You are on the clock every time someone needs to eat. Which is, like, all the time.
This job is not glamorous. Do I get to cook for famous people and go to cool places and stuff? Yes, without a doubt. But the work itself and the job itself are very labor-intensive and very stressful. You can know so much and have great technique, but food can still go wrong. Once, I was broiling cedar planks to cook salmon and accidentally set them on fire — like, to the point where knobs on the stovetop were melting. Kitchen fires are a huge deal, and I had to rush to put out the fire, and then save the salmon. Where the real skill comes in is learning how to adapt quickly and how not to freak out. That's my motto: Don't freak out.
The restaurant industry is extremely competitive, and being a private chef is even more so. It also has a lot to do with your reputation and who you know. I'm the personal chef to Marc Jacobs, and I was contacted for that job because I knew his former assistant. I don't know if I would've been offered the job without that relationship.
Every day, I stop by the farmers' market and specialty stores. There's a spice shop I frequent, and my relationship there is a really great, because I'm always in the know about what's new and cool. If can't find a certain spice or a tea, the owner can order it directly for me. I depend on those relationships to be competitive: If my clients know I'll always have fresh, high-quality, special ingredients, it makes my meals more memorable. Recently, I did a dinner party for a client and one of my friends, who's a forager, went out and picked these incredible oyster mushrooms and garlic mustard greens — stuff you couldn't find on the menu in a restaurant, because it was picked by hand out in the wild, two hours outside of New York. It's really great to be able to say, "These ingredients were picked specifically for you."
Restaurants can be intense because of the scale. Breaking down boxes of squash or crates of chives or de-stemming 4 pounds of thyme is a lot of work and honestly not that much fun. But there's still a tremendous amount of labor — and time — involved in cooking for a dinner party for a client, or even just dinner for one. The hours are still the same; it's just the quantity that's different. That said, you definitely get paid better as a private chef than you do working in a restaurant.
I've been working for Marc for over four years now. When I first started cooking, I tried to establish a personal relationship with him right off the bat by asking a lot of questions. Initially, he was kind of like, "This is what I like to eat," so I was consistent with what I was making and made sure the flavors were always the same. When we became more comfortable with each other, I started slowly incorporating new ingredients into the meals — and he started to expand his palate. Now, he really trusts me, and he really gets excited when I bring new flavors or new ingredients into the mix. When I started, he wasn't eating any fish; now he eats fish all the time!
My time off is totally dependent on when Marc is away. When I first began working for him, he was going back and forth from Paris on a regular basis, but now he's predominantly in New York, which makes things a bit more difficult. I try to schedule vacations and my events — like private dinners and parties I'm hired to cook for — around his schedule. I'm also not working a traditional 9 to 5, so I'm able to squeeze in other things in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night.
You eat with your eyes first, and you can start experiencing a meal even before you have food in front of you. As a personal chef, I have to create ambiance in the dining room in addition to the work I do in the kitchen. When I'm serving dinner to Marc, I love to put on music and light candles and really create a mood so that when he comes down, it's a beautiful environment that he's walking into. This job is about more than just preparing food — it's about creating an experience.
You're also the hostess, the server, the bartender, and the dishwasher. You have to be an entire restaurant staff squeezed into one person. Even when a dinner party is done, I'm still cleaning the china and crystal, and putting everything away. Sometimes, after I've been cooking for 10 or 12 hours, I still have to do two hours of breakdown and clean up by myself.
There are certain days where I'm just straight cooking, and other days where I'm doing a lot of prep and set-up for future events. I make all my own sauces and stocks, so I set aside full days to do that. Right before I went out of town for Thanksgiving, I did a whole day of making chicken stocks and beef broths and other stuff that I can just put in the fridge and have on hand whenever I need it. I also stock up on dry foods — grains, beans, spices, etc. — and freeze fruits, so that I don't have to scramble to make a last-minute meal.
When I'm not cooking, I'm constantly trying new things, checking out food blogs, and talking to my friends in the industry — fellow chefs or sommeliers or mixologists — about techniques and applications. When it comes down to it, chefs are pretty geeky, and we love the science of cooking. I also spend a lot of time on Instagram, since most of the people I follow on Instagram are, in one way or another, related to the food industry.
The culinary world is unique in that you can take a lot of different paths to get to a career in food. I didn't go to culinary school; I just worked in kitchens and, ultimately, a lot of things I learned were self-taught. Going to culinary school can also be an incredible experience, so if you can do it, you should go to the best culinary school. If you can't go to the best one, work in a kitchen, because that's a great way to learn if you're cut out for the job or not.
Which is, like, all the time. I work seven days a week and I've committed to being available. In some ways, I'm at the beck and call of my clients. There are times where I get notice that I've got to do a dinner party a few hours before, and that's crazy — to not only think up a menu but also have to shop, prep, cook, and present everything. It's only possible to do this when you're focused and efficient, which is where my motto (Don't freak out!) comes into play.
It's a gift to be able to make delicious food and provide an experience for someone. Food is so integral in our lives and the way we remember certain things, and it's great to be the person who's creating that memory.
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