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The job title is not as important as the pros and cons of being a private or personal chef and what those titles represent. This is part two of a mini-series that examines the traditions behind these careers as well the evolution of the roles that have become a legitimate modern career path for independent chefs. In part one, we covered the classic job description, qualifications, and pay associated with these roles and where these jobs are found. Now we’ll take a look behind the curtain and see what this work is really like for chefs – and how you can improve upon it.
The origins of personal and private chefs.
It’s helpful to examine how the career path of personal and private chefs originated. For centuries chefs and cooks have worked in or run restaurants but they’ve also worked in homes. Chefs know the foods served in those two types of establishments differ in style and quality, but here’s the bottom line that illustrates it best.
Restaurants were for common people. This is an important distinction because it defines how chefs spend their days. With few exceptions, the vast majority of restaurant cooks and chefs do not create culinary cuisine. They are laborers. They repeatedly produce large volumes of one portion of a specified menu.
On the other hand, personal chefs and private chefs worked for clients who could afford them. Since the beginning of time people with enough money or influence have always preferred some form of private staff. It’s the reason this type of chef traditionally falls into the category of domestic work. This is similar to a nanny, butler, housekeeper, horse trainer, or tutor. It’s also the reason, without diverging into a long historical context of indentured workers and slavery, that a quality of servitude still lingers like an unfortunate aftertaste in our service industry. But more on that in a later blog post.
Thankfully, times are changing, and chefs have choices.
Now, independent chefs enjoy more freedom, creative expression, income, and the ability to call their own shots.
Why is there so much confusion about the difference between a personal chef and a private chef?
The dictionary defines private and personal as follows:
- Private: confidential, exclusive, independent, individual, secret, reserved, not public
- Personal: intimate, particular, exclusive, special, secret
See the similarities? This overlap is part of the reason so many people – cooks and clients alike – use the terms interchangeably.
Where do clients look for independent chefs?
A stigma accompanies the term private chef. A private chef was, at one time, reserved for the upper class who retained chefs as live-in help. Now, people tend to search for chefs using the more palatable term of personal chef. Another reason so many people lean towards the use of personal chef may be due to the novelty of the career. Personal chefs have only been around for the past two decades.
This may explain why the term “personal chef” is used to search the internet 20% more than the term “private chef”. This matters. A lot!
Not all private chefs live in or work full-time for a single family. The same goes for personal chefs who can have one or a couple dozen clients. What matters more than the title of personal or private chef is what the client expects of the person filling the role.
The pros and cons of private chef work.
The upside of being a private chef: What usually attracts a chef to private chef work is the allure of wealth, prestige, celebrity status, and the surroundings their client provides. Here are some of the perks.
- You play a very personal role in the lives of your clients. You are often treated like family when you’re cooking in their home.
- Cooking for different types of events and different meals offers expansiveness in meal planning, cooking, baking, and entertaining. Compared to restaurant work there’s a big creative component.
- A well-defined set of job duties means you can focus on your work and shine in your role.
- It’s exciting to work in well-stocked, modern kitchens with all the equipment you could hope to use or play with.
- Loyalty to a client can be rewarded with good pay, flexibility, other perks, and holiday tips.
The downside of being a private chef: Being employed by a client with discretionary income is no guarantee against poor pay or working conditions. The downside to private chef work has to do with the hours, the pay, and the people for whom you work. Here are some of the downsides.
- Without a clearly defined role, a chef’s duties can quickly backslide and include responsibilities such as babysitter, boat-washer, and dog walker.
- Chefs who live with a family, especially within the same walls instead of in a separate building on the property, often feel restricted. These chefs don’t have the freedom to blast music, have friends over, and it’s unlikely you can refinish a piece of furniture or wrench on your bike on the patio.
- Your time may not be your own if you are at the whim of every appetite and schedule of a household, especially if you’re responsible for cooking separate meals for the kids and other staff. Private dinner parties can be a 24/7/365 job. Did I mention how important it is to outline a well-defined job description?
- If you work at the whim of a client your time is not your own. It’s likely that you are not making great pay after all because of the number of hours you are on call.
The pros and cons of personal chef work.
The upside of being a personal chef: What usually attracts a chef to personal work is the flexibility, freedom, and ease of building your own clientele. Here are some of the perks.
- You play a personal role in the lives of your clients. They appreciate your work and the cuisine only you can create.
- Your work is usually performed during the week, between the hours of 9a-5p, in a residential kitchen.
- The freedom to work in a residential kitchen means less heavy lifting and grueling work on a hot line.
- Chefs can create a manageable work schedule or pack their week tightly with back-to-back appointments. Nonetheless, personal chefs call their own shots.
- Referrals are common when you provide exceptional care, diligence, and great tasting food.
- Savvy chefs often build their business, their income, and their independence as personal chefs. Creating a reputation and loyal following is a strategic plan toward owning a bigger, more profitable business. Examples include purchasing a food truck, hosting pop-ups, catering, or private party chef business.
The downside of being a personal chef: Being a gig-worker means you have to be affordable and indispensable to your clients. This usually means you have to spend some time building your client base and nurturing a relationship to gain their repeat business. Here are some of the downsides.
- Chefs who fail to specialize in a specific niche like organic baby food, Kosher, Celiac, vegan, have to compete against every other cook. Simple translation: the pay won’t be as good.
- Your focus is on preparing meals. You will rarely get to cook, much less garnish and serve finished plates to eager guests.
- You need to know enough about business to price your time and services so you actually make a profit for every hour you work. And, yes, even your drive time should be considered.
- You’ll often work alone in a kitchen when no one is home. This might be great if you love solo time and loud music on your headphones.
- Your clients don’t have unlimited budgets. They want food they can enjoy every day. It’s unlikely you will be cooking Michelin-star dishes that require intricate plating – think daily meals like meatloaf and spaghetti.
- Chefs must actively create a network and become part of a community of other like-minded professionals. Read this as sharing recipes, taking over and swapping gigs, and developing new skills. Remember, you will most likely be working alone.
- Your skills and product will be compared against the cost of take-out and restaurant dining. Prepare great food at fair prices to stay valuable in your customers’ minds.
- If you get sick or injured and can’t work. You will go without pay until you recover.
Some clients want the best of both worlds.
The truth is, most clients want some personal chef services and some private chef services.
The good news is, most independent chefs – those who run their own business and provide custom services to a single client or group of clients – want to do some of both of these roles as well.
What a client calls your work is less important than whether you are being paid well to do what you do best and love most.
What you should avoid when considering the work of a personal chef or private chef.
Pay for chefs, like any other job, varies by region. Independent chefs make more in Manhattan than they do in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But what you can charge, and what you end up charging is also a reflection of your mindset and perceived sense of worth.
If you’re just starting out and trying to undercut your local competition, you’ll likely get booked. However, this translates to being overworked and underpaid. Not only that but in the long run your eagerness to take any job at any price will also bring down the market price for chefs and diminish the value of your profession. Chefs who are in the practice of lowballing to get work will never get paid a professional wage! I’ve always drawn a hard line about the dignity and profession of chefs. I feel strongly that you get paid what you’re worth when you ask for it and bill for it. As a rule of thumb, I use the rate of pay a plumber earns in your area as a comparable wage. To make a real, dignified living as an independent chef you need to know your costs, how to measure profits, and insist that you be paid for every hour you work. If you’re in a domestic situation, it is essential to outline your professional responsibilities to avoid job creep. Avoid diminishing your talent by babysitting and walking the dog.
The one thing that matters more than either job title.
Chefs have a code of ethics and honor in the kitchen. In order to build a world in which independent chefs are paid what they deserve each of us must set an example for safety, grooming, communication, uniform (please, no chili pepper clown pants), professionalism, and skills. Establish you are worth the pay you want to receive.
Act professionally. Be paid professionally.
What is “catering creep”?
If working as a private or personal chef, or a blend of both, is a stepping-stone for your ultimate career goals I applaud you. There’s no better way to get your name out there, become known for your talents, and build a following with very little risk and cash up front.
Because clients tend to want the best of both personal and private chef services, a chef’s initial business model can quickly morph into more of a catering company – catering creep. Heed my warning: bigger gigs are not more profitable gigs. Catering creep requires you to own more equipment and step into a commercial kitchen often before you’re ready to take that step in your business. Catering businesses require different types of insurance, health department inspections, leases and more.
It’s a big world, stay in your lane!
How chefs are making the best of both worlds.
The traditional differences between personal and private chef careers are not as important as understanding what kind of work you want to do and the clients you want to serve. Once you understand the pros and cons of both personal chef and private chef work it’s easy to see why so many chefs are throwing the titles out the window. Chefs are calling their own shots by carving out a well-paying career in the fastest growing segment of chef work – the independent chef business owner.
In part three of this mini-series I’ll provide some essential tips for success in either role. I will also share some real-life examples of private and personal chefs who are crushing it.
Spoiler alert: many of them are using a blend of both traditional jobs to create their empire.