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March 30, 2010

Home Cooking

More people than you think have a private chef. But finding one isn't easy. Here's how

"Not even the richest people we know have chefs anymore," sniffs a Napa Valley vintner with an estate home. "They cost too much and are too hard to keep. It's a corporate thing now."

That's a common perception today, but it's simply not true. Thomas L. Wright, vice president of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the country's major culinary schools, says that "over the past five years we've seen an increase in the demand for private and corporate chefs." He estimates that of the 2,000 chefs who graduate from Johnson & Wales each year, 35 percent take private or corporate jobs and eight percent move directly into private households. Keith Keogh, a former private chef and president of the San Francisco-based California Culinary Academy, says that he, too, sees a definite upward trend led by "celebrities and sports biggies who want flavorful food that's healthy and makes them look good."

In fact, as more and more business is being conducted in the privacy of homes over long dinners, having a chef on call is becoming an important way to butter the wheels of commerce. "In many cases the food is the dealmaker," says Wright. There are even arguments supporting the relative thrift of having a private chef if a household entertains frequently. "It can actually cost less when you consider the expense of top restaurants and the markup on good wine," says Keogh.

The underground nature of the profession is one reason that the private chef trend isn't more apparent. Chefs tend to disappear into households or businesses and stay there, often moving from position to position but never entering the restaurant world. "You're talking a big hidden job market," says Ray Wells, director of placement at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, the most prestigious of the nation's numerous professional chef training schools.

Another reason is that in the affluent areas where private chefs are commonplace (especially East Coast neighborhoods with a tradition of resident staff), most people don't discuss their households publicly. "Up on Red Mountain they all have chefs," says Todd Slossberg, executive chef at the Jerome Hotel in Aspen, referring to the exclusive enclave just outside of town. The same is also true in Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, Old Greenwich, Grosse Pointe, and upper Fifth, Madison, and Park Avenues—wherever family custom, money, and status dictate it. According to Shawn Starbuck, placement director of New York's French Culinary Institute, the school gets approximately 30 calls each month from individuals seeking live-in chefs, often willing to pay salaries of $60,000 and up. But because the supply of good, experienced private chefs is limited and the best ones are usually employed, finding one can be very difficult. The key is knowing how and where to look.


Live-In Versus Live-Out Chefs

"Private chefs are the personal trainers of the nineties," says Christian Paier, whose Los Angeles-based Private Chefs, Inc., supplies chefs to high-profile homes. Customarily, private chefs create and present menus for approval—usually for lunch and dinner each day, and sometimes breakfast—shop for groceries, prepare the meals, and, when no other staff is present, serve and clean up. Thus, chefs must excel in everything from soup to dessert, and have a talent for finding the best ingredients and appliances, an eye for tabletop arrangements, and a knack for kitchen management. Plus they have to do one other thing extremely well: accommodate your schedule.

There are two basic types of private chefs: live-in and live-out. The former receive living quarters (often the equivalent of a small apartment, not just a room), board, and sometimes the use of a car. In return they are usually paid more, and more is demanded of them. They are frequently expected to prepare all three meals six or seven days a week, be on call at other times, and travel with the household. According to Mary L. Starkey, president and CEO of Denver's Starkey International Institute for Household Management, "live-ins account for eighty-five to ninety percent of private chefs in much of the country."

Live-out chefs are an end-of-the-century American innovation fashioned to accommodate people with hectic lifestyles—fast-moving entrepreneurs, busy two-job households, professional athletes—who want the convenience and cachet of a household chef but don't want to sacrifice their own privacy or pay for the chef's living expenses.

The standard week for either type of chef is five working days, normally Tuesday to Saturday or Wednesday to Sunday to include weekend dinner parties—though some employers prefer Monday through Friday and pay overtime for weekends. One live-out chef employed by a baseball player and his family works from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week, preparing breakfast for everyone and lunch for the children. Sometimes she has to put together a business dinner on a couple of hours' notice, but when the family goes on road trips, she is free to do as she pleases.


Food Costs

The costs involved in hiring a private chef depend on a variety of factors. Here's a general breakdown.

Salary The normal range is from $25,000 to $100,000 annually, the low end reserved for those just out of a top culinary school and the high end for the most experienced members of the field, chefs of prominent households, or those in wealthier areas. (Only a handful ever crack the six-figure barrier.) The average private chef makes $35,000-$40,000. Paier of Private Chefs, Inc., says he tells potential employers to "expect to spend at least $1,000 a week on a chef," and his minimum is $900 ($46,800 annually). If you want a chef to work irregular hours, prepare two or three meals daily for five or six days each week, or be on call at all times, it can cost you $50,000 or more.

Taxes Hiring a private chef can involve the same paperwork as hiring any employee, and you will want to have a lawyer or accountant handle Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requirements, from applying for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to keeping records of the wages paid. However, there are three main points you should be familiar with (for more information, contact the IRS at 800-829-1040; or at www.irs.gov):

• The IRS' definition of an employee. According to the IRS, if your chef is self-employed and has his own business (i.e., he is an "independent contractor"), or if his work is controlled by an employment agency, then you only have to issue him a 1099 form at the end of the year. If, however, you control his work (as is usually the case with live-in chefs), then he is your employee—regardless of whether he works full- or part-time, is paid per hour, week, month, year, or job—and you will have to issue a W-2 form instead.

• Federal income tax payment requirements. You are not required to make these payments for your chef even if he is your employee, but many employers perform this service as a favor. If you do, remember that the chef's taxable wages do not include meals and lodging.

• Social Security and Medicare thresholds. If the chef is your employee, and you pay him more than $1,000 during the year in Social Security and Medicare wages, then you have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for him. That amounts to 15.3 percent of those wages, 7.65 percent from your pocket, 7.65 percent from his. You'll also have to pay his Federal Unemployment Tax (FUTA) from your own funds (in 1997 this could have been as much as 6.2 percent of his FUTA wages), and you may have to pay his state employment tax.

Benefits There is no hard and fast rule here outside of those mandated by law for any employee, such as workers' compensation and employment insurance, although a two-week annual paid vacation is standard. Based on sources we spoke to, most employers don't provide medical insurance, and many chefs, says Shelley Gruman, whose Epicurean Connection supplies private chefs in the Los Angeles area, never bring up the subject. However, if you hire a chef through your business, he is customarily entitled to the full corporate benefits package.


The Right Ingredients

Culinary talents aside, the best private chefs share some basic traits. They are prudent, respectful, and tidy; are able to take orders without chafing; quickly learn the names of family members and frequent guests; are presentable and articulate, possessing what Wright calls "a sense of presence"; are able to keep the employer's business private; and know the difference between being a family member and a paid professional.

"In addition to being a good cook, a good private chef is discreet, keeps to him- or herself, never divulges anything heard in the household, and is neat and clean," says Meg McComb, private chef to film director Sydney Pollack in Los Angeles. "The job of a private chef is to fit in. You need to understand your employers, dovetail with them. If there's not a good interface, it doesn't matter if you can make a great blood-orange hollandaise."

"Chefs should never try to get friendly with an employer, and never discuss personal problems," says Gruman. "They work for you, and you shouldn't have to hear their business." According to McComb, good chefs know "there are lines that shouldn't be crossed no matter how long you've been in a household. For instance, there are areas of the house where it's appropriate to serve, but where it's not appropriate to sit down with the family and watch a movie." And, says Keogh, "you want someone who reacts quickly and has patience, especially in larger families."

But most of all, a chef must be able to adapt to your needs. "Look for flexibility, someone with an agreeable personality who can work with your particular family," states Gretchen Goertz-Lewis of Pasadena, California, whose family employs a private chef five days a week. "It depends on what you need. In our family we have a lot of business dinners and spur-of-the-moment parties. There might be two business meals and a high tea in one day." Robert Marron, former headmaster of Starkey International Institute, agrees. "What I teach in the class is surrender," Marron explains. "If you get a call that there will be fifteen people for lunch, all you do is ask, 'What china would you like to use?'"


Finding A Chef Of Your Own

"The chefs I place must have private experience, since that's what most clients want," says Gruman. "It's like getting a Screen Actors Guild card—no one will hire you if you don't have the card, but you need experience in order to get one."

There are three ways to find a private chef, the most tried-and-true being asking around. "Mostly you find a private chef by word of mouth," says McComb. "We are a close-knit group, and most good chefs get hired on the recommendation of another chef." Goertz-Lewis concurs: "There is such a network between all household staffs. If I ask Raymond [her chef] or our maid, they will find help for my friends. They have a certain pride and wouldn't steer me the wrong way."

Finding a chef through culinary or cooking schools is another option, although school placement seems to vary greatly. Ray Wells of the Culinary Institute of America says, "It's not a frequent thing." Yet Cheri Robinson, spokesperson for the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, says the school receives "hundreds" of calls each week from all types of households, "from royal palaces and princes' homes to those of the Getty family, Whitney Houston, and Courtney Cox." Shaquille O'Neal was so pleased with the Johnson & Wales graduate he hired, he has even explored a partnership with the school to supply chefs to professional athletes.

Finally, there are specialized private chef placement agencies that have sprung up in the past few years, often from schools such as the Epicurean Connection, which was started to train chefs for work in private homes because "people were calling agencies for chefs but getting low-caliber cooks," according to Gruman. In general, agency fees, traditionally paid by the employer, range from a month's salary or 10 percent of the first year's salary to 25 percent charged by Starkey International.

The one place you think would be a goldmine of private chefs, the restaurant world, isn't a particularly good one, according to the sources with whom we spoke. True, chefs have been hired on the spot by dazzled diners, but it's rare. Claude Rouas, who owned L'Etoile in San Francisco for many years before opening Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley and the Piatti restaurants throughout California, can recall losing only three chefs in 20 years to private households, one from L'Etoile to Gordon Getty (the chef is still there, 15 years later). "The job description for chefs working in restaurants and in private homes is completely different," says Gruman. Restaurant chefs, accustomed to working fast in a supercharged atmosphere, don't usually adapt well to the slower private kitchen. In fact, almost every source consulted offered the same slant: Find a chef who has been a private chef. "We have agility, and we know how to work with what comes up," says McComb "We are more inventive than chefs used to dealing in quantity."


Now You're Cooking

Once you've found a chef who seems to match your requirements, there are eight steps to follow.

Conduct formal interviews "This person is going to be in your home, so you want to interview extensively," says Starbuck. And, warns an anonymous source who has hired and fired numerous chefs, expect to hear some half-truths or even lies. Most of all, you should click personally with the chef. "You want to have a relationship," says Keith Keogh. "You want a little personal chemistry. There has to be trust."

Do background checks "Reference checks, reference checks, reference checks," says Wright—sound advice since agencies rarely investigate chefs beyond the most easily verifiable facts and customarily do not bond the people they place.

Articulate your requirements "Be specific about your expectations," states New York restaurateur and onetime private chef Wayne Nish. Tell the candidate if the position is live-in or live-out; if it is live-in, describe the accommodations and clarify things such as access to the rest of the house. Stipulate the type of food you prefer, and the ingredients and spices you like or dislike. Lay out the work schedule (number of meals per week, how frequently you entertain each month, whether the chef will travel with you). Wright says that how a candidate responds to the prospect of parties, overtime, and travel is a litmus test for his adaptability.

Look for warning signs Be wary of any candidate who speaks negatively about past employers. "If a chef blabs about an employer, I throw the résumé away," says Gruman. She also advises asking about career goals: If the candidate dreams of opening a restaurant, cross him off your list.

Test the chef's skills Chefs are generally paid a modest hourly fee—perhaps $20—plus the cost of ingredients, to produce a test meal. "You want to see the chef create some magic, not just see a portfolio of creations," says Wright.

Set a period of probation A 30- to 60-day period is an effective way of flagging potential problems. Make sure the chef understands that an evaluation is under way. Having a review form to benchmark performance systemizes the process, explains Starbuck, and "that way, it is all there in writing."

Seal the deal Contracts are usually offered at the conclusion of the first three to six months, although some employers wait one to two years. Agencies frequently attempt to protect the private chefs they place—and to ensure that they will receive their own placement fee—by requiring a contract from the beginning, but in the end the contract is an agreement between the employer and employee. Stand your ground.

Draw up a confidentiality agreement They are not used just by celebrities anymore: Wealthy individuals are increasingly resorting to these legal documents to prohibit chefs from divulging anything they see or hear during work.


A Recipe For Success

Boredom is the deathknell to private chefs, and your biggest job is to keep the chef's interest up. Be sure to give him the freedom to create exciting menus and the food budget to execute them. Throw dinner parties with interesting people. Give him raises, and show him through praise—a simple round of applause after a fine dinner, for instance—that his work is really appreciated. "Thank God," says private chef Michele Economou, "I no longer work for celebrities" (who, she reports, are often very rude, dismissive, and arrogant). Her current employer (a businessman) "says things such as please and thank you," she marvels. But, most of all, take a tip that all good managers have mastered: Step back. "Once you hire a chef," says Los Angeles resident Audrey Skirball-Kenis, who has directed household staffs since she was a teenager, "leave him alone."


Cook Bookers

Here are two firms attempting to take the nationwide placement of private chefs to a more sophisticated level.

Los Angeles-based Private Chefs, Inc. (310-351-8853), was started in 1996 when Austrian-born private chef Christian Paier (left) decided it was time to make good use of the annual six months' paid vacation he receives when his employer is in France. "I kept running into chefs wanting jobs and people wanting chefs, so I put two and two together," he says. In a sense, Paier simply formalized the existing private chef network. "I know everybody, and I know what everybody makes," he says. He insists that every candidate in his roster have a minimum of eight years of professional experience, a solid knowledge of wine, and excellent kitchen management skills, as well as a special ability with desserts. "I try them out myself," he says. Private Chefs, Inc., has placed chefs in households all over the United States, Europe, and Hong Kong. Expect to pay $900 to $2,500 per week, and an agency placement fee equal to 10 percent of the chef's annual salary.

Mary L. Starkey, president and CEO of Starkey International (800-888-4904), founded a domestics placement agency 17 years ago, then in 1989 opened a household-management training school "because we couldn't find quality people anymore who knew how to work in a private home." The school is housed in a 13,000-square-foot Victorian mansion in downtown Denver, set up as a household so that students can learn to work "on location." Culinary arts is one of four "tracks" in the school's eight-week program. Each year the school arranges interviews, organizes a placement function to provide "matchmaking" between graduates and employers, and holds sample black-tie dinners to allow students to showcase their skills. Starkey estimates that, for placement purposes, the agency represents 25 to 40 private chefs and/or household cooks-managers at any one time. The firm averages 60 requests from clients each week, mainly from "CEOs and their homes all over the country," and charges clients 25 percent of the employee's annual income as a placement fee.


Commercial Ranges

Live-in positions usually include living quarters and board (which combined can cost employers an extra $10,000), two to three weeks' paid vacation, benefits, and sometimes use of a car. Live-out positions often include two to three weeks' paid vacation and benefits, especially at the higher levels. Taxes and benefits for both positions can add on $10,000 to $15,000 to the annual cost of a private chef.

Low Level
Requirements: Recent culinary school graduates; some restaurant or catering experience.
Salary: $25,000-$35,000

Medium Level
Requirements: Five to 10 years of experience in private households; good references.
Salary: $40,000-$65,000

High Level
Requirements: Ten to 20 years of experience in private households, star restaurants, or top corporate positions; excellent references.
Salary: $70,000-$130,000


Kitchen Tips

Here is a list of the worst things an employer can do, compiled from interviews with numerous private chefs.

Hire a star from the restaurant world Such a chef may never adapt to the pace and minimal ego reward of a household.

Be unclear about the chef's place in the home Remember, he's an employee. Don't become too friendly, and don't allow him to mingle with guests—particularly if he's good and you want to keep him. But always treat a chef civilly and encourage him to feel he belongs.

Not specify requirements up front Make clear what you expect in terms of hours, performance, personal grooming, and manners. Discuss party, vacation, and business travel plans as far in advance as possible, noting whether his services will be required.

Allow too much—or too little—culinary freedom One is as bad as the other, so strike a balance. Most chefs want an employer's input, but also need some creative license to stay enthusiastic. Schedule regular meetings to review performance and compensation; be honest when you are pleased with his work and when you are not.

Not give an annual or biannual review upon which raises are based According to private chef consultants, this is an important tool, and one that is too often overlooked.

Violate the chef's personal space The more attached you become to your chef, the harder it is to remember that he has a life too. He will remain loyal longer if you allow him to maintain a private life. And never summon him from vacation.


Chefs À La Carte

The occasional employment of a private chef on an hourly basis for in-home dinners and parties is becoming increasingly common. "The big trend," says Shawn Starbuck, placement director of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, "is for busy young couples to hire chefs two or three nights a week, paying an average of $20 an hour for a minimum of three hours." But price largely depends on experience. For example, Raphael Gamon (above; 213-912-2044), a Cordon Bleu-trained Swiss who was the private chef to the French minister of culture and moved to Los Angeles four years ago, prepares four- or five-course sit-down dinners for four to eight people. The cost: $100 to $200 per person.

Chefs are also employed on a temporary basis in vacation spots like the Hamptons, Cape Cod, the Napa Valley, and Vail—or even aboard yachts. Salaries range from $1,000 to $5,000 per week, depending on duties and conditions. Summer employment, for example, tends to be more demanding and therefore costs more, and a bonus of $5,000 isn't uncommon at the end of the season.


Heads Of The Table

The following organizations can offer you assistance in finding the right private chef. None of them charge a placement fee, with the exception of The Epicurean Connection, which charges one month's salary.

California Culinary Academy 800-229-2433
Culinary Institute Of America 914-451-1441
Epicurean Connection 310-659-5990
French Culinary Institute 888-324-2433, EXT. 122
Johnson & Wales University 401-598-1070.