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Finding the right personal chef is about much more than just the food. Jack Kelly of JK Chef Collection describes his job as a matchmaking service.
While the “quality and excellence of the food comes first,” says Kelly, finding the right personal chef comes down to dynamics and communication. “It’s all about the intangible qualities that make a good fit. A chef becomes part of your family and gets to know you, your kids and your dog.”
Working with a personal chef, whether a client is looking to cater a dinner party or an elaborate wedding, is on the rise. The United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA) had about 1,500 members a decade ago; it now counts around 5,000 personal-chef businesses operating in the USA and Canada.
“It’s all about the intangible qualities that make a good fit. A chef becomes part of your family and gets to know you, your kids and your dog.”
Kelly begins the matchmaking process with a phone interview to learn more about the family dynamic and where food fits in. He works with clients in New York City, the Hamptons, and Greenwich, Connecticut, who are looking to hire a full-time permanent chef (often a live-in), or a chef for an event.
“I get to know my clients, how they live and what a typical day is like,” he explains. “We talk about how the family eats and what is the most important meal of the day.”
Ninety-five percent of Kelly’s chefs are classically trained at top culinary schools, and many have worked under culinary stars such as Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Kelly seeks chefs who are flexible and can keep up with a demanding schedule, whether that’s whipping up dinner for eight at home or sourcing ingredients while sailing on a client’s yacht in the Mediterranean.
Chef Gabriel Edwards
Finding a personal chef with a similar culinary ethos is key for some clients. Gabriel Edwards works as a private chef as well as a trainer at Equinox gym in Manhattan. Most of his clients approach him because they’re looking for someone to create healthy and delicious meals. Edwards believes the best client-chef relationships come down to having a personal connection—and plenty of trust.
“As a personal chef, I am a guest in someone’s home,” he says. “You’re in the inner circle. You get to know the dog, the kids and the wife. There is a high trust factor involved.” Pleasing all members of the family is also key. “My job is to keep everyone happy, so if I have to make three different meals for a family, I will do it,” he says.
Photo by Kate Webber
While personal recommendations are always helpful, it can be difficult to find the right chef. One alternative is to approach a favorite hotel as many have branched into private catering and event planning. The famed Meadowood resort in Napa Valley recently launched Estate Events by Meadowood, which creates bespoke events and weddings throughout wine country and beyond.
“Our mission is to create a wine country experience anywhere in the world, where we can utilize the bounty and spirt of wine country in a special event,” says Patrick Davila, the director of operations for Meadowood Napa Valley. His team has curated events ranging from a re-creation of a Meadowood dinner for two to a 250-person wedding held at a private estate in Malibu.
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“We help our clients zero in on what they’re looking for in an event,” explains Davila. When hunting for the right chef or events company, Davila recommends looking at images of past events to see if it is a good fit stylistically. From there, clients should carefully consider the purpose and goal of the event. “Is this a family event, a romantic dinner or is it about fostering business relationships?” he says. “How do you want your guests to experience your personal style?”
Customizing an event, whether it’s a dinner party or a wedding for 300 people, is key to creating a memorable experience. When Zachary Greatting, the founder and sommelier at the Chicago-based Brix Catering & Events, meets with potential clients, he might ask a couple what they ate on their first date or about their favorite meal.
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Greatting recently worked with an Irish couple who got engaged in New Orleans and eloped in Hawaii—and whose favorite food happened to be Mexican. Brix Catering organized a backyard celebration that incorporated all these elements: Mini beignet hors d’oeuvres were a nod to Creole cuisine, and Greatting replicated the mai tais served in pineapple cups the couple enjoyed in Hawaii. The main meal was Pan-Asian, with a pig roast, as well as rice and peas. The late-night buffet featured Mexican tamales.
So what’s the secret to making a private event the best possible experience? It’s simple, according to Greatting. “Spend the money to hire a professional. There’s a reason we do this for a living. Make yourself a cocktail and enjoy your guests while letting us take care of everything.”