At Your Service: Becoming a Personal Chef

Once considered an exclusive luxury for only the very wealthy, personal chefs are becoming more commonplace. Whether it’s the increasing demands on the average American schedule, our growing awareness of nutritional issues, higher standards for food preparation or some combination of those factors, more people are using personal chefs than ever before. According to the American Personal and Private Chef Association (APPCA), “the current number of personal chefs is estimated at 9,000, serving 72,000 customers. Industry observers predict the number will double in the next 5 years.”

What exactly is a personal chef? A personal chef prepares meals for clients according to the clients’ needs and preferences. Unlike a caterer, who delivers prepared foods to clients, a personal chef prepares food in the client’s home or in a rented commercial kitchen. A personal chef should not be confused with a private chef, which is a chef that cooks exclusively for only one client, family or organization.

Some personal chefs will plan and prepare meals that can be quickly heated and served by the client, stocking the client’s freezer on a weekly basis so the client has heat-and-serve-meals on busy weeknights. Others will completely handle the process from planning to shopping to serving.

The path to becoming a personal chef is varied. Some go to culinary school with the intention of beginning a personal chef business, while others find themselves leaving the stressful world of restaurant kitchens for the independence and slower pace of personal chefdom.

If you’re interested in becoming a personal chef, many training programs are available. APPCA is one of several organizations that offer training programs and business support for those pursuing careers as personal or private chefs. Another well-known organization is the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA). On their websites, these organizations offer everything from advice on pricing meals to online stores where you can purchase cooking tools. There are also community forums where you can gather information and opinions from other personal chefs.

As with any startup business, there’s groundwork to be done. You’ll need to comply with federal, state and local regulations regarding the licensing of your business. Depending on how much money you earn, you will most likely need a business license for any city you do business in. If you’ll be doing business under a company name (i.e. Meals By Meg, or Kitchen Concierge) then you’ll need to file a fictitious business name statement with the county in which you live. You’ll also need a current food handler’s certificate which can be obtained through your local health agency.

Most importantly, you’ll need clients. You can register with online agencies that match clients with personal chefs . APPCA and USPCA both offer such registries. Also, use our tips to build your network and get referrals.

And if you need a commercial kitchen, visit CookItHere.com to locate an available kitchen in your area.

The Culinary School Debate

If you’ve found CookItHere.com, you’re obviously a serious cook. Maybe you’re a caterer, or an entrepreneur working on a line of food products. Chances are if you haven’t been to culinary school, you’re considering it.

Interest and attendance in culinary schools has skyrocketed since the 80s, due in part to the popularity of cooking shows like Top Chef. The level of celebrity that was once reserved for star athletes and performers is now attainable by chefs. Those who achieve household-name status, like Rachel Ray, have launched commercial empires.

Now might be a good time to mention that Rachel Ray didn’t go to culinary school. Many famous chefs did not.

So there’s the debate: with the cost of a culinary education ranging from $20,000 to over $100,000, is it worth it?

Just like going to acting school doesn’t guarantee you an acting career, going to culinary school does not guarantee a culinary career.  Education or not, the career path for chefs usually begins with a $10/hour kitchen job. If you’ve financed a $60,000 culinary education, you’re looking at loan payments of almost $700 per month*—hardly feasible on an average cook’s salary.

Advocates of culinary school will tell you that the formal education offers a breadth of knowledge that you can’t get from working your way around a kitchen. And, just like other programs, you’ll make valuable connections, meet people and encounter opportunities as a student that you might miss otherwise.

There are alternatives. Local community colleges often offer culinary programs at a fraction of the cost of traditional cooking school. And of course, many chefs work their way through the ranks without attending culinary school.

Your ultimate career goal is an important consideration as well. There are many directions to go with a culinary degree outside of restaurants: personal and private chefs, commercial or institutional chefs, education, other hospitality sectors like hotels, cruises, even airlines.  It might pay to explore specific career goals before deciding to attend culinary school or deciding what type of program to enroll in—does your ideal employer require a degree?  Do they favor one type of school over another?

You’ll find plenty of passionate opinions on both sides of the culinary school debate. If you’re thinking about a culinary education, do some research.  Consider your current and projected financial resources, your career goals and the job market before you make your decision. For a more thorough discussion of the topic, try this article from Eater.com.

*From the Federal Department of Student Aid’s Loan Calculator: http://www.direct.ed.gov/calc.html