Careers in Culinary: The personal chef

This article looks at a career as a personal chef. It offers an alternative career path for a chef who still wants to pursue a culinary career in the kitchen but with more flexibility in work hours.

What does a personal chef do?

A personal chef offers clients a dining experience within the comfort of their homes. The chef shops for ingredients, prepare the meal in the client’s kitchen, plates and serves it and cleans up. Personal chefs are often used for an at-home, personal dining experience, or to celebrate an event.

The word private chef and personal chef are sometimes used interchangeably, especially since the services of personal chefs have become trendy for exclusive, intimate dining experiences.

In South Africa, for example, a personal chef is referred to as a private chef, so it is most important to look at the difference in function rather than in name to understand each. Further, more and more companies promoting a private chef service are referring to personal chefs.

In this article, a personal chef refers to someone providing a once-off at-home dining experience, as this seems to be the most used globally.

What is the difference between a personal chef and a private chef?

The main difference between a personal and a private chef is that a private chef is employed by one client and attends to their daily catering needs. Different clients hire a personal chef to cook from the client’s home, giving an intimate dining experience to celebrate a birthday, for example.

Reasons why people hire personal chefs.

People hire personal chefs for various reasons. Here are nine reasons why people hire personal chefs:

1. To treat themselves to a personalised dining experience.

There’s something special about hiring a personal chef for an intimate at-home dining experience.

Hiring a personal chef to prepare a four-course meal that is elaborate, beautifully plated and served adds a certain ambience to the experience, making it a memorable occasion.

2. It’s a great way to celebrate special occasions.

Hiring a personal chef to cater for special events like anniversaries or birthdays, be it at home or a venue, takes care of the responsibility of catering but adds a special touch to the event.

A trained chef brings professionalism to them, providing high-quality service that sets the event apart.

3. To add a level of sophistication to an event.

Hiring a personal chef to cater for a special occasion or to enjoy an intimate fine dining experience adds prestige to an event, elevating it from ordinary to extraordinary.

It’s like importing a fine dining experience in a high-class restaurant into the privacy of your home.

4. It frees the host up to relax with their guests.

With a personal chef taking care of food preparations, the host is free to enjoy dinner or a special celebration with friends and family without the pressure of having to cater themselves.  

5. It is the main feature of entertainment for an event.

An evening spent with friends, whilst watching a personal chef demonstrate their culinary skill, all the while explaining what he’s doing and sharing tricks of the trade, has become a thing to do as a novel way of entertainment.

6. To do a cooking class.

People also hire personal chefs to do once-off or ongoing cooking classes, either individually or with a group of friends or family.

7. To allow time to spend with family.

People hire personal chefs to cater special events like Christmas and New Year or for the holiday seasons to allow them time to spend with family.

8. It’s fashionable to hire a personal chef.

Hiring a personal chef is trendy, and clients would like this novel experience because it’s new.

9. It provides support for busy people.

Hiring a personal chef who comes to cook in the client’s home once a week or a month to prepare meals that can be warmed or frozen takes the pressure off busy families, alleviating for some the stress of cooking and allowing more time for relaxation and family life.

A personal chef in this role will design a menu per the client’s needs, shop for ingredients, cook and clean up, leaving instructions for warming or freezing the meals they’ve prepared.

What can you expect from a personal chef?

In fulfilling the role of a personal chef, clients can expect that when hiring a personal chef for an event, the chef fulfils specific functions in their service.

Clients can expect personal chefs to:

1. Shop, cook, serve and clean up.

The role of the personal chef is to shop for high quality, fresh, local ingredients at the best price.

The personal chef then prepares a meal in the client’s kitchen, serves each dish, and cleans up the kitchen.

2. Provide the ultimate private dining experience.

The role of the personal chef is to provide the client and their guest with a memorable dining experience by demonstrating their culinary skillsin preparing meals that taste good and are beautifully styled and presented.

Whatever the meal style is, be it fine dining or a buffet style done in a professional, high-class way, making it a memorable highlight for both clients and guests.

3. Free the host up to be part of the dining experience.

Providing a complete service from shopping to cooking, serving and cleaning up allows the client to relax, enjoy and be part of the dining experience.

4. Allow for the needs of clients in menu and venue choice.

To give clients choices regarding menus or to design an original menu based on client preferences.

To accommodate clients’ needs, be it cooking according to the client’s theme or accommodating dietary needs like preparing gluten-free or vegan meals or accommodating religious beliefs in meal preparation.

5. Present and work professionally.

Clients can expect chefs to cater for the event with high personal hygiene standards and dressed in neat and clean uniforms, which speaks of pride in what they do.

Personal chefs must also professionally conduct themselves in their attitude and behaviour.

They must work in an organised and neat way and adhere to health, safety and sanitary procedures regarding safe food handling to prevent contamination and keep the client and their guests safe.

6. Be entertaining and engaging.

As the personal chef is part of the attraction of the event, the chef needs to be entertaining and engaging in their manner.

The work environment of a personal chef.

The work conditions and environment of a personal chef entail the following:

1. Working on location at a client’s home or a venue.

As you work on location at your client’s home, your work environment constantly changes from one area to another and from one kitchen to another. While they must acclimate to each new kitchen, they can enquire ahead about the kitchen set-up and facilities.

2. Working with various people.

You work with various people as your clients are constantly changing. Often, clients will hire you again when they have had excellent service.

The social status of your client base may also vary from ordinary folk who want a special treat to CEOs or high-ranking government officials who need your assistance to impress investors or cook for their families.

3. Travelling to the client’s home.

A personal chef must travel to different locations, sometimes near or far, depending on where the client is.

4. Transporting equipment.

A personal chef may prefer to bring as much of their own equipment as possible, like chef knives and measuring tools, being familiar with it in terms of quality and ease of use.  Often, personal chefs must supply the needed crockery and cutlery for the occasion as part of their service.

5. Shopping for food ingredients according to the set menu.

On the event day, you will probably be shopping for fresh ingredients for the menu you are cooking from.

6. Consult with the client to assess their menu needs.

A personal chef needs to speak to the client to select from of their set menus or design a menu according to the client’s requirements and find out things like special dietary needs or how many guests are expected.

7. Works alone, with an assistant or in a team.

A personal chef works alone or with an assistant and may team up with other chefs to cater for a big event.

8. Acts as an entertainer, doing food demonstrations.

A personal chef may have to cook whilst performing in front of others, demonstrating the entire food-making process, from preparation to serving.

9. Less pressured than a traditional restaurant kitchen.

Working as a personal chef is less pressure when compared to working in the restaurant industry with its long hours of working on your feet. You must be efficient in cooking under time pressure as you can’t keep your clients waiting too long for their meals.

10. Greater flexibility and choice.

As a personal chef, you are more in control of your time. Following a gig where you’ve cooked for a family function or a family on holiday, you may feel you need to take time off to rest or pursue personal interests.

11. Doing admin and marketing.

As a personal chef in business for yourself, you will also need to spend time at a desk attending to things like menu costing, contacting potential clients, doing follow-ups, updating your social media profile, budgeting, and keeping the accounting part of your business in order.

What do you need to become a Personal Chef?

1. Gain experience in addition to your culinary training.

Added to your culinary training, you need experience. Not only does this give you the confidence to be a personal chef, but it also gives your client confidence in you and that you can meet their needs. With many hours of kitchen experience, you will be proficient in delivering quality meals in a reasonable time.

2. Work with a personal chef as an assistant.

If you haven’t much culinary experience from working in restaurant kitchens, it may be a good idea when starting to work as an assistant to a personal chef. This will help to build experience and learn the art of being a personal chef.

3. Broaden your skills to offer well-rounded food service.

If your culinary training was focused on cooking, improving your skill in patisserie is a good idea, as providing excellent desserts and cakes often forms part of the client’s requirement.

In addition, adding a skill like wine pairing can add the final touch to the service you can offer. This way, you can suggest wines that suit the client and match the menu the client has chosen.

4. Build your personal and professional brand.

Build your brand as a personal chef so that you get noticed. Be sure to do the obvious and promote yourself as a personal chef on social media platforms like Instagram. Build a portfolio of work you have done and food you’ve cooked.

5. Market your services as a personal chef.

Besides creating a strong, authentic, visible persona on social media platforms, work hard to promote yourself, even if it means contacting potential clients offering your services.

Think out of the box to market your brand, like creating food samples and packaging these to showcase your skills and attract clients.

What are the qualities of a good personal chef?

To be a good personal chef you need to:

1. Build wide knowledge and experience.

You need to have knowledge and experience of cooking a wide variety of cuisines so that you are more able to meet the requests of clients.

2. Develop good hosting skills.

You need to have good hosting skills. As a personal chef, you are part of the client’s experience. To be an excellent personal chef, you must be a good host and build a good rapport with your client and their guests.

By being engaging, friendly and animated, you are making the experience a memorable one and, in so doing, ensuring that clients would want to have you back.

3. Communicate well.

Not only must you listen to your client’s needs, but as you must often explain what you are doing as you cook, you must be able to express yourself clearly.

4. Have good work habits.

You need good habits like arriving before or on time to set up and start your meal prep. Clients remember not only that you cooked excellent food but that you were punctual as well.

5. Pay attention to detail.

You need to pay attention to detail, not only to give detailed and beautiful food presentations but to the little things clients mention so that you can go the extra mile, like adding a client’s special ice cream to a dessert. Little things like this go well towards building your brand.

6. Be discreet and protect client information.

A chef is discreet about the personal information of their clients. Clients, mainly if they are celebrities or clients holding high-ranking positions, may like their identities kept a secret to protect their privacy.

Clients may also divulge, or you may inadvertently gain the information they wish you to keep private, so discretion is needed.

7. Keep up to date with food trends.

A good chef stays abreast on the latest food trends so that you can offer clients contemporary menus to impress their guests.

8. Continuously update your culinary hard and soft skills.

There is always the next thing to learn in the culinary industry. You are advantaging your personal chef career by updating your culinary knowledge and skills and soft skills like communication.

Where can you work as a personal chef?

You can work independently or be part of a company outsourcing personal chefs.

Personal chefs cook meals on-site for families and special events and do cooking demonstrations for small or large groups within the comfort of their homes, teaching professional cooking skills to guests.

Personal chefs are hired to cook for:

  • Special celebrations like birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, New year, etc.
  • Holiday seasons – families may hire a personal chef to cook for the entire holiday season, allowing the family time to relax and bond.
  • Team building. Smaller companies or divisions within a company may wish to hire you for a team-building event.
  • Cooking demonstrations – this can include doing a cooking demonstration for a family and their guests.
  • At home, cooking classes.
  • Preparing meals in advance for families with instructions to freeze and reheat.

What is the average salary of a personal chef?

The table below reflects the average salaries for a personal chef across three countries, calculated from averages obtained through several income websites.

CountryPer annum average salaryPer hour average salaryPer annum entry level average salaryPer annum experience level average salary
United States$66,179$28,09$42,665$99,552
United Kingdom£50,304£17,35£27,000£72.500
South AfricaR214,5915R125,39R111,904R609, 453
Average salary for a Personal Chef.

Note that these are only averages and that various factors like location, benefits offered, tips given, the types of clients mostly catered to, the regularity of work, whether the personal chef works on their own or for a company hiring out personal chefs and how pricing is done, can all impact the salary earned.

Some personal chefs, for example, charge per hour, day, or head.

In South Africa, to illustrate, a personal chef (called a private chef) can charge anything from to R2, 500 to R3, 500 per day, according to Suthentira Govender, a lifestyle and food journalist for the Sunday Times, a local newspaper.

Our research revealed that a personal chef could charge anything from R500 to R1 2000 per head, depending on the minimum and a maximum number of people. One private chef company charges R3, 250 to hire a personal chef, with an additional R500 per person for a three-course meal, excluding travel and an admin fee.

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