New Yorkers don’t cook. A tired truism, but there is no denying it. Between work, the commute, small kitchens and spending time with the family, cooking at home can take a backseat.
But, for some New Yorkers, a day at the office involves cooking. A lot of cooking. While the fry cook and the Michelin starred-chef work at commercial kitchens, there is another group who don their chef’s hat in the kitchens of their patrons.
Private chefs are in the employ of their clients – they provide what is known in culinary parlance as “table-side service” that is, preparing the meal and serving it to their clients in their homes every day. Personal chefs, on the other hand, visit their clients once or twice a week and prepare several meals at once.
Piper Wilder and Amanda Anderson have been personal chefs for about 2 years. Every week, they each visit about 3-5 homes, mostly in Manhattan, to cook for New Yorkers who can’t cook or cannot find the time to do so. And it’s not just cooking. Planning menus based on the client’s tastes and requirements, grocery shopping, cleaning up, packaging meals – all these can be part of the service too.
There are as many similarities as there are differences in the way the chefs run their businesses. Candy Wallace is the founder and executive director of the American Personal and Private Chef Association (APPCA), an organization that promotes the concept of a personal chef. “No two personal chef businesses are alike,” she says. “They differ primarily because of the level of culinary expertise and the chef’s personal preferences.”
By personal preferences, she is referring to the number of hours a chef is willing to put in (some chefs may put in about 20 while others may choose to have a 60 hour week), flexibility in scheduling, and the cuisines they offer.
When a personal chef first visits a prospective client, she conducts a “Personal Assessment Interview.” The client and the chef discuss the client’s tastes, allergies, schedules, the kitchen and set up a service agreement. They also agree on the mode of payment such as check or credit card and the schedule of payments. The agreement also includes certain stipulations like equipping the kitchen with the required containers, pots and pans and ensuring a clean kitchen. Typically, personal chefs in New York City charge anywhere between $350-$400 for a day’s work.
You pay $350 to a personal chef. What are you getting charged for?
So, while Wilder and Anderson became personal chefs for the same reasons – a love for cooking, flexible working hours, less stress than working in a commercial kitchen and a desire to feed people delicious, healthy meals - their businesses are as different as their personalities.
Watch Anderson describe her job in an audio slideshow.
Wilder, in her 40s, is a native of the Upper West Side and a self-taught chef, who talks in rapid, staccato sentences and addresses everyone as “my friend.” Watching her cook is like being at the horse races – it’s speed from the get-go. “We’re going to be just fine…it’s going to be perfect”, she says repeatedly when she realizes that she didn’t bring her favorite knives along with her on the job. “I’m very good, but I am not a Daniel Boulud,” she says wryly.
Anderson, 27, who grew up on Long Island, has a business degree from the University of Buffalo. But after graduation, she realized that her heart was set on cooking. So, she enrolled in Natural Gourmet, a relatively inexpensive culinary school in New York City where she also trained to be a nutritionist. Self assured, quiet and methodical, she almost adopts a Zen state when cooking. She is almost oblivious to other people in the kitchen and concentrates solely on the task on hand.
What does she like to cook the most? “My customers love my pasta with bacon and artichoke with tarragon and red wine vinegar. I make it very often,” she says.
According to Chef Wallace, this is a business in which it takes nearly three years to firmly establish a reputation. So by that definition, these women are “almost there.” Both have other jobs, as they cannot yet support themselves by cooking alone. Wilder designs jewelry on commission and Anderson is a health coach.
Wallace says a personal chef can take on various career streams like teaching, organizing seminars, authoring cookbooks and blogging about food.
Once established, Wallace estimates that personal chefs can make about $50000 to $80000 in a year. Wilder says that she’s not going to give up the other job just yet – she’s waiting until she has enough clients to work five days per week before she can think of quitting her jewelry design job.
Hence, these chefs leave no stone unturned when it comes to spreading the word about their services. Press releases, 4x6 cards, tweeting about their services, constant updates to their Facebook pages, ensuring that their website appears among the top results in an Internet search, visiting doctors’ clinics to get referrals, hosting events on Meetup.com, cooking at philanthropic events are part of their strategy. For example, Anderson had organized an event to demonstrate her recipes on Meetup.com and had tweeted about it. Both Anderson and Wilder get 80 percent of their customers through word of mouth. However, Wilder says that recent customers found her through her Google ads. For example, the first ad that comes up on typing the keywords “personal chef nyc” is Wilder’s ad announcing a 50 percent discount on her services for the holidays.
Anderson initially set up an S Corp, a type of company that passes income, losses and credit to the stockholders for tax purposes. It’s a move - recommended by an accountant- that she regrets as she is the only stockholder. She feels that she has ended up paying about 10% more taxes than necessary. She has fired the accountant, paid up her taxes and is looking to start a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) where her personal liability will be far less. Insurance would provide an additional security blanket and reduce her personal liabilities further. “I should have insurance (like the one provided by the APPCA) but I don’t. I guess I’ve never really had problems so far,” she grins ruefully.
Anderson would love to have two sous chefs by the time she turns 30. She thinks she’ll end up more on the managerial side of things. “Maybe I’ll also open my own cafe and serve the kind of food I like – healthy and delicious Italian food,”she says.
Wilder, on the other hand, as a member of APPCA, opted for the insurance provided by the organization. She confesses that she needs to incorporate her business but hasn’t gotten around to doing that yet. She was also trained by the APPCA on various aspects of running the business like building a website, pricing structures and conducting the assessment interview. She wants to host more of what she calls “romantic dinners for two.” For $325, she prepares a three course meal for an evening and this is her most profitable service.
“The first 3-6 months are crucial for the business,” says Chef Wallace. “People love to cook, but they forget that cooking is just one aspect. This is a business and it needs to be constantly nurtured.” She estimates that chefs require about $2000 as initial capital - for incorporating a business, getting a ServSafe certification which licenses the chefs to handle food, and insurance.
The insurance, provided in conjunction with the APPCA, covers law suits filed by clients, medical expenses due to accidents on the job, damage to equipment like utensils and the office computer etc.
Being a personal chef involves a lot of hard work. Planning a menu consisting of five meals can sometimes take about eight hours. “You’re standing on your feet seven, sometimes ten hours in a day. Carrying groceries in the subway…it can get tiring,” says Anderson. Wilder grins when she sees the doorman offering to help her with the groceries. “Unlike other cities, chefs in New York cannot think of buying a van to carry equipment and groceries. There’s no parking in Manhattan,” says Chef Wallace.
The job can be frustrating too. Difficult and flaky clients, tiny, dirty and ill-equipped kitchens, potential leads not turning into customers, and constant distractions while cooking can make things difficult. Wilder remembers planning a dinner party for a client who kept changing her mind and was unsure of the menu. Wilder was frustrated but had to grin and bear it. Finally, to Wilder’s relief, the client approved the menu and Wilder was able to get on with the rest of her work. But both Anderson and Wilder are pragmatic. They know that the competition is intense - what with a 100 other personal chefs in New York city, services like freshdirect.com and frozen meals at the supermarket. So, they have to offer more. “I try to be flexible. I work around the customer’s schedule, their tastes and their budget,” Anderson says.
“Oh my god, yeah,” says physical therapist Erica “Ricki” Weisselberg, when asked if she is happy with Anderson’s service. “Her food is yummy,” she says. Anderson has also helped look after the Weisselberg kids occasionally. Plus, she accompanies the family to Connecticut during the holidays to cook for them. She prepares meals designed with Jack Weisselberg’s acid reflux problems and the kids’ picky eating habits in mind. The rapport between Weisselberg and Anderson is obvious when Weisselberg asks her kids to perform a dance that they learnt at school for Anderson and they both laugh during the impromptu performance.
Carol Fuerstein is a native New Yorker and has been living in an apartment on the corner of 103rd St. and West End Ave. since the 1970s. Afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, she can no longer indulge in love for cooking. She heard about Wilder through a friend. It seemed like a good idea to hire Wilder as she would get to eat “interesting” food, like her favorite chicken picata.
Watch Wilder make sauteed spinach, an accompaniment to the chicken picata.
There also appears to be a sense of affection between Wilder and Fuerstein. When Wilder is done making the mushrooms, which will also accompany the chicken picata, she quickly stabs a mushroom with a fork and feeds it to Fuerstein to ask her opinion, something she may not do with other clients.
Wilder says she loves being a personal chef because of such interactions. She would also love to work all seven days of the week. “I have tons of energy, I keep myself healthy,” she says. “I can definitely do it.”