Private Chefs Still on the Menu in Bay Area Homes

Necessity forced Andy Schwab to hire a private chef.

A month before Valentine's Day, every restaurant he called was booked.

So he dusted off an idea he'd held for a while, called Town & Country Resources, a domestic staffing company, and found a chef to cook a gourmet meal for him and his wife.

Schwab, a managing partner at 5AM Ventures, a Menlo Park venture capital firm, worried about finding the right personality. Food was almost secondary.

"A gourmet chef is a gourmet chef," he said. "The questions is: Do you feel comfortable with this person in your house? Does he or she have the right view of the thing? That was the risk."

For Schwab, the risk paid off. Their chef, Steve Ganner, did the shopping and prepped in his own kitchen, which many private chefs do. Ganner arrived an hour before dinner, cooked the meal, served it and cleaned up. He was in the Schwabs' house only 2 1/2 hours.

The evening cost $250, plus the price of the best bottle of wine in Schwab's cellar.

Many chefs working outside of restaurants cobble together a living through a mix of special events, like romantic dinners and parties, and what is known as personal chefing: preparing and freezing a week's worth of food for busy individuals and leaving detailed heating instructions.

Far more coveted -- and lucrative -- are private chef gigs with families where meals are fired up on site and served immediately.

Though the economy may have collapsed like a souffle, numerous Bay Area families continue to employ private chefs, albeit at a less-frenzied rate than four years ago. Salaries run between $50,000 and $85,000, plus benefits, which makes private chefs, as opposed to personal chefs, as prized as truffles. (Hourly rates range from $35 to $50, plus groceries.)

"Twenty years ago, people had cooks in their home, but they cooked three meals a day and maybe were the housekeeper, too," said Lucy Bowen Taylor, a private chef for seven years. She cooked for Joe Montana's family for over three years until they left the Bay Area, and cooked for her most recent family for three years.

Taylor says that in the past decade, because artisinal food has become almost as trendy as fad diets like the Zone, there has been a movement toward hiring culinary professionals. "It's kind of a new little realm. I guess people had so much money they decided to move away from the cook and started hiring the chef, the experience."

Some families hire chefs because they appreciate good food and lack either skill or time to prepare it themselves. Many stay-at-home moms prefer to employ a chef so that they are free to spend better time with their children. Others seek them for health reasons.

Steve Ganner agrees. "A lot of people on diets would rather pay somebody else to do it," he said. "And if you can afford it, why not? It's like getting a personal trainer."

Most private chefs love the experience. The work is creative and stable, and for some chefs, it is worlds better than restaurant work.

"In a restaurant kitchen, you have long hours, it's physically draining and hot, the pay is terrible, and you generally work nights and weekends and holidays if you're any good," said Sara Mastracco, a private chef who began her first family placement in January.

Prior to her new job, Mastracco worked as a personal chef, a side business she continues. She also worked at a series of restaurants. Her current income is three times what she made at New York's ritzy Le Bernardin.

Private chefs enjoy more flexibility than other culinary professionals. They can prep at home at their convenience, showing up at their employer's home several hours before mealtime. They might spend six hours working instead of the 10 to 12 hours that are customary at a restaurant.

Properly matching client and chef is crucial, said Cindy Race, a private chef for an Atherton family and co-founder of Four Star Private Chefs, a Peninsula staffing firm.

Race and partner Susan Flynn have placed over 200 private chefs since starting the business in 1997. Roughly half her clients have previously employed a private chef; the rest are virgins. All of them love the experience, though, causing something of a business problem since happy clients tend to keep the chefs that make them so happy, Flynn said.

Yet only about half of the chefs she interviews are cut out to be private chefs, Race said.

"Every good cook doesn't translate well to a household," Race said. "People with some culture tend to do better. A client does not want a chef who says, 'Is that a real Picasso?' You have to have discretion."

Privacy is paramount to families with private chefs. Most clients on the Peninsula and in San Francisco require their chefs to sign a confidentiality agreement, Race said.

"There are people who want to see their name on the marquee," Race said. "Chefs at restaurants, people go there for their food and they get to make whatever crazy thing they want. In a home you have to set your ego on the doorstep before you cross the threshold."

While the differences from restaurant work are apparent, private chefing is really just a more genteel beast. "It's hospitality on a smaller scale, but hospitality all the same," Mastracco said.

"You can say that it will be less expensive just to go to Aqua," Taylor acknowledged, "but Aqua didn't come to your house."

Sarah Duxbury is a staff writer for the San Francisco Business Times.


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