I’ve been a personal chef for 6 years, and I love it. It’s a second career for me, like it is for a lot of us – borne out of a deep desire to pursue a passion and earn a living by it, and in my case helped along towards it by the staggering boredom of my corporate life. The higher I went, the less work I actually did, the more paper I shuffled talking about work other people were doing or might do in the future, the more money I made, hooray! Except, yuck. Blah blah blah triple yuck, I couldn’t stand it, so I fled and here I am, happily elbows deep in cooking most days of the week. Actually since ChefBaby came along I work 2 or 3 days most weeks, and that feels just about right. (I used to do 5 days a week, sometimes two clients a day, and it was physically really demanding, but fun and lucrative. The best part about this or any self-propelled gig is that you can do as much, or as little, as you want.)
Anyway. As usual I’ve digressed from my point, which is: I also love talking about being a personal chef, and sharing info with aspiring or newbie chefs. I talk to a lot of students coming out of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, where I went to school, who’ve expressed a desire to enter this facet of the business. I give them my perspective on what it takes to start a personal chef business. (Very little, really, besides a desire to do it and a fairly unshakeable belief that you can cook food other people want to eat. Or another way of saying it: nothin’ but knives.)
But of course there are those pesky details if you want set yourself up as a PC. Every state has their own rules & regs for starting a business, and some have regulations specific to running a PC business, so definitely check with your state. (Google “small business” or “starting a business” and the name of your state for general business startup stuff; then search your state’s Board of Health web site for “Food Regulations” or “Personal Chef”.)
In Massachusetts, here are the resources that I think are most helpful to someone considering starting a PC business:
- Mass.gov ‘s “Getting Started” section for small businesses – step-by-step instructions on starting a business, choosing a business entity type, licenses and permits, etc. Good stuff here. (FWIW, most of us start out as sole proprietors, though there are plenty of good reasons to incorporate as well. I formed an LLC last year, after 5 years as a sole prop, to add some additional protection.)
- Massachusetts Food Code – extensive (seriously!) details on the rules and requirements surrounding commercial food preparation, delivery, catering etc - none of which mention personal chef businesses, so you have to read between the lines to interpret the main important fact: you can’t cook at home and deliver; you either cook at your client’s home or out of a commercial kitchen.
- Fact Sheet on Residential Kitchens in Food Service – the one place I’ve found in Mass state regs that mention cooking at home for money. This doc tells you what can (jams, jellies, cakes, cookies and other non-potentially hazardous foods) and can’t (anything else) be prepared for sale out of your home kitchen.
These sites will give you most basic state requirements for forming your business. Next up: what to do next? A new blog post coming soon will outline some options.
Chefchick Says: bookmark or print any online info you find that’s relevant to starting or running your business. After you get started you only need to reference this stuff every once in a while – renewing licenses, filing annual reports for an LLC, etc – but info is easy to lose in the maze of pages on gov’t web sites. Do yourself a favor and use something like Delicious for portable, permanent, sharable bookmarks; and it’s not a bad idea to create a hard-copy folder of printouts to stick somewhere at home. Hedge your bets. (Thanks to my fellow chef Patti for turning me on to Delicious!)
I love fall – once I get past my dread at the advancing darkness/cold/snow thing, that is. More precisely, I love fall cooking. There’s a softness, a delicious,warm fillingness that comes from slow-cooked braises, soups and roasted root veggies that I love and crave all year round. And from a laziness perspective - a comfy perch from which I view many things – it’s certainly easier: fewer fresh salad-y types of meals equals less mincing and julienning and vinaigrette making. I do love the bounty of summer veggies in all their yummy crunchy barely-cooked but well-dressed glory, but when I wave goodbye to that last meal of tomatoes, corn, basil and bread, I’m more than happy to welcome that first Beef Bourguignon or pot pie. (Mmmmmm, pot pie.)
Or Cassoulet. I love traditional cassoulet, full of meat and happiness. But I also love lighter, modern versions. I Primed a copy of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook, and have made his now basically famous veggie-heavy cassoulet twice this week. (For some reason my brain insists on calling it Cassoulet with Many Vegetables, like something you’d see on a weirdly written Chinese restaurant menu.) It appeals to me on several levels; first because it’s delicious, with that silky sinful mouthfeel you want in your slow-cooked goodies, and second because it, like all the recipes in the book, is really more of a jumping-off point than a fixed recipe. You can use whatever veggies you have on hand, really, and lots of different liquids and/or meats. Most of the dishes that I make for clients are loose frameworks also, that can take on vastly different forms at different times depending on what’s fresh, what’s available, and what I didn’t forget. That approach to cooking is what makes it fun, and why personal cheffing is such a kick, since all clients are different, and you can make the same dish three times in a week and have a really different final result each time. Tuesday’s Cassoulet had turkey sausage, b squash, cauliflower and chicken stock; Thursday’s had chicken thighs, zucchini, cabbage and red wine. Both delicious :) Enjoy.
Cassoulet with Many Vegetables (a la Bittman)
2 tbs olive oil
1 pound Italian sausages, bone-in pork chops, confit duck legs, fresh duck breasts or a combination (or chicken thighs, or turkey sausage, or basically whatever you have on hand)
1 tbs minced garlic
2 leeks or 2 onions, sliced
2 carrots, 1″ pieces
2 celery stalks, 1/2″ pcs
2 zucchini, or 1 small head green cabbage, cut into 1/2″ pcs (or squash or cauliflower or what have you)
4 cups chopped tomatoes (couple of cans)
1/4 chopped parsley (I omitted)
1 tbs chopped fresh thyme, or 1 tsp dried
2 bay leaves
4 cups cooked or canned white beans, drained, liquid reserved (I didn’t drain and just poured one large can of beans & juice in)
2 cups stock, dry red wine, bean-cooking liquid, or water, as needed
Heat oil in large pot over med high heat. A minute later, add the meat and cook, turning as needed, until pieces are deeply browned on all sides, 10-15 minutes. Remove, drain all but 2 tbs of fat.
Reduce heat to medium and add veggies; sprinkle with S&P and cook 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, meat, and herbs and bring to boil. Add beans and return to boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat, simmer about 20 minutes, adding more liquid as needed if mixture gets too thick.
If using meat on the bone, fish it out and remove it from the bone; and discard bay leaves. Chop meat into chunks and return to pot; warm through and taste to adjust seasoning.
Chefchick Says: get yourself an Amazon Prime membership. Personal chefs, deduct the cost as a business expense; you’ll be glad you spent the $79 a year when you can replace lost instant-read thermometers, order new cookbooks, and get sets of Pyrex for a new client in 2 days with no shipping costs, and no running around to stores. (Having ChefBaby has made me really dislike having to go in to actual stores.)
Hey, guess what, kids – it’s National Food Safety Education Month! Coincidentally, some thoughts on gloves in the kitchen:
Recently I attended an industry event sponsored by Plate Magazine, which was great fun. Hosted at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Cambridge, we spent the morning watching (and smelling, and drooling over) chef demos of favorite recipes from their restaurants. Next came a tasting lunch of all the morning’s dishes prepared by the students whose school we’d invaded, and in the afternoon, a Top Chef-style cooking competition. Actually, it was more like an early-season-Hell’s-Kitchen competition, since we were in teams of 6 or 8 chefs competing against other teams…each team with a color-coded hat so we could tell each other apart in the super-heated insanity of the kitchens. I was on the Maroon team, or perhaps it was Burgundy – let’s go with Burgundy, since that summons a vastly more delicious connotation…you just can’t go “mmmm, maroon” the way you can with Burgundy.
Anyway, it was a blast and there was great food and fun, and it felt wonderful (and humbling) to be in the company of so many talented chefs. For the cooking competition, we had to develop recipes based on a list of ingredients that had been provided by sponsors – Barilla Pasta, the Australian Lamb Board, California Raisins, etc. The theme of the event (and the latest Plate issue) was Mediterranean cooking, and each team had to produce an entree, a tapas-style small plate, one with shellfish, etc., in enough quantity so that everyone, judges and other chefs alike, could sample all the finished dishes. In the kitchen I worked alongside Chef Mike, head chef at a large local private university, and so well accustomed to cooking for large audiences. I of course usually cook for only one family at a time, so cooking in any sort of volume is definitely not my comfort zone. So I became something of a wing man for Mike, contributing to the development of the dishes but letting him take the lead on quantities and final garnishes (another thing I don’t get to do very often – sprigs of fresh herbs not holding up particularly well for days at a time. )
Each team had a student popping around offering things – kosher salt, more towels, gloves. I passed on the gloves but saw that everyone else – all restaurant or foodservice cooks – was taking them. I asked, don’t they get in the way? The fingertips caught under the edge of your knife, ending up with tiny rubber slivers in the ratatouille? Always too large or too small, and ending up full of water like a cartoon hand when you’re at the sink every 2 minutes? Most of them replied that while that might be true, health codes required them to wear gloves whenever in contact with food, especially prepped foods that were ready to be served without further cooking. Which makes sense in a foodservice setting, of course, for two big reasons: lots of people with lots of unknown hygiene routines work there, and unlike personal chefs, they aren’t always two steps away from a sink to wash their hands. But in the client’s kitchen, if you’re like me then you’re at the sink washing your hands roughly every 3 or 4 minutes all throughout the cook date. Mince some garlic, wash your hands. Zest a lemon, wash your hands. Sandwich break, wash your hands. Clean your cutting board, wash your hands. Leave the room for any reason, wash your hands. And certainly, touch poultry, crack an egg, skin a salmon fillet - wash your hands. It’s why super-creamy hand lotion becomes part of my chef kit every fall, to help with the inevitable red, raw, or even cracked skin you get from so much exposure to water and soap. But, I learned, or perhaps realized is a better word, since I guess I already knew that hand-washing sinks are rarely right next to a commercial stove – in a commercial kitchen, you don’t wash your hands every two minutes: you change your gloves.
I used to wear them cheffing, and I still do for dinner parties where I’m refilling trays and bustling about. I think I just ran out once, and didn’t get them again when I realized that they bugged me anyway – the fingers are always too long and they end up under my knife, which is dangerous; they diminish sensitivity (insert condom-related joke here), so for instance if I’m pressing my lamb chop to check it’s doneness, there is just [thatmuch] less accuracy there due to the latex-free vinyl barrier between me and my meat. I always end up stripping them off every few minutes anyway b/c I have to wash my hands between tasks – not doing it feels exactly like not washing them after using a gas station bathroom. It’s icky. My hands must be washed every few minutes around food, and so I ended up going through dozens of pairs of gloves during a cookdate. And as a ferocious recycler/friend of the earth, that just bums me out. So there you go. I don’t usually wear gloves in the kitchen. But I bet you I am, and you are, light years more sanitary than the average foodservice worker. Not to besmirch their general reputations – but these are OUR businesses, so every little teeny detail matters, right? In my state, the regulations regarding Personal Chef businesses are wafer thin, but I don’t recall ever seeing anything stipulating we go gloved. We operate in a sort of murky twilight as far as the Health Department is concerned anyway, somewhere between domestic servant and a caterer…but do us all a favor and nobody go ask them. :)
What say you, chefs? Do you love the gloves, or do your hands need to be up close and personal with your foodstuffs?
(PS: wondering who won best-in-show for their individual dish? This guy:
Wow, that was some hiatus! It’s taken me a lot longer to get back in the swing of things, post-baby, than I anticipated. Which is not to say that I’m actually IN the swing, as of yet, but I’m aiming to be. Summer’s the slowest time of year for personal chefs, so it’s been easy for me to stay laaaaazzzy and just keep floating along with my handful of clients. But as we head towards fall, I figure it’s time for me to get off my duff, since it’s always a back-in-the-saddle kind of time anyway. Parents eyeing the whole school/work/activities treadmill, knowing they face another year of what-am-I-going-to-get-on-the-table-for-dinner, often choose this time of year to send out those inquiring emails and start Googling personal chefs. So this is great time to be sure your web site is up to date, and all your other ducks are in a row, in order to best position you to add new business this fall.
Here’s what I’m doing to make sure I’m ready for fall, and new clients:
- Click thru every page on your web site. Look for broken links, outdated content, missing photos etc. Update your content and fix any problems you find. If this whole activity causes you to start cursing and throwing things b/c you hate trying to update your web site more than anything, make this the year you hit up Craigslist and offer a few bucks to a college student to either make your updates for you (cheap), or redo your web site so it’s easier for you to do (pricier but still not crazy expensive.) Don’t forget, EVERYONE could use some extra cash these days, and what was out of your reach a couple years ago may not be now. Everything is negotiable! And don’t be afraid to barter.
- Review your pricing. Make sure you’re comfortable with it; it should be somewhere between “I can’t believe someone would pay THIS much!” and “I can’t believe I’m bothering to leave the house for this much.” What I like to do is estimate how long it takes me to prepare X number of meals, say a 3/4, and set a per-hour figure in my head that seems fair for the skilled labor I perform (we’ll call this Y). X*Y=my price for that service. On days that I’m faster than that time, I feel like I’m making extra. When I’m slower, I lose money (mentally). Keeps it interesting! Also: don’t lower your prices trying to chase business. It’s a slippery slope that will leave you demoralized and resentful, which, if you recall, were feelings you were trying to avoid when you left corporate life/quit teaching/got a divorce/started your own business after your kids were out of the house, and decided to become a personal chef. Offer specials and deals, do temporary bonus things where you’ll throw in a baked good or breakfasts or snacks for the kids onto your regular service – add more value, instead of dropping the price. For businesses like ours, value is everything – we don’t compete on price.
- Make sure your client materials are up to date. Sample menus, client forms, questionnaires, etc. Fix typos, update designs, get rid of stuff you don’t use. Pare down your new-client forms as much as possible; less is always more – your clients are busy people. I’ve hacked my client questionnaire almost in half from it’s original 8 PAGE LENGTH. What was I thinking? (What I was thinking is that I needed to know absolutely everything in advance before I started…but I’ve realized over the years that you’ll learn from your clients as you cook for them, so you might as well wait until the information is useful, instead of abstract and almost theoretical. For instance, my questionnaire used to ask them for their favorite salad dressings, but over time I’ve realized that that really wasn’t important information to have at that point. I make the dressings that go with the salads – just because they love Thousand Island doesn’t mean I’m going to make it to go with their Roasted Beet Salad or whatever. If they want you to prepare just salad dressings for them to use with their own salads, they’ll ask you. Or you, because you are paying attention, will see how much they love salads, and offer to do it for them – as an add-on, or a periodic freebie that you’ll do without being asked or charging, to make them love you that much more.
- Restock and refresh your kit. Whatever it is that you deem essential to bring with you on cookdates – whether it’s just your knives, or everything from your spice kit to garbage bags and everything in between, now’s a good time to freshen it up. Top off your spices, replenish your cleaning stuff if you bring it, sharpen your knives. Look at whatever vessel is toting your gear and see if it needs cleaning or replacement. I looked at my backpack the other day and noted for the first time how grungy the back of it has gotten. A good 409ing took care of it, but ick. (I use a backpack b/c I HATE HATE HATE that feeling of an over-the-shoulder bag swinging down and bumping into the other stuff you’re trying to pick up when you bend over, causing you to have to hike it back up with your other hand, which for me is usually already holding at least 3 other things…grrr. Backpack = happy. I stuff it with my towels, apron, cooling fan, spices for the day, mini food processor, and a handful of other never-want-to-be-without-them tools.)
- Go shoe shopping. Who needs a reason? Just go! :) But really, make sure you like the shoes you chef in. You should have nice comfy sturdy ones with good support – I’m a fan of Merrells myself, especially these. Please don’t ever wear open-toed shoes or, God forbid, Crocs in the kitchen, or if you do don’t tell me about it. Sharp things can be dropped, pots of boiling water can be spilled – plus, I’m sorry, but naked feet don’t belong in a client’s kitchen, any more than nail polish or your long lovely hair drifting down across your shoulders and into the fish tacos. Keep your flip flops in the car and change when you’re done. You should also be happy with the rest of your cheffing outfit; I bought a couple dozen v-neck shirts at Costco several years ago for $5 each, and had my logo embroidered on them. I like this b/c I don’t ever have to think of what to wear that day - like school uniforms. Many chefs put their logo on their aprons; also a good idea. I wear my shirts and rotate a few pairs of work-ish cotton pants in dark colors that hide splatters.
With an up-to-date web site, spiffy client materials, current pricing, a well-stocked bag and new shoes, you are now a force to be reckoned with! Go forth and cook. Happy fall!
Chefchick Says: Take one of your reusable grocery bags and stuff it full of towels, and keep it in your car, so you’ll never run out or forget to grab them. Buy your towels by the dozen at your favorite discount store - and as I learned from my hair-salon-owning-sister, dark ones last longer, since they don’t show stains as soon as white or light colors. I finally switched to black aprons too, for the same reason.
Hello all! Back at the keyboard after a little break to give birth to ChefBaby and get her started in the kitchen. Well, not really, but she does hang out in there with me when I cook, and we had fun baking some of my mom’s cookies together over Christmas – check her out:
(She may be trying to escape, thus expressing that her general opinion of baking is similar to her mom’s…)
Anyway, today was my first day back in a client’s kitchen, and thankfully I discovered that I haven’t totally forgotten how to cook. (I did forget where lots of things were in the grocery store, but to be fair they did move some stuff around.) I left my kit packed so I could just grab it and go, and it was a good thing, because I only remembered once I was there that I needed an apron, towels, my mini food processor, my one-handed pepper grinder, etc. It was a smooth day and (hopefully) an auspicious start to my resumed career!
By popular demand over there on that YouFace (thank you Jack Donaghy), here’s the recipe for one of the dishes I made today. I never post recipes here, but what the heck – it’s a new year, and a whole new era for me, so why not! This vegetarian casserole is savory, comforting and has great texture, between the creamy cannellini beans, smooth goat cheese and crunchy Panko. I wish I remembered where I came across it – it isn’t one of my own, but I have no idea where I found it. (Fellow chefs, if it rings a bell, let me know.) Enjoy!
White Bean & Artichoke Casserole with Goat Cheese
1/2 cup Panko crumbs
2 cans cannellini (white) beans, undrained
2 tsp chopped fresh — or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp chopped fresh — or 1/2 tsp dried sage
1/4 tsp pepper
4 cloves garlic — minced
2 tbs olive oil — divided
3 cups leeks (about three large), sliced
2 tsp chopped fresh — or 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1/4 tsp salt
1 bag frozen artichoke hearts (or 2 cans, drained)
1 1/2 cups crumbled goat cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drain beans in a colander, reserving liquid. Add enough water to reserved liquid to measure 1 C. Combine beans with thyme, sage, pepper and 1 garlic clove. Heat 1 T oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add three garlic cloves, leeks, rosemary, salt and artichokes. Sauté 4 minutes. Stir in bean liquid, cover, reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Spread half the bean mixture in an 11×7 baking dish coated w/cooking spray and top w/half of goat cheese. Spread artichoke mixture over goat cheese, top with remaining bean mixture and remaining goat cheese. Combine bread crumbs and 1 T. olive oil and sprinkle over casserole. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes or until lightly browned.
Oops, almost forgot:
ChefChick Says: Hang on to the rubber bands that come wrapped around produce like scallions and asparagus. They’re great for lots of things, such as when stupid #$!%! plastic wrap is all you have because you ran out of the best substance known to man – Glad Press & Seal – and it won’t stick to a dish you need to cover. Wrap a rubber band around it the rim of the container to hold the plastic in place, before you go insane trying to get that infernal stuff to stick.
I recently came across a site, courtesy of the Food Now! newsletter, that makes it really easy to check to see how important that sell-by date on the container really is, among other useful bits of info. Stilltasty.com provides what they call “Your Ultimate Shelf Life Guide – Save Money, Eat Better, Help The Environment.” I don’t know whether any of those things are true, but I do know that this is a very useful (and addictive) site.
StillTasty’s “Keep It or Toss It?” engine lets you type in a food and find out how long it should stay fresh in the fridge or freezer – and, most importantly for personal chefs, it differentiates between raw and cooked foods, which many other resources like this don’t. For instance, I typed in “pork tenderloin” (I’m plagued by spoiled pork) and found that all cuts of pork will stay at their best quality when frozen raw for 4-6 months, but once cooked, are best eaten within 2-3 months. (And it always notes that food properly stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit will keep indefinitely, in terms of being safe to eat – it’s the taste and/or texture that will suffer past the recommended dates.)
Another cool thing: the “Your Questions Answered” section, where it addresses such often-pondered questions like “Can You Safely Drink Milk After the Sell-By Date?” (sure, for up to a week usually) and “I Left Pizza Out Overnight – Is It Still Safe to Eat?” (they say no; I say yes provided you nuke the hell out of it til it’s sizzling and has reached 165 degrees, sure to kill off any nasties…or maybe I just hate wasting pizza, and having never had food poisoning am willing to risk it – until I get food poisoning, after which I’m sure I’ll change my tune.) They source their data mostly from US government sources, research studies and food manufacturers, and they do a nice job of balancing an abundance of caution with a healthy dose of common sense.
This is a great site to point your clients to, in case they have questions about meals you prepared eons ago that they’ve just discovered in their freezer. And the “3 Ways to Defrost Food Safely” is worth referencing too, so they know it’s not just you telling them the best way to thaw meals is overnight in the fridge. (And I guarantee that food-obsessed people will be unable to tear themselves away from the site without reading the entire “Your Questions Answered” section.)
Chefchick Says: Wax paper can melt and shed little waxy flakes if you use it to line sheet pans for cooling hot food. Use parchment paper instead.
Remember that garden I started back in the spring, with high hopes?
Sigh. Here is what it yielded:
I know it was a tough summer all around for growing veggies – my CSA had fairly weak output all season, and lost many of their tomatoes and potatoes to late blight – so I’m not giving up. I have doubts about whether there’s enough sunlight on my heavily wooded property, but I’m going to test the soil first and see if some improvements there are in order. Even the lettuces barely popped out of the ground, and never got past the small sad scrawny stage. Only the beans and peas produced anything, and that was paltry. No beets popped up at all. I never got around to planting the tomatoes or cukes, and from what I hear from other folks who had garden woes this year, it’s probably just as well…
Chefchick Says: Skip overpriced basting brushes sold at kitchen stores…I buy cheap paintbrushes at my local hardware store or big box home improvement emporium. At about 50 cents a pop vs. $10 or more, I don’t mind when they start to disintegrate and need to be replaced, and I just prefer the way natural bristles hold oil and marinades, vs. the way silicone does.