October 1, 2007
It takes more than impeccable cooking skills to be successful in the world of private chefs.
By CAREN CHESLER
Everyone likes a hot, gooey cookie right out of the oven. Some will pay as much as $3,000 for one. Ask private chef Mike Foss. He got a call late one night from his boss, an actor filming a movie in Europe, asking if Foss would fly from Los Angeles to London to bake him a batch of his peanut butter macadamia and dried cherry cookies. “I figured out how to make them just right: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside,” Foss says. “I could have just baked them and sent them, but no—they wanted them hot out of the oven.”
Foss says he had another actor client who gave him two weeks notice to get his passport together, pack a bag and accompany him on a shoot in Johannesburg, South Africa. He wanted Foss to cook for him, the director and 13 other members of the film crew as they flew on a private jet across the world. To make it happen, Foss had to call up Whole Foods in Atlanta, the city from which he was leaving, to see if they would open up their store several hours early so that he could buy the ingredients he needed for the flight. He wound up calling the company's corporate offices and pleading with them, but they finally acquiesced. Foss says he made omelets and pancakes for breakfast, seafood kebabs for lunch and a turkey meatloaf with a tomato and basil sauce and mashed potatoes, for dinner, all in the plane's makeshift kitchen, which was the size of a closet and had only convection ovens and a griddle.
“This job is all about strange requests,” Foss says.
Such are the lives of private chefs to the rich and famous, who don’t just deal with strange requests but with strange habits. Ronda Priestner, a 37-year old private chef from San Francisco, says she was once asked by a famous actor to be the private chef on his yacht, cooking meals for him and his friends. One night, she prepared her boss's favorite mousse parfaits for dessert, but shortly before they were supposed to serve it, the glasses of mousse disappeared. The dessert's disappearance was so mysterious, and had the chef so frazzled, that the actor and his friends helped her try to find the desserts. She eventually had to cook up a batch of bananas foster instead. The following morning, the cleaning staff found several of the empty parfait glasses hiding in the actor's bedding. Apparently, he was a closet eater.
"The stewards were cleaning the bed the next day and found the spoons and the champagne glasses in the cabin. He had eaten them all, and he didn't want to ’fess up," Priestner says.
Jumping through hoops may be an occupational hazard of the job, but it hasn’t been a deterrent. The ranks of private chefs have grown enormously over the last decade, according to Christian Paier, president of Beverly Hills-based Private Chefs Inc., a chef-placement firm. Paier says his agency now represents about 2,000 private chefs, a number that has doubled over the last ten years, and he receives about 50 new resumes a week, from people wanting him to sign them on. Most are chefs who work in restaurants but would rather work in a private home. And why not? The pay is about 30% higher and the workload is about 40% less. A restaurant chef might earn $50,000 a year, working 12-hour days, while a private chef might earn $150,000 a year, working only eight hours a day.
“Ninety-percent of chefs in restaurants want to go private,” Paier says. “You get the best ingredients, and it’s just a great job. It’s like being an artist in the court for kings in Europe.”
The rising supply comes at time when demand for private chefs is soaring, Paier says. It seems the more money people make, the less they want to cook. In fact, chefs are a typical hire for ultrahigh-net-worth (UHNW) individuals, and the more advisors know about the lifestyle, the more comfortable they will be working in this universe and being part of a diversified network.
While most restaurant chefs want to work privately, only 80% are actually qualified to do so, Paier says. When you work in a restaurant, the clients adjust to you. When you’re a private chef, you have to adjust to the client. Of the 50 new resumes he receives each week, Paier says he turns down about 90% of them.
“In a private home, you need to present really well. You can’t have stringy hair or nose rings, because you are also the face of that family,” Paier says.
Some clients take the family metaphor a little too far and consider their chefs to be part of the family. And that can mean asking them to pick up the dry cleaning or feeding the dog. One chef said he had a client who would sometimes drop the children off in the kitchen and say, “Can you watch them for a while?” While some requests push the envelope, some chefs complain about requests that are very much part of their job description, such as having to cook three different dinners every night, all of which are served at different times and some of which include fish sticks.
“I hear a lot of complaints. I tell them, ‘Who cares. You’re getting paid $90,000, and you have benefits. Their comment will be, ‘I didn’t go to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school to feed his bullmastiff,” says Teresa Leigh, who owns a household and property management firm based in Raleigh, N.C. “Sometimes the problem is ego. Many personal chefs have egos. But having worked for high-net-worth individuals for 24 years, I can tell you, it’s about serving them. It’s not about ego.”
Leigh says a lot of private chefs wind up leaving or getting fired because of a misconception of what the job entailed. The chef may make an elaborate meal, and if the man of the house comes home and says he just wants biscuits and gravy, well, then it’s biscuits and gravy, Leigh says. They won’t always get to be creative.
An unhappy chef can be particularly problematic because they often wield a lot of power among the household staff, Leigh says.
“The kitchen is the heart of the house, and communications will make their way through the kitchen to the nanny or a houseman, and before you know it, you’ve got a free-for-all,” Leigh says. “A homeowner might hire a new household manager to really get his house organized, but the chef can wield so much power within the household’s politics that he might turn the service staff against the new manager and run him out of town.”
So how does one go about finding a private chef? The way most services for the ultra wealthy are found: referrals. Some 80% of household staff are referred, and chefs are no exception. Chef recruiter Paier says he’s managed to get his firm’s name into the black book run by the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants, a privilege that requires at least five referrals, he says.
Once chosen, chef candidates go through an extensive vetting process that can involve everything from criminal and civil background checks to an investigation by a private detective. After all, these chefs will be granted access to the inner sanctum of some of the world’s wealthiest citizens. Being discreet is as important as having impeccable cooking skills.
“We have clients who have the FBI do background checks on our chefs. Some will spend upwards of $5,000 for a check. I have one client who has 15 full-time security people at the house,” Paier says.
Sometimes clients can be too demanding. Paier says a wealthy individual in New York contacted him about a year-and-a-half ago seeking a private chef, and he was sent about 60 different candidates. The client knocked out half of them right off the bat. The other half were given a tryout and then dismissed. After a year of finding no one to his satisfaction, Paier told the client he did not believe he could help him.
Steven MacGeachy, co-owner of Mint Lifestyle, a luxury concierge service based in Los Angeles, says wealthy families find private chefs the same way they ferret out other services—by word of mouth. They’ll go to their closest friends, family members, people they know who have similar needs and may have figured out how to address them.
“A friend’s chef may recommend a colleague. Or they’ll recruit someone from one of their favorite restaurants or hotels,” MacGeachy says. “You’re not going to get Charlie Trotter or Thomas Keller leaving one of their famed establishments to go work for a family, but depending on the offer and the individual’s aspirations, a chef might want the opportunity to work for a family.”
MacGeachy says some families will go to an agency that specializes in providing personal chefs, but for the ultra wealthy, that’s not the normal channel. It’s too much of a crapshoot, he says. He prefers to use his network of clients to assist one another. It helps that about 75% of them already have their own private chef working for them full time.
“We don’t share the names of our clients with each other. But when a client comes to us and asks us for a recommendation, we’re quite happy to pick up the phone and interact with others in our client database,” he says. “You start in an area that’s closest to you, where you have a relationship.”
For many of his clients, one of the top criteria in a chef would be a willingness to travel. His clients travel extensively, for business and pleasure, and they want a chef who can accompany them—particularly if they follow a restrictive or particular diet.
“They want someone experienced, someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who doesn’t get flustered when you say, ‘Oh we’re having a soiree tomorrow for 50,’ ” MacGeachy says.
Peg Nelson, a 56-year old private chef in the Florida Keys, knows about cooking for clients with a restrictive diet. She has worked for a couple for six years who eat only whole foods. That is, they eat only ingredients that are in their whole state rather than in processed form. It doesn’t hurt that Nelson follows a whole foods diet as well. She cooks for her clients what she eats at home.
Nelson says being a private chef is by far the best job she ever had. And she’s had quite a lot of them. Unlike most private chefs, who began in a restaurant, Nelson was a police officer and a lawyer before leaving those occupations for the kitchen. Nelson says she left law after three years because she hated having to deal with the constant conflict. Nobody ever wants to go see their lawyer, she says. As for being a cop, Nelson says she worked as a police officer in suburban Detroit for ten years, and after a while she became burned out by the physical demands of the job. When she was offered a job as a chef on a boat in the Bahamas, and was told she would be given on-the-job training, Nelson took it.
“I saw myself getting older, but the drunks you chase at midnight are always 18,” she says. “As a chef, I like the immediacy of the job. I plan a meal, I shop for it, I cook it, I serve it and then I’m on to the next meal. It’s instant gratification.”
Copyright © 2007 Charter Financial Publishing Network