Personal chefs prepare menus for individuals and their families, purchase the ingredients for the meals, then cook, package, and store the meals in the clients’ own kitchens. Approximately 9,200 personal chefs work across the United States and Canada. They cook for busy families, seniors, people with disabilities, and others who do not have the time or the ability to prepare meals for themselves.
Personal Chef Career History
Since the beginning of time, humans have experimented with food and cooking techniques in efforts to create simpler, quicker, more balanced meals. The development of pottery and agriculture was the earliest step toward better cooking, after years of using skulls and bones as cooking pots and hunting for meat. Cooks have always built from the progress of previous generations; Catherine de Medicis of Italy is often credited with introducing, in the 16th century, masterful cooking to the French where fine cuisine developed into an art form.
Though royalty, the famous, and the wealthy have long hired private chefs to work in their kitchens, personal chefs have only recently come onto the scene. Within the last 15 years, experienced cooks, either looking to expand their catering and restaurant businesses, or burnt-out from working as chefs, have begun meeting the demand for quick, easy meals that taste homemade. Men and women are holding down demanding, time-consuming jobs, and are looking for alternatives to microwave dinners, fast food, and frozen pizzas. David MacKay founded the first professional association for personal chefs, the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA), in 1991, and helps to establish more than 400 new businesses every year. The American Personal Chef Association (APCA), founded by Candy Wallace, has also developed in recent years, offering training materials and certification to experienced cooks wanting to set up their own businesses.
Personal Chef Job Description
What will you be cooking for dinner tonight? Spice-rubbed lamb chops with roasted tomatoes? Tarragon chicken with West Indian pumpkin soup? Or maybe turkey parmesan on a bed of red-pepper linguini? If you’re rolling up your sleeves and ready to take on a variety of cooking challenges, then a personal chef service may be in your future. People without the time to cook, or without the ability, or those who just plain don’t care to cook, are calling upon the services of chefs who will come into their kitchens, throw together delicious meals, then stack the meals in their freezers. A complete meal prepared according to the client’s specifications is then only a few minutes of re-heating away.
A personal chef is usually someone with a great deal of cooking experience who, for a per-meal fee, will prepare enough meals to last a few days, or a few weeks, for individuals and their families. Personal chefs first meet with a new client to discuss special dietary needs and food preferences. Some clients require vegetarian and low-fat cooking; others have diabetes, or swallowing disorders that require special consideration. (If a personal chef has to do a great deal of research into a special diet plan, they might charge an additional consultation fee.) From these specifications, personal chefs prepare a menu. On the day that they’ll be cooking the meals, they visit the grocery store to purchase fresh meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables. At the home of their client, they prepare the meals, package them, label them, and put them in the freezer. Depending on the number of meals, personal chefs spend anywhere from three to eight hours in their client’s kitchen. Once they are done, they clean and move onto their next client. Personal chefs are able to control their work hours by limiting the number of clients they take on. They need between five and 10 regular clients to earn a full-time wage.
Most personal chefs prepare the meals in the kitchens of the clients, thereby avoiding the requirements of licensing their own kitchens for commercial use. Greg Porter, a personal chef in South Carolina, is an exception to this norm. As the owner of Masterchef Catering, he is able to prepare meals for his clients in his own commercial kitchen. He had been catering for four years when he began reading articles about personal chefing. “I researched it on the Internet,” he says, “and realized that I was already set up to do it.”
Porter pursued training from the APCA and branched out into the business of personal chef. An article about him in an area newspaper resulted in five new clients. “I don’t know of anyone else doing this in South Carolina,” Porter says. He prepares upscale, gourmet meals for his clients. “Salmon,” he lists, “fresh steak, duck breast, rack of lamb, baby back ribs.”
But cooking isn’t the only talent called upon for success in the personal chef business. They must also know meals and ingredients that can be easily frozen and reheated without hurting taste and appearance. They should have an understanding of nutrition, health, and sanitation. Good business sense is also important, as personal chefs need to keep financial records, market their service, and schedule and bill clients. They also need to test recipes, experiment with equipment, and look for the most cost-effective ways to purchase groceries. “APCA doesn’t teach you how to cook,” Porter says. “It shows you the ins and outs of the business.”
Candy Wallace, the founder of APCA, developed the training course based on her own experiences as owner of “The Serving Spoon,” a personal chef service. “The course is about personalizing service,” she says, “as well as personalizing business to support your own well-being.” Wallace has been in the business for more than five years. “I started by taking care of the little old ladies in my neighborhood,” she says, referring to how she would drive elderly neighbors to their doctor’s appointments, run errands for them, and help them prepare meals. She realized she could expand these services. She knew many people longing for the quality and nutrition of a home-cooked meal, but with the ease and speed of the less-healthy, chemical-laden frozen dinners. “I decided to design a program,” she says, “for busy corporate women who didn’t want their children to glow in the dark.”
Most personal chefs try to confine their services to their local areas, or neighborhoods, to keep travel from kitchen to kitchen at a minimum. Sometimes, a good personal chef’s services become so valuable to a client, the chef will be invited along on a family’s vacation. “I’ve gone with clients to Palm Springs, Tahoe, Maui . . . ,” Wallace says.
Personal Chef Career Requirements
A home economics course can give you a good taste of what it’s like to be a personal chef. You’ll learn something about cooking, budgeting for groceries, and how to use various cooking equipment and appliances. A course in health will teach you about nutrition and a proper diet. Take a business course that offers lessons in bookkeeping and accounting to help you prepare for the record-keeping aspect of the job. A composition or communications course can help you develop the writing skills you’ll need for self-promotion. Join a business organization for the chance to meet with small business owners, and to learn about the fundamentals of business operation.
Both the APCA and the USPCA offer self-study courses and seminars on the personal chef business. These courses are not designed to teach people how to cook, but rather how to start a service, how to market it, how much to charge for services, and other concerns specific to the personal chef business. These courses also offer recipes for foods that freeze and store well.
A formal education isn’t required of personal chefs, but a good culinary school can give you valuable cooking experience. “You must be well trained,” Greg Porter advises. Porter holds an associate degree in the culinary arts from the Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute, one of the highest-ranked cooking schools in the country. With a degree, you can pursue work in restaurants, hotels, health care facilities, and other industries needing the expertise of professional cooks. Culinary programs include courses in vegetarian cooking, menu design, food safety and sanitation, along with courses like economics and math. “But what will teach you more,” Porter says, “is working part time for a restaurant, or a caterer, to learn the business. I’ve sold food, catered, managed, owned a restaurant—I’ve done it all, to learn the whole business inside out.”
Certification or Licensing
To become a certified personal chef (CPC) with the USPCA, you must work for at least two years as a personal chef. You’re required to complete written and practical exams and meet educational requirements. The APCA, in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation, offers the personal certified chef designation to applicants who have at least four years of professional cooking experience, at least one year of employment as a personal chef, and who pass written and practical examinations. One quarter to one half of the personal chefs working in the United States and Canada are certified, but certification isn’t required to work in the business.
Because you’ll be working in the kitchens of your clients, you won’t need licensing, or to adhere to the health department regulations of commercial kitchens. A few states, however, do charge permit fees, and require some inspections of the vehicle in which you carry groceries and cooking equipment.
Porter emphasizes that a person should have an outgoing personality to be successful as a personal chef. “Customer service is the most important thing,” he says. “If you’re not people-oriented, you can just hang it up.” A strong work ethic and an ambition to succeed are also very important—you’ll be promoting your business, building a client list, and handling administrative details all yourself. You’ll need patience, too, not only as you prepare quality meals, but as you wait for your business to develop and your client list to grow. You should be a creative thinker, capable of designing interesting menus within the specifications of the client. And, of course, keep in mind that you’ll be cooking several meals a day, every day. So it may not be enough to just “like” cooking; you’ll need a passion for it.
Exploring Personal Chef Career
The most valuable exploration you can do is to spend time in the kitchen. Learn how to properly use the cooking appliances and utensils. Experiment with recipes; various Web sites include recipes that are good to freeze and store. This way you’ll learn what meals would work best in a personal chef service. Cook for friends and family, and volunteer to work at high school banquets and soup kitchens. Contact the professional associations for names of personal chefs in your area. Some chefs participate in mentoring programs to help people learn about the business. Look into part-time work with a restaurant, cafe, or caterer. Many caterers hire assistants on a temporary basis to help with large events.
Nearly all personal chef services are owned and operated by individuals, though some well-established chefs serving a largely populated, affluent area may hire assistants. Aspiring personal chefs who live in one of these areas and have some cooking experience and education may be able to hire on as a cook with a big personal chef operation. But most personal chefs will be in business for themselves and will promote their services in areas near their home.
The majority of people who use the services of personal chefs are working couples between the ages of 35 and 55 who have household incomes over $50,000. Most of these couples have children. Personal chefs also work for people with disabilities and senior citizens. “A lot of clients are seniors,” Candy Wallace of APCA says. “They want to stay in their own homes, but never want to see the inside of a grocery store or a kitchen again. Some of these clients are in their 90s.”
David MacKay, founder of USPCA, emphasizes that the career of personal chef is really for those who have tried other careers and have some experience in the food and service industry. The personal chef courses being offered by USPCA-accredited community colleges may eventually change this and may attract people with little cooking experience into the business. For now, though, a personal chef course and seminar isn’t really enough to get you started unless you also have a culinary education, or a great deal of knowledge about cooking.
If you feel confident that you have the cooking knowledge necessary to prepare good-tasting, well-balanced meals for paying customers, then you should consider training through either APCA or USPCA. Once you have a good sense of the requirements and demands of the job, you can start seeking out clients. Because you’ll be cooking with the stoves and appliances of your clients, you don’t need to invest much money into starting up your business. An initial investment of about $1,000 will buy you some quality cookware and utensils. But you’ll also need a reliable vehicle, as you’ll be driving to the grocery store and to the homes of your clients every day.
Volunteer your services for a week or two to friends and neighbors who you think might be interested in hiring you. Print up some fliers and cards, and post your name on community bulletin boards. You may have to offer a low, introductory price to entice clients to try your services.
Most personal chefs only cook for one or two clients daily, so maintaining between five and 10 clients will keep them pretty busy. If a personal chef is able to attract many more customers than they can handle, it may be beneficial for them to hire assistants and to raise their prices. As they grow their business, personal chefs may choose to expand into other areas, like catering large events, writing food-related articles for a local newspaper or magazine, or teaching cooking classes. They may also meet with owners of grocery stores and restaurants, consulting with them about developing their own meal take-out services.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual earnings for chefs in private households in 2005 were $20,820. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $13,210 or less and the highest paid 10 percent earned $34,960.
Personal chefs usually sell their services as a package deal—typically $250 to $275 for a two-week dinner plan that includes 20 individual meals, with a fee of $10 to $15 for each additional meal. A complete package may take a full day to prepare. This may seem like a very good wage, but it’s important to remember that personal chefs must pay for the groceries. Though they will be able to save some money by buying staples in bulk, and by planning their menus efficiently, they’ll also be spending a lot on fresh meat, fish, and vegetables. One-third or less of a personal chef’s 10-meal package fee will go toward the expense of its ingredients.
Greg Porter likes the “personal” aspect of working as a personal chef. “My customers become friends,” he says. He appreciates being able to prepare meals based on the individual tastes of his customers, rather than “the 300 people coming into a restaurant.” Many personal chefs enter the business after burning out on the demands of restaurant work. Many personal chefs enjoy making their own schedule, avoiding the late nights, long hours, and weekends of restaurant service.
Though personal chefs don’t work in their own homes, they don’t travel that much. They will have to visit a grocery store every morning for fresh meats and produce, but most of the hours of each workday will be spent in one or two kitchens. Freezer space, pantries, and stoves obviously won’t be as large as those in a commercial kitchen, but work spaces are generally more inviting and homey than those in the back of a restaurant. Personal chefs work entirely on their own, with little supervision by their clients. In most cases, their clients will be at work, allowing them to create their meals, and their messes, in private.
Personal Chef Career Outlook
Although the personal chef industry initially experienced strong growth, the national publications Entrepreneur, Time, US News and World Report, and others once listed personal chef services as one of the hottest new businesses, the profession is experiencing a slow down. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment of personal chefs is expected to decline through 2014, reflecting the general downturn in private households hiring service help. Further fueling the decline in the field is the growing popularity and convenience of prepared meals-to-go available in grocery stores and specialty food stores.
Though employment opportunities are slowing, jobs will continue to be available. The basics of the job will likely remain the same in future years, however, it is subject to some trends. Culinary institutes now recognize the career, and some schools are beginning to include personal chef courses as part of their curriculums, making career training more important. Personal chefs also will need to keep up with diet fads and new health concerns, as well as trends in gourmet cooking. As the career gains prominence, states may regulate it more rigorously, requiring certain health inspections and permits. Some states may also begin to require special food safety and sanitation training.