A Chef of One's Own
If you've just been fired from a dot.com, you might want to think about reinventing yourself as a private chef. Never before has there been such a demand for the culinary comfort of home-cooked meals prepared by professionals. The restaurant fever of the '90s left many people wanting to eat in for a change; since they don't have time to prepare their own meals, they hire someone else to do it for them. Movie stars and other entertainment-industry players hunt for private chefs as energetically as Ford Models seeks out gorgeous Russian teenagers. Though it can take a hefty income to support such a luxury habit, not everyone who hires a private chef is superrich: Indeed, private chefs have become popular among middle-management types. Still, talk to the most successful private chefs and you'll hear them dropping names straight out of the pages of InStyle and People—at least when they haven't signed confidentiality agreements that prevent them from doing so.
Season tickets to the ballet used to be a sign that you were living the good life and planning your schedule accordingly. Then came sessions with a masseuse and regular appointments with dermatologists and Pilates instructors. The newest "lifestyle enhancer" is the private chef—"the personal trainer of the new millennium," says Christian Paier, owner of the Los Angelesbased agency Private Chefs, Inc. (310-278-4707). So how much do private chefs charge? A cook working a five-day week can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year, plus insurance and housing. If a chef goes on tour with a rock star and must be available 24/7, the salary could be as high as $5,000 a week. The average fee in the "real" world—i.e., for business executives and other noncelebrities—seems to be $350 a day. For that you get someone to shop, prep at your kitchen or theirs, and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner at your home, when it's convenient for you. No wonder private chefs have become such a hot commodity.
A De Laurentiis Production
As the granddaughter of legendary movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, Giada De Laurentiis is naturally very well connected to the Hollywood scene. After earning a diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she landed a spot at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey, then went on to work at Spago Beverly Hills. Since 1998, Giada has become one of L.A.'s most sought-after private chefs, working both for stockbrokers with kids and for big Hollywood names (Ron Howard is one). Currently, she has three regular clients, supplemented by "drop-off" clients to whom she delivers a staggered schedule of meals meant to last through the week. For her regulars, she provides three meals a day, three days a week. This entails shopping for ingredients (with the client's charge card) and cooking on-site. If her regulars make other plans or are on vacation, they still "show her the money."
Lulu Powers recently finished a stint cooking for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith; before that she worked for photographer Herb Ritts. Food prep isn't all she does: "Sigourney Weaver asked me to teach her how to cook," she says. The daughter of a caterer, Powers got into the private-chef business almost by accident: She brought over her killer cupcakes to a child's birthday party, and another guest was so impressed that she asked Powers to cater for her. Today Powers works for the Hollywood elite. She can't get over their kitchens, some of which contain three refrigerators: one for drinks, one for produce, one for prepared meals. Clients who entertain a lot may even have a fourth refrigerator—a glassed walk-in.
Smuggler to the Stars
Jill Pettijohn, who has cooked for the likes of Drew Barrymore, got into the private-chef business way back in 1986. One of her first jobs took her to India, Bhutan and Nepal in the employ of an (unnamed) movie star on a spiritual trek. "It was very tough at times, but still exciting," says Pettijohn of the six-week trip. "I smuggled in dried herbs, wild rice, miso, seaweed, garlic and ginger." Some clients in L.A. are only slightly less demanding. "Someone called me at 5 a.m. once and asked me to come over to make pancakes." (Luckily, the client felt guilty and phoned back to retract the request.) Pettijohn is very protective of her independence, which is one reason she's never worked as a live-in chef. Now she's hoping to segue into another career, as a film director; currently she's taking on jobs as a second camera assistant. Food is just one form of the visual arts!
A Private Q&A
Christian Paier is the owner of the Los Angelesbased company Private Chefs, Inc., which represents over 500 cooks and places them all around the world. He chatted with me about the ins and outs of hiring a chef.
Q: How do you make sure the chefs you represent are qualified?
A: We require at least eight years of professional chef experience, incorporating restaurant stints as well as work in private homes, and ask for references. We check all this out very carefully. Having been a chef, I know when I see a real star, and I can spot a phony from 100 miles off.
Q: How much do chefs and clients interact?
A: In the beginning they need to spend time together discussing preferences and needs. If we've made the right match, the chef will learn to read the client and will know what to serve in a given situation. Most chefs take notes after a meal about what was successful and what needs to be tailored.
Q: What are the most common dietary requests from clients?
A: The trend these days is toward clean and healthy food, meaning organic, and less meat. The Zone diet was popular but is now passé.
Q: What's the most common complaint that clients have about chefs?
A: Inflexibility. Most clients want chefs who can be flexible about switching days off or working on holidays. Unmarried chefs are more in demand.
Q: What are the boundaries of what private chefs will do?