How to be a Successful Personal Chef

Chef Shani Burton, an experienced personal chef, sharing tips on how to be a successful personal cook with satisfied recurring customers.

Before diving into the details, the key things you can do to win your client’s heart are and have a great experience while cooking for them are:

  • Communication with the client, interactions and relations – before, during and after
  • Recipe review and planning ahead of time, ingredients and checklist
  • During the cooking – ingredients and kitchen equipment check up
  • Preheat and mise en place, taste as you go, time check points
  • Clean up, food storage and necessary checks before you leave

1. Before Preparation

a. Recipe Review
Review your recipes. A majority of your success will come from reviewing recipes prior to cooking. Before entering the client’s home, it is beneficial to know: What will be prepared? What ingredients are needed? What steps and/or techniques are required to execute the meal efficiently? What adaptations or modifications are being made to suit the clients’ preferences? What specialty equipment may be needed? How long should cooking take and what is your timeline? 

b. Client Interaction and Relations
First and foremost you are a personal chef at heart. What makes it special and unique is YOU and your relationship with the client. A major reason people put value into this service is the use of an individual craftsman. A lot of value comes from knowing the person who is going to be preparing meals for their family. It is important that they feel comfortable letting you in their home and you are comfortable with their home. Keeping an open line of communication and discussing the menu ahead of time helps set the client with expectations, not assumptions. Directly ask your client any questions you may have in regards to the meals. In most cases, the client is more than happy to answer these questions. Reaching out helps to better understand preferences and reinforces the personal chef experience.

c. Ingredient Review and Checklist
Before heading out to the client’s house, review what ingredients the recipes call for.  Depending on the customer, sometimes you will be asked to do the grocery shopping. Not all meals ordered will be as the recipe dictates. The client has the option to modify the recipe to their liking. Make sure when reviewing your grocery or ingredient list that their preference is taken into consideration.   Knife/tool kit Kitchens, the tools and appliances will vary from house to house. It is best to have your own knife kit with a few essentials. Your knife kit should include but not limited to a chef knife, paring knife, serrated knife, boning knife, potato peeler, high-temperature spatula, Microplane, measuring spoons, and a thermometer, kitchen labels, sharpie, and tools sanitizer. This is a very basic knife kit you can definitely be expanded on and helps you succeed.

d. Grocery Store Knowledge
Knowing the layout of the grocery stores you shop can save time. When organizing your grocery list separate your items into categories based on where they would be located in the store. This will save time by efficiently allowing you to grab what you need and not waste time backtracking. General knowledge of frequented grocery store inventory will also save time. Some stores have a limited specialty item selection. It’s good to know beforehand if another grocery trip is needed or if there is a substitute ingredient you can use. If using a substitute ingredient or if you need to go to another store contact your client for approval if you have not already made such arrangements.

e. When you Don’t Know
Whether you are a seasoned Chef or this is your first time cooking for hire at some point you will come across an unfamiliar dish or ingredient. When this happens it is best to educate yourself on the matter. Many of the recipes will have a website attached to them. A majority of the websites will give you a more detailed description of the techniques and ingredients used. Cooking is not hard, it’s intuitive. Use Google and YouTube for reference material. Search different recipes variation to understand the mechanics and general ingredients of the dish. Watch different videos of people actually making the food to visualize the steps. If you are still uncomfortable with the recipe, approach your client with various other recipes that are in your wheelhouse but similar to the original dish.

2. During the Cooking

a. Check Ingredients
Once you’ve arrived and notified the customer that you are at their kitchen, make sure you have all the needed ingredients. This way if you need to locate something or purchase something you’re able to do that before you’ve started cooking, with customer’s pre-approval. If you can’t find an ingredient, reach out to your customer to ask where to find it.

b. Check Kitchen Equipment
Once you have arrived check to make sure all the kitchen equipment and utensils you will need are available and clean. In the events that you cannot find a kitchen tool call or text or contact the client of your inquiry. This will save time searching for things while you’re in the middle of cooking.

c. Preheat and Mise en Place
The key to success while cooking is mise-en-place. Set your kitchen up, preheat your oven, and prep your ingredients in order. Prepare the same ingredients from different recipes at the same time to be efficient and save time. Example: If the lasagna recipe calls for ½ cup diced onions and rice pilaf calls for 1/4 cup of onions cut 3/4 cup of onions all at once and divide them for each recipe.

d. Taste as You Go
It’s important to know what your food tastes like. Throughout the cooking process have tasting spoons nearby to check to make sure that the flavor is balanced. This grants you the ability to understand your client’s taste palette better.

e. Time Checkpoints
Establish a timeline and checkpoints for yourself before cooking. Know when certain things need to be done and when others need to be started to be done in time. Periodically check in with your timeline to see if things are taking longer or shorter than you intended. This allows you to stay on track and manage your time more efficiently. Make checkpoints not only for the food preparation but for the cleaning as well.  Clean surfaces and dishes as you go to save time later.

f. Food Storage
Check and identify the storage containers you will be using. Also, make sure there is enough room in the fridge to properly store and cool down the food later.

g. Before You Leave
    • Label and leave simple cooking instructions when you are finished. Sometimes it is suitable to provide two different cooking options; a microwave option and an oven or stove-top option.
    • Once the food is prepared cool and store it. Portion the meals into the appropriate sized storage containers allowing the temperature to drop and cool. Transfer food to the fridge when at room temperature. Before you leave, make sure the food is covered or vented in the fridge. 
    • When you are ready to leave make sure you do a walk-through. Check for any left on appliances or spills that you missed cleaning up, make sure all the stove-top burners and oven are turned off. It is a good habit to leave the kitchen cleaner than you found it.

3. Reconnect with client

Again you are what makes this experience special and unique. It goes a long way when you reconnect with your client. Notify your client when the meal is ready. Let them know you are finished and everything went well. Follow up later to make sure everything tasted good and as intended. This kind of engagement is what promotes repeat service and higher tips.
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