Personal Chefs Find New Opportunities in Growing Foodie Culture
Oprah does it. The Kardashians do it, too. So does George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon and David Beckham. They all hire personal chefs to cater their in-home dinner parties or curate their meticulous diets. Even Carol Brady’s bunch had help in the kitchen. But that’s Hollywood and the lifestyles of the actual rich and famous. No “normal” person would have the audacity to believe that someone outside our family would come into our home and cook precisely what we want to eat. It’s an indulgent fantasy, right?
Personal chefs have long been utilized by those in the upper-most income bracket, especially around cosmopolitan cities. Now, a burgeoning foodie culture among all social echelons and areas has spurred new business opportunities for those who love to cook and entertain. Not quite caterers or domestic staff, personal chefs are independent service professionals who may be engaged to prepare food for a special event or on a routine basis. By comparison, a private chef serves a customer full time.
Some, like local chef Chris Spear of Perfect Little Bites, come to a client’s home to cook and serve up glamorous, tailor-made fare for gourmet gatherings with selections and cost on par with dining at a celebrated restaurant. He explains the distinction between catering a wedding or big corporate event and treating a dozen or so guests with a personal chef. “When you have 100 people to feed, you are really trying to appease every single person in the room. That waters down [the creativity of] what you’re going to be serving.” Playing to the middle isn’t much fun for a foodie.
Others, like Anna Hattauer of Culinary Chick Personal Chef Services, craft thoughtful everyday meals for people living the life-styles of the hungry and harried. Industrious cooks can carve out a niche by specializing in select cuisines, accommodating dietary restrictions or prep and delivery options. Growing recognition of the field leaves room for innovation, too, such as Andrew Wilkinson’s newest venture as a personal pizza chef, which he does in complement to his popular Frederick-based food truck, Pizza Llama.
Made to Order
Spear, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., left commercial food service giant Sodexo in Gaithersburg 10 years ago to strike out on his own. He’s noticed a definite shift in the industry over the ensuing decade. Spear lives in Frederick but routinely travels hours to clients clustered in Northern Virginia and the D.C. suburbs. Eventually, he’d like to be working in Fredrick every night. He says the vibe today is different, more casual and sociable. “People enjoy this. Fifteen years ago, you were ‘the help.’ You had to come in the back door. Heaven forbid you had to go into the living room and talk to the host. Now, everyone wants to come into the kitchen and hang out.” In the new paradigm, hiring a personal chef is as much about having an immersive experience as simply eating the finished dish.
Spear specializes in serving from two to 20 people in high-end restaurant style. He sees this area as an emerging market for services like his. “It’s challenging,” he says, because it’s relatively easy to go out to eat in restaurant-rich Frederick. “The concept’s still new in Frederick. People don’t know to look for it. … They say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a thing?’ In a big market like D.C., you can hire anyone to do anything. People are accustomed to it.”
Dinner on the town in D.C. means fighting traffic to go just a few miles, shelling out $20 to $30 for parking, then maybe waiting several hours for a table. A posh five-course dinner easily runs more than $100 per person. In contrast, Spear’s service includes bringing pots and pans, dishes and silverware, plus all ingredients to the client’s home, then personally serving a customized meal with detailed descriptions of each course and cleaning up when the party is over. The host is free to socialize as if they were one of the guests.
Hattauer, a graduate of Frederick Community College’s Hospitality, Culinary, and Tourism Institute, takes a different approach. Her specialty is providing an array of homestyle meals that clients can dig into as needed. She will do events, too, usually topping out at around 50 people. Vacationers can enlist her to whip up a week’s worth of meals, so they don’t have to lift a finger in the kitchen. Hattauer says, “I have three categories of clients: ones who don’t like to cook, ones who don’t know how to cook and others who are too busy.”
“I do a lot of special diets. I can do vegan, gluten-free, paleo, keto, all those things,” she says, noting one of the distinct bene-fits of hiring a personal chef: customization. She takes pride in delivering healthful meals that don’t sacrifice flavor. Prices start at $175 per week, plus grocery costs.
Her first client, a Downtown Frederick business owner who lives above his shop, signed up in 2017 and is still with her. He adopted a strict vegan diet after suffering a heart attack and Hattauer was able to help. “For Thanksgiving, I did a pumpkin ‘cheesecake’ with tofu. He couldn’t believe it met his dietary requirements.” She works with transplant patients and those with severe allergies, too. As a veteran, former medical transcriptionist and would-be nurse, she enjoys doing research and experimenting with ingredients, routinely sharing insights on her blog.
Wilkinson plays on novelty, hiring himself out as a personal pizza chef to fill in the down time, especially during colder months, when he’s not hauling his 5,000-pound Pizza Llama rig to farmers markets around Frederick and Mount Airy, or attending regional festivals and events. For small, private affairs, he turns to a Breville tabletop pizza oven that’s relatively easy to tote. A private pizza party “date night” for two runs $100. A dinner party for six, with extras like salad and dessert, is about $250 but the menu is a far cry from jarred sauce and bagged cheese. He clarifies, “I have to start prepping two days in advance.” He’s currently experimenting with chickpea flour for dough.
Occasionally, Wilkinson works with Spear, providing an array of pizza-based starters for private pop-up dinner parties. At Spear’s premiere “Dinner with Friends” gourmet dining series, by invite only, Wilkinson pre-pared a cool crab-fennel pizza dusted with Urfa birber spice (a smoky Turkish pepper) followed by a margherita version studded with jewel-like Peruvian “cherry drop” peppers. Guests cooed over Wilkinson’s roasted shiitake mushroom and manchego cheese pie with thyme and creamy Dijon mustard, while the final contender raised eyebrows. It featured a blended pepperoni spread, slightly sweetened with apricot. Nary a crumb was left as guests devoured every bit of the lightly charred and bubbled crust.
Starting a personal chef business can be as easy as hanging out a shingle. Being successful at it is another story. Unlike caterers and food truck owners who must get a business license and submit to health department regulations, there is no licensing, no special training, no storefront or utilities required for personal chefs—as long as the event is private. Stepping over the line into public events, such as festivals, fund-raisers or cooking classes promoted to the general masses, triggers a host of requirements such as applying for temporary permits, submitting menus for pre-approval, prepping food in a commercial kitchen and on-site inspections. Otherwise, the biggest expense is basic supplies like pots and pans, maybe a chef’s coat to look official. Although, experienced professionals readily caution novices about due diligence with safety measures, insurance and other general business pitfalls. Minimal liability coverage won’t cut it if you’re working in $10-million homes. “It’s just best practice,” insists Spear.
Hattauer has a business license and is ServSafe-certified. She’s also a member of the U.S. Personal Chef Association. Wilkinson, because of Pizza Llama, has a full caterer’s license. With classic training and decades of experience, Spear is eager to share what he’s learned along the way. He’s the force behind Chefs Without Restaurants, an online community dedicated to connecting food/cooking professionals to their colleagues for support and advice, even passing referrals.
When the job calls for a commercial kitchen, independent chefs turn to friendly venues such as church halls, lodges, restaurants/caterers or co-ops such as Maryland Bakes to rent space. Terri Rowe, owner/operator of Maryland Bakes, also runs Aunt B.’s Angel Cookies, so she understands the unique challenges of compliance and professionalism in the food industry. The Health Department-approved facility gives cooks access to essential equipment, dry/cold storage and space to produce larger quantities. Maryland Bakes’ 13 members can use its tasting and consultation room to meet with potential clients, too.
Hiring a personal chef doesn’t have to be complicated either. At minimum, it’s like getting some-one to mow the lawn or employing a babysitter, money for service with no long-term commitment or tax reporting necessary. The U.S. Personal Chef Association’s website, www.hireachef.com, offers insight as well as a list of members available for jobs by ZIP code. The group advises making informed decisions then developing a personal relationship, starting with looking at prospects’ background and cooking experience. Most personal chefs interview clients about their specific tastes, aversions and dietary requirements, but it’s also helpful for clients to see sample menus. Interested parties should ask about liability insurance and professional affiliations and collect references. Ask what equipment is necessary and who will provide it, especially incidentals such as condiments, herbs and oils. Nail down a cancellation policy. And, of course, both sides should understand the fee structure.
Getting a Taste
Like most independent workers and freelancers in the new “gig” economy, personal chefs rely heavily on networking and social media to find jobs. Conveying credibility is a challenge for such small business owners. Spear is particularly industrious, making daily posts about experiences, new recipes and inspirations. He says, “I’ve been on social media for almost a decade,” garnering 2,100 Instagram followers. Chefs Without Restaurants amassed more than 500 members since launching last December. Spear’s taught classes at a local rec center, participates with the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce and volunteers at events like the Frederick Wine Festival. “People think what I do is easy,” he says, exhaling deeply. “I spend a lot of time and energy marketing.”
Hattauer and Wilkinson agree. As sole proprietors they need time for travel, shopping, prep, promotion, research and administrative tasks on top of actual cooking, so days “off” are still filled with activity, even if they aren’t getting a paycheck. For all the effort, they love when fans tag them in posts or share pictures of their food. Overall, they’d like to see greater awareness of the profession.
“I love being able to interact with people,” says Wilkinson. “That’s probably the most fun for me.”
For Spear, a natural showman, the vocation is a satisfying way to flex his creativity. “I enjoy what I do. I give people memorable food.” He takes it as a high compliment when guests say, “That was interesting.” Usually, they are too busy saying, “Mmmmmmm.”