Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Chef Elgin Woodman found herself in a position that will look familiar to a lot of chefs: laid off from Joy Wallace Catering, stuck at home and desperate to get back in the kitchen.
“At first, I thought I would take that time for myself and try and figure out what my future was going to be. I didn’t want to rush into anything because I knew the opportunities would be slim to none,” she said. “But then I saw no end in sight.”
When working with a customer as a personal chef, the process is fairly similar to that of catering: Identify what the occasion is, what kind of food they are looking for, and their budget. Photo courtesy Elgin Woodman
So, Woodman decided to start a to-go style pie shop, Pie High, as a way to stay busy and bring in some much-needed business; but there still seemed to be something missing.
Eventually Woodman found her calling: Being a personal chef.
“That was really more up my alley, it may not be the same physical work as catering, but it has the same satisfaction at the end,” she said. “It doesn’t mean eventually I won’t go back to catering, but for now it’s definitely been good.”
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Similar stories to Woodman’s can be seen across both restaurants and catering as more chefs are starting to dip their toes into the world of personal and private chefing, just as the demand from consumers grows. Now, when we’re talking about personal or private chefs, we’re not necessarily talking about those chefs who live with and cook for the extremely wealthy, although that’s part of it, we’re more referring to the growing popularity of hiring a chef who will come to your home for an evening to prepare a meal for your family or for a small, private event.
“We want to be a cross in between a restaurant and catering,” said Michael Casciello, co-owner of Food Fire + Knives, a personal chef catering company. “We want to have the familiarity of a restaurant while still providing that high level hospitality.
“A customer that’s never really had a private chef before thinks that they’re only for NBA players, but we can show them that these menus are a la carte and that they’re affordable.”
Getting back into the kitchen
As restaurants shuttered and events were cancelled, chefs from all walks of life found themselves struggling with not only how to make ends meet, but also how to maintain their creative outlet.
“They obviously don’t need as many cooks or chefs to run the kitchen, and menus are being drastically cut,” Casciello said.
Personal chefing is sort of a bridge between resstaurants and catering. Photo courtesy Food Fire + Knives
Fortunately, many chefs have been able to find the path forward by turning to the personal chef business as their next career move. The United States Personal Chef Association estimates that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 personal chefs working nationwide. One such chef, Graham Overal with Food Fire + Knives, was forced to make the difficult decision to close the doors of his Greenfield Manor Bed & Breakfast in Asheville, NC. But fortunately, he was able to make the transition into a personal chef.
“As for many chefs and catering personnel at this challenging time, the pandemic has been a really testing time for us. So, when the opportunity arises where we can do our job and still be paid a decent wage, we have to grab it with both hands and not let go,” he said. “I count myself as one of the lucky ones, many chefs that couldn’t find work have had it really rough.”
The growing demand for personal chefs can be attributed to the continued fear many people feel when they think about venturing back out to restaurants or to a social event. For example, maybe guests feel safe with those in their immediate “COVID bubble,” but what about those guests at a neighboring table? And obviously, going out to a restaurant or party isn’t like it used to be anymore, what with smaller party sizes, pared down menus, individually plated or boxed meals, and of course mask mandates.
“I definitely see more people gravitating towards using private chefs especially in this pandemic era,” said Heather Carr, former Executive Chef for Footers Catering, who is currently working as a private chef. “The pandemic has forced us to have smaller gatherings, resulting in an increased demand for detail-oriented and intimate food experiences.”
Catering vs chefing
When looking at the differences between working as a catering chef verses a personal chef, there are a lot of positives and negatives.
“The comparison between the two sectors of catering and the private chef service is simple: One, you turn up in the morning, do the job to the best of your ability, get paid, go home. Turn up the next day and do the same thing again,” Overal said. “The other, you work by yourself most of the time, do all your own shopping, costing, preparation, travel, cleanup and marketing.”
“It’s a really new way of life for these chefs,” he said.
One of the biggest benefits of working as a personal chef is that it allows for a lot more flexibility.
“I still get to come up with menus based on the clients and what the occasion is,” Woodman said, “and it’s still very fulfilling without the hours I used to put into it.”
And the types of events and menus that are served are drastically different between catering and personal chefing. Whereas catering events utilize buffets, chafing dishes and large platters, personal chefing focuses solely on the individual.
“It raises the quality of the experiences because we're not prepping 500 portions of a salad or an appetizer, we’re making all of these items specifically for the party,” Casciello said. “Theres a lot more love in creating your own food, rather than creating someone else’s food a thousand times a day.”
Being a personal chef requires quite a bit of flexibility as the kitchen they work in is different every day. Photo courtesy Food Fire + Knives.
But like everything in life, there are tradeoffs as well. For starters, personal chefs must learn to be adaptable since they will be in a different kitchen every day.
“You do need to have a good amount of experience and be able to walk into the unknown and assess the situation within a few minutes because every place you go has different cooking equipment and the layout is constantly changing,” Overal said. “I have to carry my kitchen around with me wherever I’m booked for that day.”
Putting on the Show
Additionally, as a personal chef you must be okay working on your own.
“Each chef has to be the champion of their own business, of their own menus,” Casciello said. “It’s an opportunity for chefs to be their own boss and not have to worry about the backend of the company.”
“You have to think of it as starting your own business from the ground up,” he said. “The more effort you put into it the more you get out of it, so make sure that the menus that you provide your clients are recipes that you know and can execute well in an environment that is constantly changing.”
However, it can get lonely at times.
“I miss working with a team,” Woodman said. “I love brainstorming, being surrounded by people and thinking of creative ways for different events.”
Personal chefs typically work alone, so they can call all of their own shots. Photo courtesy Elgin Woodman
One of the biggest adjustments for many when working as a personal chef is the interaction.
“The biggest thing is that now you have to be social while you’re cooking, which may not sound super difficult, but it is a real skillset,” Casciello said. “The chef is the most interesting part of any restaurant and they’re usually tucked away in the kitchen, but now the customer has a chance to talk to and hear about the chef.”
It’s truly the personal connection that puts being a personal chef in a league all its own.
“The personal connection and time I get to spend face-to-face getting to know what food and experiences my clients enjoy most is amazing,” Carr said. “Not that catering lacks that entirely, but when you interact with clients in their homes on a consistent basis, you are able to unlock what they already love and help them navigate new culinary experiences alongside.”
Are personal chefs the way of the future? If you ask Casciello the answer is “Yes.”
“The private chef industry has really taken off because clients want to stay home with their family or close friends rather than going out to a restaurant or party, and I think we’re going to see a paradigm shift on the other side of this as a lot of the business is going to go to these private events,” he said. “I think this has been a wakeup call for a lot of chefs that there is another outlet to satisfy that urge to cook.”