.

Let’s catch up! Part one explored the differences between becoming a private verses a personal chef. I included qualifications, job descriptions, how to find work, and how much you’ll be paid. Part two reviewed the historical evolution of private verses personal chef work, modern day confusion between the two titles, and the pros and cons of working in one over the other. 

And now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. 

What are some real-life examples of private chefs?

I want to be honest with you, there are a lot of horror stories about chefs who were grossly unprepared to begin working in a private household. These chefs did not have realistic expectations, proper training, or appropriate guidelines and representation. Instead of dwelling on what did not work, let’s look at what was successful.

Case Study 1: Live-in private chef, Michael, Lake Tahoe, CA.

Live-in Private Chef Work

Chef Michael works for a retired couple who value their privacy. He lives in an apartment above the six-car garage on their property. He does their weekly grocery shopping. The couple prefers light breakfasts which don’t require a chef. Chef Michael prepares salad fixings that he leaves in the fridge for the couple to serve themselves for lunch. Most weeknights he prepares light and healthy dinners for two. He cleans up and is done by 8pm. He maintains a list of their likes and dislikes as well as their favorite meals. He also keeps track of what he’s served when so that he doesn’t repeat the same meal too soon. The couple has an active social calendar planned six months in advance. They travel frequently and are gone for large stretches of time. Chef Michael is principally in charge of their entertaining schedule which includes dinner parties for up to 20 a couple times a month. He also prepares meals for all family celebrations with their grown children and young grandchildren. 

He works about four hours a day when serving his two clients, and long hours when they are entertaining guests. Chef Michael has over 20 years of experience as an executive chef. He wanted out of restaurant work but still loved to cook. This California client pays his wages, provides an apartment, cable/internet, and utilities valued at over $65,000 per year.

The greatest aspect of chef Michael’s job is his freedom and schedule. He values running his own business. He wanted the freedom to grow his client base while having the security of working for this couple. He negotiated a special arrangement with his primary clients so that he could also work for their friends and guests when he is not obligated to them. He is practically being introduced to more clients every time he puts a plate on the table!

Case Study 2: Yacht Chef/Private Chef, Abi, Florida Keys-Tahoe.

Work as chef on a yacht

Chef Abi’s specialty is cooking on yachts. She loves the seasonal work, travel, and lifestyle. Over the last decade she’s established a close-knit group of clients who call her to accompany them on their sailing adventures. During peak season her services are in high demand in the yachting community in which she’s built her reputation. She can be hired for trips of any length and prepares all meals for the sailing crew and the boat’s owners. She is in charge of menu planning, outfitting the boat ahead of time, shopping in remote locales to provide fresh, local cuisine for her clients, and cooking in a very tight kitchen.

This chef lives in California so her clients pay for her airfare to Florida, provide lodging before and after each trip, plus her personal expenses. She cooks their daily catch and has an expense account for purchasing groceries at every port. She charges $300-$600 for each day she is on the boat.

The best part of Chef Abi’s job is the lifestyle. She loves sailing, snorkeling, and paddle boarding. She has time each workday to get out on the water and in the sun. She is also good at managing her money. When yacht season slows down, she has enough to live through the winter in her Lake Tahoe home where she augments her income working chef gigs in private homes around the lake for HeyChef! Most of her winters she spends snowboarding. She has created a career this gives her a handsome year-round wage with the freedom to travel and vacation.

Case Study 3: Ranch-Operator/Private Chef, Brian, Montana.

Become a private chef on a Montana ranch.

Chef Brian spent 30 years as a private chef in Manhattan before heading to the wide-open spaces of Montana. Now he works on a ranch serving a staff of 20 who live and work on the property. The owners visit a few times a year and host big summer parties. With his two kitchen staff members, he coordinates family style meals for the crew as well as intimate family meals when the family is on property. When there are parties, of up to 100 guests, temporary staff are hired and, together, the crew works long hours putting together rib-fest style hoedowns. He does not leave the property. Compared to his tiny, expensive NY apartment the view from his bedroom window suits him fine. Once a week he shops in town and picks up orders from his suppliers that do not deliver to the ranch.  

This highly qualified chef, who manages staff and coordinates large events, worked with an established placement agency, He commands a salary in excess of $125,000/year plus a stout benefits package.

The greatest aspect of chef Brian’s job is cooking for the amazing staff of 20. After years of cooking for his high-profile New York clients, it is a thrill to serve hard-working, down-to-earth laborers who have no eating restrictions and are appreciative of a home-cooked meal. He is a mature chef with no desire to climb the career ladder. He enjoys the people and pace of the ranch with no intentions to leave.

The best work should be defined by the chef’s goals, not by the client.

Each of the above examples highlight two key points. First, every one of those jobs could be fantastic or disastrous depending on what the chef wants for their career. For instance, the job of working on yachts could be disastrous for a chef who had to be away from his/her growing children. Likewise, a chef with a goal of serving professional athletes to enhance their performance would be in the wrong place serving carnivore dinners on a remote ranch. Second, each of these chefs knew what they wanted for their personal life and aligned their job accordingly. Chef Michael continues to grow his private chef business by working for clients who entertain. Chef Abbi wanted a life filled with sports and split her time between two seasonal locations. It’s as important to find a career path you can execute and grow with as it is to find a particular path that compliments you as a human with hobbies, loves, and a LIFE!

Let’s look at some stories from personal chefs. 

Case Study 4: Chef Jeanne, trainer and personal chef, Northern Nevada.

Work as a personal trainer and personal chef

Personal Chef Jeanne goes to one client on Monday, another on Wednesday, and a third on Friday. She prepares their meals for the week. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday she holds fitness classes that compliment her healthy cuisine and nutritional coaching. Each week, rinse and repeat. She makes between $300-600 per client plus the income she earns from her fitness coaching and classes. The two sides of her work complement one another and have provided a steady stream of clients. She has been able to increase her personal chef prices as the demand for her cooking increases. Chef Jeanne is in her zone cooking and helping people get in shape in body, mind, and spirit.

Case Study 5: Chef Chris, personal chef, Truckee, CA.

Purchase pre-packaged meals. Make Your Business Cook!

Personal chef Chris crushes it every week. He has between 35 and 50 clients weekly. He spends Sunday evening writing the week’s menu. On Monday, he presents the menu to his clients and takes orders. He doesn’t work Tuesday or Wednesday. On Thursdays and Fridays, he works from a rented shared commercial kitchen where he preps and packages meals for his clients. Most of his clients pick up their weekly meals on Friday. He charges extra for delivery. Saturdays he does office work before the process begins again.

Chef Chris loves his work schedule and being home in the evenings with his girlfriend. And having two days off a week is amazing.

What these independent chef case studies show us.

An independent chef is the sweet spot between a private chef and personal chef.

Even though each of these chefs could be described as a traditional private or personal chef, all of them (except chef Brian) can more aptly be labeled an independent chef because of the manner in which they structured their work to suit their talents, lifestyle, and goals. Additionally, these chefs conduct a blend of both traditional personal and private chef services. Check out how each of these chefs are truly independent:

  • Four of these five chefs are building their business through the work they are doing.
  • Only one of these chefs is paying for a commercial kitchen to do so.
  • Four chefs have a built-in, natural system for bringing in more clients.

Every one of these chefs earns more and works fewer hours than when they were employed in restaurants!

The short list of essential tips for success.

Essential tips for personal chefs.

It’s not surprising that when I asked these chefs to tell me their key to success there was a lot of overlap. Here’s what they said:

The private chef keys to success:

  • When you get a client, clearly define the job duties, keep your word and hold your client to theirs.
  • You have access to someone’s home, so your integrity is paramount.
  • You are privy to everything personal about a family and their lifestyle, so guarding their privacy is essential.
  • It is poor form to jump ship and leave them for a client you met through their introduction – a and who you likely served at their cocktail party. When you are ready to move on, do it gracefully so you preserve a solid reference.
  • Referrals are everything. Anyone enjoying the graces of your client will see your work ethic and taste your food.  Word about your work, good and bad, will spread.

The keys to personal chef success:

  • Specialize in services that solve a client’s problems and know how to articulate this when talking about what you do. 
  • You have access to someone’s home, so your integrity is invaluable.
  • Having a method to ensure repeat business with a client is essential to profitability because it’s easier to get and keep one client for twelve months than find twelve clients for a month each.
  • Understanding how to differentiate yourself from your competition is the key to commanding higher prices.
  • Referrals are gold. Anyone envying the services you provide a client will ask that client about you. Display great work ethic and remind your clients to tell their friends and neighbors about you.  Word about your work will spread.
  • Accept credit cards. Make it convenient for clients to pay you!

The key to success as a private or personal chef is making sure it’s the best fit for you!

Become an independent chef at Make Your Business Cook!

This mini-series focused on the origins, traditional job descriptions, and modern changes to the careers of personal and private chefs. We also explored client expectations, pros and cons, and real-life case studies to uncover some essential tips for success. You can explore a traditional career in these fields or create a custom blend of both. Remember, you create your business and the life of an independent chef. It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread! 

The key is making sure it’s the best fit for you. Identify your ideal client and work environment then weave those together with your talents, your goals, and your lifestyle.