Working as a personal chef sounds like a dream job. You get to rub elbows with the rich and famous, make the most envy-worthy delicacies, and, of course, there's the opportunity to travel all over. Two personal chefs, one who works for a well-to-do family and one who works on a yacht, have spilled all the details about their glamorous jobs, including some not-so glamorous parts.
What Are Your Employers Like?
“I have been working for my employer for twelve years now. He made his money by creating a stock brokerage from the ground up. Now he has sold his company and is retired, but he is still highly respected in the investment community. They are wonderful, down to earth people. I wish to protect their privacy, so please excuse me if I am vague on some details here.
My employers own houses in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and on a tiny private island in Florida. They travel seasonally, spending summers in New Hampshire, winters in Florida, and the rest in Pennsylvania. Sometimes I have arrived several days in advance to prep the kitchen. Things tend to fall apart when a house has been left vacant for months, especially in Florida where the salt air and the bugs destroy EVERYTHING!
I’m the only full-time staff. They have house cleaners, handymen and landscapers, but those guys just come and go as needed. During big dinner parties, however, they will hire a bartender and servers to help.’
How Many Meals Do You Make A Day?
“My employers eat three meals per day during the season, two a day in the off season. I always keep fresh snacks on hand and leave home baked cookies and other treats around.
I never will get called for a midnight snack. They respect my privacy too much to do that. I used to live with them, but after I got married five years ago I moved out and now only work for them 8 months out of the year, with summers off.”
Do Employers Ask For Very Exotic Dishes?
“If you think they usually request complicated, exotic recipes, you might be surprised, as I mostly cook normal home cooking. My boss is elderly and old fashioned. He likes things like meatloaf, roasted chicken, pan fried fish, etc. Dinner parties are a completely different matter, though. An easy thing for semi-casual dinner parties is prime quality Filet Mignon, pan cooked with a simple deglazed sauce. The meat is ridiculously expensive, but it tastes so good you don’t need to do anything fancy to make an awesome meal. I do try to mix it up, and in fact, I do that all the time. Mr. Boss usually grouses and says, ‘Well, that veal Saltimbocca was good, but I prefer it if you just pan fried it with lemon.'”
Do You Ever Travel With Your Employers?
“I travel with them to Florida and Pennsylvania. I used to travel with them to New Hampshire as well, but after I got married that was no longer feasible. Now I take the entire summer off and I hire another guy to take my place temporarily. I do not travel with them when they go on vacation, however, and I don’t get paid during the summer. I tend to do occasional catering work to pass the time, plus I work on fixing my house. The replacement chef gets a completely separate salary, and those negations are left up to my boss.”
What Sort Of Budget Do You Operate Under?
“I have no budget. They give me a credit card and I buy what’s necessary. They keep loose tabs on me, but they have learned to trust my judgement. I buy quality stuff, but I don’t do stupid things like blowing $500 on a bottle of champagne. They are pretty much clueless about food cost as they almost never buy anything themselves.
I buy everything and I shop all the time. I use a variety of different shops, and I prefer to buy from farmers markets and specialty shops for fish, meat, deli items and cheese.
My boss probably spends about twice what a normal couple would spend on food. Part of that is the wine, which is always of good quality, but I also tend to buy other things that are top quality. Prime steaks and lobster are not cheap.
I prepare all meals and immediately serve them, with the exception of meals that I will make for them to eat while I go on vacation.
Technically my hours are long, 8 am to 8 pm on average, but I have lots of down time and I only actually work for about 7-8 hours a day. Dinner party days are very long and tiring, though.
I work five days a week, with random days off. I get a week of vacation each winter that I always spend with my wife back home.”
Is It Pretty Easy To Get A Job As A Personal Chef?
“Private chef positions are rare and highly sought after. The most important thing is you have to be totally flexible. When I first put out an ad seeking a job, I announced I was willing to move worldwide. I got a couple responses from Dubai!
Mostly, you have to be willing to sacrifice your personal life. If you can’t do that, then you won’t make it as a private chef.
Moving every four months means it’s almost impossible to sustain friendships or dating or a marriage. Having children is almost impossible. Also, I generally fit my schedule to suit their schedule so I do not have regular days off or regular holidays. I haven’t had a Christmas with my family in at least seven years, and I’m always working on Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and other major holidays.
That being said, in almost any chef job you have to make sacrifices. The cooking life is not an easy one.
In Florida, they give me a very nice house to use, part of a three house complex. In Philadelphia, I live with my wife and commute every day. I no longer work during the summer, so I don’t go to their New Hampshire place, but if I did there is a gorgeous one-room studio built over the kitchen.
I live with my wife for eight months out of the year. We are separated for five, but she spends her vacations to come visit me and I spend mine to come visit her. It works out in the end.”
How Is Their Kitchen Different From Working In A Professional Kitchen
“Their kitchen is a mix of the wonderful and the pain in the rear. The kitchens themselves are large, roomy, and beautiful.
However, it’s not like a professional kitchen. For one, Mrs. Boss is a stickler for neatness and she likes those electric smooth top ranges. I hate those things! They work like crap and I have to clean them three times a day to keep them looking nice. But it is her house. She decorates it as she wishes. It is my job to deal with the situation, no matter what. If we ever need a new stove, I will lobby for one and I will most likely get what I want. Mrs. Boss is good at listening to me about things like that.”
What’s Your Favorite Easy, Quick, Yet Fancy, Recipe?
“If you want a cheap, long lasting meal, make Pasta Puttanesca. It’s dead easy, all the ingredients have a long shelf life, and it tastes fantastic.
Yes, Puttanesca does mean ‘Lady of the Night’s Spaghetti.’ I was told that’s because in Italy those sort of ladies were only allowed to go to the market one day out of the week so that the other women would not be offended by them. By the end of the week, the working girls would run out of fresh produce, so they would make pasta entirely out of canned and long-lived ingredients, or so I was told many moons ago.
It’s simple. Boil up some spaghetti. While it’s cooking, gather these ingredients: several cloves of chopped garlic, one small can of diced tomatoes, crushed red peppers, capers, chopped parsley, half a lemon, olive oil, white wine, black olives, and anchovies or anchovy paste. Heat the oil in a pan, lightly cook the garlic, add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes, add white wine, add all the other ingredients except for the parsley and the lemon, which you should add at the last second. Toss with the pasta and serve.
This will not be a thick sauce. It will just lightly coat the pasta, with the tomatoes and olives adding a bit of chunky texture. Good luck!”
What’s Living On The Boat Like When You’re Serving Guests?
“If you are permanent crew, you will live on the boat full time. You wake up and go to sleep at work. I don’t really have a place. I keep all my stuff in my car and rent when I need to. For the past 14 months, I have been living on three different boats with only a bit of downtime in between jobs. I like to get a nice hotel in South Beach in between work.
There are basically two separate lives as a yacht employee. When the boat is in use it is literally nothing but work. Once the guests leave, it’s a normal 9-5 with weekends off. I use my leisure time differently than most crew. A lot of them drink and do illegal substances. I like to explore and take pictures.
The worst difficulties a yacht chef can face come from lack of sleep. I have had guests that pound music until 5 am while they party and want snacks and what not all night, but breakfast is still expected at 8 am. It can be a 24-hour a day job. The last owner I worked for was like that.
Oddest request? There’s been a lot. I recently had a Mexican guest request cactus salad. I’m not sure what that is or where to get cactus. But the guest are really normal people, they are just used to getting exactly what they want when they want it. I have been lucky and have worked for cool people. I have heard nightmare stories about people who are terrible. Russians and Arabs have horrible reputations in this industry both as people to work for and as charter guests. Russians will destroy the boat and tip you in empty liquor bottles.”
What Do You Usually Make On The Boat And How Big Is It Really?
“We usually serve whatever can be caught in the water where the boat is. Sometimes the guests like to do fishing excursions or the deck crew will do it, too. On almost every trip, I make crepes with Grand Marnier, fresh berries and ice cream. It’s a big hit every time and it’s so easy. Make a big crepe (easy to look up recipe) drizzle it with the Grand Marnier and top it with berries and ice cream. Garnish it with fresh mint and powdered sugar and lemon zest.
The boats I work on are big enough that they usually have a fishing boat in tow or in the garage. I have seen boats that carry a submarine, fishing boat, speed boat, inflatable utility tender, and a bunch of jet skis. The size of the crew depends on the size of the boat. Usually, it’s two crew per cabin and it will have its own bathroom and shower. It’s not the Ritz, but it’s livable.”
Are Pirates Or Sharks Ever A Problem? What’s The Scariest Situation You’ve Been In?
“To my knowledge, yachts rarely, if ever, are bothered by pirates. Somalia isn’t exactly a vacation destination. Sharks are harmless. I am more likely to get killed by the oven.
I never fry while the boat is moving. I’ve cut myself plenty of times. My hands are pretty much burn-proof at this point. I can take a tray out of a 350-degree oven bare handed. Emergencies are all drilled regularly and crew members all have medical and fire safety training/certifications.
Scariest situation? I was out on the tender on my day off and the battery died two miles from shore. A tender is a boat that gets stowed on a yacht, think small motorboat. I had to swim to shore with the sun going down. If it got dark, I could have been in trouble. It was not fun. Swimming for three hours straight in the open ocean is scary. But paddling an inflatable that far would have taken all night. I swam to shore and paid a local to drive me back to the marina so I could get in the sports fishing boat and go tow the tender back.
Yachts have the privilege of avoiding storms and staying in port if there is uncomfortable weather. The heaviest seas I have been in were 9 ft and it was really crappy, but not too scary.“
Is There Any Sort Of Budget You Have To Stick To?
“Usually on yachts the budget is unlimited. I have spent over $5,000 at Whole Foods before provisioning.
I am responsible for everything food related on the boat.
May sound tame but swordfish and tuna are pretty irresponsible ingredients and I hate it when they are requested. They will both be extinct in our lifetimes.
People really need to show awareness when it comes to buying seafood. Our oceans are dying. There are some places in the Bahamas that less than 5 years ago had beautiful reefs and tons of life. Big companies have come in and built golf courses and resorts and the pesticides have killed everything.
Probably the most expensive meal I cooked was about a year ago docked near Ground Zero in Manhattan. I was cooking for a very rich and famous New Yorker and the boat was owned by a former Microsoft executive. There were 10 people total. I bought everything I needed at Chelsea Pier and spent over $2,000. Lots of expensive seafood including maguro tuna ($80 a lb), caviar and sea urchin. Also got some Kobe beef and lots of exotic vegetables and truffles. I made a truffle vinaigrette steak sauce for the beef, a tuna sashimi dish and a fisherman’s stew dish.
At a restaurant, it would have to cost over $6,000 for the party to turn a profit.
From my experience, really expensive food usually tastes better. The rule of supply and demand apply to food as well. If something tastes average, there will be no demand for it, especially if it is rare and expensive.”
What Does The Crew Usually Eat?
“In regards to what the crew eats, boats have different policies about this. Part of being a yacht chef is feeding the crew three meals a day. When the guests or owner are on board, usually it’s free for all because the budget goes out the window for the boss. When the boat is at port or in the yard, there is a set budget. It’s usually enough to eat pretty darn good, though. Usually, the only interaction we have with the guests is when they pop in the galley and ask for something or if they are curious about the smell of something cooking. Sometimes we will set up a grill and table on a secluded beach and I will cook in front of them.”
Who’s The Richest Person You’ve Worked For And Where Have You Traveled?
“I am not allowed to say who, but I was the permanent chef for a Forbes top 50 member who owned multiple yachts. I would get flown to whichever one he was using. He was worth over $15 billion. Cool guy too!
I have spent a lot of time in the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean as well as Mexico. I have traveled from Miami to Maine, stopping at almost every port along the way. I always eat out when I can. Part of being yacht crew means making crew meals and eating them with the crew. When I’m off the boat I use the web to find cool restaurants wherever in the world I may be.
My favorite place to go yachting is Great Exuma, in the Bahamas. Beautiful beaches and lots of sea life for diving.”
What’s Your Advice For Prospective Personal Chefs?
“You won’t get this sort of job for at least a few years after you study at a culinary school. Without a resume, you have nothing to offer. Without experience, you won’t be able to provide for your employer’s requests. There is a bit of a gap from being equipped to work on the line at a run of the mill restaurant and moving to private chef gigs. The best way is to gain experience, but don’t stick at one kitchen or another too long. Also, try some non-restaurant hospitality businesses. Catering, delis, and banquet facilities are all places to learn more about your culinary art. Restaurant only experience can be difficult to translate directly over to private chef jobs. You’ll need to be as well rounded as possible. Most of what you’re going to be cooking is day to day food, not five-star meals. Chicken salads, pastas, casseroles, sandwiches, etc. Small party catering is really the spot you’ll be able to get your foot in the door. Mingle with clients, learn about the local culture of the elites, and get your name out there. But leave your ego at home. The clients of private chefs don’t want a lippy cook, they want a docile servant.”
Do You Like Watching The Food Network Or Other Cooking Shows?
“I watch the Food Network, but most normal cooking shows bore me. I rarely learn anything new from them. However, I love three shows: Anthony Bourdain, Bizarre Foods, and America’s Test Kitchen. I used to watch a lot of food tv, but I got realyl tired of it after a while. My favorite that I still watch is America’s Test Kitchen because they explain the science behind it and don’t BS you. Personally, I would hate to compete on a TV show or several reasons. For one, I’m kind of laid back. For two, I hate the artificial pressure they put on you. For three, I have a serious health issue that would make it very difficult. My favorite kitchen movie of all time is Ratatouille. It does a surprisingly good job of representing what it’s like to work with the oddballs and degenerates that are attracted to the cooking life.”