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March 4, 2019
The Secret Lives of Private Chefs

To become a private chef for an athlete, movie star, or billionaire tech founder, you need years of professional experience and a knack for keeping secrets.

A few years ago, Sunny Lee, a Brooklyn-based chef in her early 30s who has cooked at prestigious restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park, was about to realize a childhood dream: opening her own place. Its concept centered on her elevating banchan (Korean side dishes) to center stage. But when it became clear her partners didn’t share her vision, she withdrew from the project and decided to step back from the professional kitchen.

Lee became a private chef to a high-profile entertainer, cooking chicken parmigiana, steak frites, and other comforting and healthful staples for their family of five. She finds the job rewarding, even almost two years later, and prides herself on applying her extensive training to the work.

“The pressure of being reviewed and scrutinized has been alleviated,” says Lee. “In return, I’m given this incredible balance of life to pursue things that fulfill me.” Her circle of friends now includes many noncooks, and she has time to work out and train as a ceramicist.

And Lee is not alone. Decades ago, private chef and catering jobs sometimes provided a gateway to professional kitchens. Now the current has reversed direction: With commercial rents and minimum wages swelling, customer loyalty waning, competitors flooding the industry, and self-care beckoning, a growing number of restaurant veterans are vying for private-chef opportunities, which represents a sea change for the industry. When Reneé Baker, a former restaurant and corporate cook, became a private chef in San Francisco 12 years ago, none of her friends were doing it. “Now,” she says, “everyone wants to.” (Her husband, Sean, went that route after departing Verbena restaurant in 2015.)

“We are definitely starting to see [an uptick] in grads seeking private jobs,” confirms Ron Hayes, associate director of career services at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, adding that the people taking these jobs are a bit deeper into their career. Conveniently, today’s food-savvy clients demand more-seasoned professionals than in years past.

This semiclandestine profession suggests outlandishly wealthy clients, sequestered compounds, vacation homes, and enough full-time staff to serve Downton Abbey. That’s not necessarily an exaggeration: Oprah Winfrey, billionaire businessman Ronald Perelman, and Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg all have, or have had, private chefs, and there’s one on call for Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s not-so-secret company apartment high over Palo Alto, California.

“If the client wakes up at 2 a.m. and wants cookies and milk, you have to have that ready in 20 minutes, but I wasn’t complaining.”

But a personal chef might also be enlisted by, say, a busy doctor or lawyer to handle their grocery shopping and expertly prepare a few dinners weekly. Meals range from Americana, like meatloaf, boiled potatoes, and string beans (especially if they have young children) served family style, to cutting-edge, coursed-out dishes showcasing buzzy ingredients and preparations, like gochujang, berbere, and fermentations.

On the rich and/or famous end of the client spectrum, a chef—usually young and unattached—might live on the premises, circumnavigate the globe on private jets, and stay in remote homes and five-star hotels, not to mention yachts. Compensation varies according to frequency of meals prepared, size of family and social occasions, and time commitment, and the more extravagant the surroundings, the greater the perks.

“If it’s a live-in position, living expenses are down and income is up,” says Hayes, explaining that personal chefs can earn upward of $90,000, plus room and board, for a total compensation package of between $150,000 and $200,000. Compared with an average executive chef salary of around $65,000, depending on volume and location, the financial appeal is undeniable.

Daniela Galarza, who worked for French legends like Joel Robuchon and Michel Troisgros before moving to Los Angeles and becoming a private chef, estimates that she earned five or six times her prior income after switching, plus other benefits. “It’s not nearly as intense as working in a restaurant, and you’re making just one meal,” she says. “And,” adds Hayes, “you’re only managing yourself instead of a crew and a facility.”

Galarza’s big break materialized when dinner-party clients hired her full-time, which was fortuitous, she says, because “You can’t Google this kind of job.” The experience, and subsequent passed background check, qualified her for representation by elite Los Angeles agencies, leading to live-in situations with agents, actors, and athletes. (NDAs—nondisclosure agreements—forbid her and most others interviewed for this article from disclosing names.) She liked traveling, sometimes for six consecutive months, and the compensation justified the scant personal days and unpredictability. “If the client wakes up at 2 a.m. and wants cookies and milk, you have to have that ready in 20 minutes, but I wasn’t complaining,” Galarza recalls.

Even in today’s evolved restaurant world, nightly services take a cumulative toll, often leading to poor lifestyle choices, like excessive drinking and insufficient sleep and exercise. Becoming a personal chef can eliminate or minimize those stresses and habits. But generations weaned on Kitchen Confidential, televised cooking competitions, and streaming hagiographies like Chef’s Table don’t aspire to toiling anonymously behind an NDA, with its given ban on social media—the digital age’s hybrid infomercial/business card. Clients value discretion as much as palates, and even the best cooking happens in homes, on boats docked in Caribbean ports, or even in borrowed corners of industrial hotel kitchens.

Patty Nusser, a former sous chef at Babbo in New York City, is one of these private chefs working without fanfare. “I know the food I’m doing is damn good, but I’m not going to be part of Cherry Bombe’s Bombesquad,” she says. She and successful peers shut out modern signifiers of success—a victory lap through the dining room, the validation of a TED talk, book deals, product lines, a Top Chef guest-judgeship, maybe even some James Beard Foundation Award bling.

Many also have to contend with the disapproval of their peers, like Lee, who still loves and respects the restaurant business and was stunned when several former colleagues dubbed her a quitter and shunned her.

“So many chefs talk shit on private cheffing when they have never done it,” she says.

That wasn’t a concern for Nusser, who initially became a private chef to keep cooking while also spending time with her growing family. But her first gig, for a Connecticut clan of four (humans—wait for it), proved a minefield: One family member suffered from an eating disorder; another frequently and rudely demanded lunch on a moment’s notice; and she also cooked for their dogs. In time, the clients began taking liberties, asking her to pick up their children after school, which Nusser, herself a suburbanite, found absurd because a sitter was transporting and caring for her kids in Westchester County, New York.

Nusser’s introduction to this subculture illustrates the potential pitfalls inherent in its intimacy. Some chefs ignore their clients’ foibles and idiosyncrasies; others require greater normalcy and consideration, which can be elusive from the 1 percent. For one athlete client, Galarza sent gram-specific recipe breakdowns to a nutritionist, who analyzed them, sometimes requesting adjustments to fat, carbs, and protein to keep the jock in peak condition. But neither of them predicted the Taco Bell wrappers Galarza would discover scattered about the home. She reported it to the client’s assistant, who shrugged her off. So Galarza made adjustments, like replacing half a roasted chicken with skinless, boneless chicken breast, steaming rather than sautéing vegetables, or finishing fish with a squeeze of lemon instead of a sauce. He cheated; she was left to compensate for it.

Not that there aren’t dream relationships: Lee no longer trudges to work through blizzards as in her show-must-go-on restaurant days. “They send me home early or tell me not to come in if the weather is horrible,” she says. Baker also connected in her first at-bat: She’s a nutritionist; her family are vegetarians. She’s still with them and says they treat her like a daughter. They even attended her wedding.

But one mustn’t lapse into familiarity. Rob Newton, executive chef of Gray & Dudley in Nashville, worked as a New York City private chef in the early 2000s, including a year and a half for the late Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Robert Levine. Levine, a sports fan, sometimes kibbitzed with Newton when a Yankees game crackled through the kitchen radio, but Newton was careful not to get too chummy.

“They cared about me, and I cared about them, but you have to keep your distance and know your place,” says Newton.

Traumatized by her Connecticut saga, Nusser decided that her place lay elsewhere, turning to testing cookbook recipes. Then a friend suggested her as personal chef to professional basketball player Emeka Okafor. Nusser immediately clicked with Okafor and his wife, Ilana, for whom she’s worked for more than five years, and Ilana Okafor has referred Nusser to all of her regular clients, including one in a neighboring apartment and two families whose children attend the same school as the Okafors’.

The Okafors also encouraged Nusser, who had been confined to established menu items at Babbo, to spread her wings, experimenting with Chinese, Korean, and Moroccan food.

But chefs’ culinary leanings and their clients’ rarely overlap. “Not to overgeneralize, but a lot of people who can afford private chefs want the same thing,” says Newton. “There’s a lot of chicken scallopini and arugula salads. Sometimes it can get creative if there’s a dinner party, but this is their home, and they often want comfort food.”

Dietary restrictions also can play a role. Mary Tyler Moore had diabetes, so Newton Splenda-fied desserts. Nusser has cooked vegan, sugar-free, and fat-free to honor clients’ health restrictions.

Fittingly, the most essential prerequisite for long-term private-chef success might be the most internalized: the ability to prioritize and find satisfaction in simply cooking for others’ pleasure, and to find meaning outside the kitchen.

“It’s not about this crazy technique I know or all these flashy things I can do. It’s about cutting to the core and using what I know to make somebody else happy.”

Jonathan Wu bookended his four-plus years as chef-owner of Fung Tu restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side (it morphed into Nom Wah Tu in its final months) with stints as a chef for a Fortune 500 executive and their family. After cooking at Per Se early in his career, the gig afforded him time to research and hone his modern Chinese style. After six years off the grid, he returned with pop-ups that introduced his emerging cuisine, leading to Fung Tu. Despite excellent reviews, the restaurant closed in 2018. By then Wu had approached his old employer to arrange both income and recalibration: “Working in the restaurant, the hours were really rough, the stress was extraordinarily high, and I was hurting financially. This was a job where I could address those things all at once.”

Wu has a renewed appreciation for earning a living doing what he loves, and applies the same painstaking attention he did to his restaurant. He presents multiple options to his clients the day prior to each of the three, three-course dinners he prepares weekly, mingling new ideas with tried-and-true favorites. They select, and he cooks, then records his notes and theirs to better align with their taste.

He has room for culinary artistry, as in a recent artichoke carpaccio, but not to tap his Fung Tu archive.

“One needs to sublimate the ego,” says Wu. “It’s not about this crazy technique I know or all these flashy things I can do. It’s about cutting to the core and using what I know to make somebody else happy.”

Wu’s happy, too. He cherishes picking his young son up from school and taking him to tae kwon do class and ball games.

But the chef within abides—and sometimes pokes his head out. Wu wants to keep his current job as long as possible, but he might pursue a consulting side gig someday and would enjoy staging pop-ups. Lee frequently gathers with fellow private chefs and other food lovers, including several musicians, to group-cook in their Brooklyn apartments. She also periodically produces pop-ups, serving her banchan-inspired repertoire.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat how hard and painful it is to be out of the industry,” says Wu. “But running a restaurant in New York City, the cons always add up…. When one’s in the bubble, that feels normal, but it’s far from normal. It’s total insanity.

“I feel like I’m in a good place.”

Andrew Friedman

Andrew Friedman has chronicled the lives and work of chefs in more than 30 books and collaborations including Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll. He also writes about them on his Toqueland blog and interviews them on his podcast Andrew Talks to Chefs.