Today I had a unique opportunity to trail (or shadow) a personal chef on one of his weekly client engagements. Chef Mark Tafoya has had his business ReMARKable Palate for many years, hosts a culinary podcast, and is also co-owner of The Gilded Fork, a culinary media enterprise. He also runs smalbusinessvideo.com, a company that creates videos for websites. With all these different outlets for his time and energy, I was honored that he was able to take on my request for some 1:1 mentorship.
For several years, even prior to starting this blog, I have wondered about going into the personal chef industry. I've looked into the offerings of the U.S. Personal Chef Association, tried to figure out how to create this kind of business, and pondered how to make it work in New York City, which is different from many of the models about which I've read in other places. Seeing Chef Mark work today and hearing some of his advice culled from his time working with clients in their homes, I gained more confidence that it just might be possible for me to do this too.
First stop was to buy groceries for cooking all the food that was to be made today. When he meets with his clients, Chef Mark gets from them their food likes, dislikes, and allergy information. He also inventories their home kitchens to make sure that they have the equipment and materials there for him to do his job. Unlike personal chefs who have cars or vans and can transport their cooking gear with them, for city-based chefs, having everything available in the clients' homes is essential to carrying out their workload.
Using lists printed from MenuMagic (a personal chef software), Chef Mark was able to navigate the store picking up everything that he needed not just for each recipe but for the whole day's projects all at once. The program creates lists of everything required to make each dish so that he can cross-reference it with what he already has and what he has to buy. This is a long way from the hand-created lists I make each week just to shop for myself.
Then, it is off to the client's apartment to cook. We spent the next several hours making the dishes and talking about Chef Mark's background and experience and how he got into cooking as a profession (which you can also read about on his website). Today was what he called an "Abbreviated Service," meaning that he wasn't cooking a full week's worth of meals. The family had not eaten all of the previous week's dishes that he'd made for them, so this time, they just wanted a few supplemental items and sides to round out the ones that they had frozen from the previous batch. This flexibility in working with clients and their needs is just part of the process.
The cooking part itself is like trying to make an entire dinner party's worth of dishes in a few hours. It's about different pans going at the same time for several recipes, keeping an eye on the oven so as not to burn the things in there, and making sure to keep track of it all. Chef Mark was calm as can be in balancing the various components of everything going on at the same time while gamely fielding my many questions about how he got started (cooking for a friend, which he highly recommends to test out your skills and aptitude) and how he keeps his business running (different clients have different cooking needs). He was also kind enough to give me some great cooking tips (must try no-bake lasagna noodles for my next batch of that). It was an eye-opening experience in to the diversity of the tasks of each day, as he is the entire kitchen staff.
Once he finished making everything, he allowed it all to cool before putting some of it in the fridge and some in the freezer, every container labeled with what was inside and its cooking and re-heating instructions, as well as the date on which it was made. He cleaned and put away everything he used to cook, leaving the kitchen sparkling. Then, he tallied up the hours he worked, left them the receipt for the groceries, and made sure that they had an invoice for his services. It is this level of detail that Chef Mark stressed to me is also important for the personal chef-client relationship.
After trailing Chef Mark today, I was left with a stronger desire to figure out how I could launch my own business, hoping that I have the confidence in my cooking abilities to provide good food for other people. While it might seem like an indulgence to some, the personal chef industry does provide a service that can be useful to time-starved households. It can be a way to break the cycle of eating out and to get healthier foods onto your table without having to spend hours in the kitchen after a long workday. Word-of-mouth is one way to locate a personal chef in your area. Another is to go to the USPCA website and search for someone who might be working in your area.
This entry will also be cross-posted at Blogher.