A Chef to call your own
What's behind the boom in private chefs
Five years ago, shortly after he moved to Newport Beach from Kansas City, Mitchell Allen was standing behind the risotto bar at a party he had catered, when he was approached by a tall, handsome man in a lavender Ted Baker suit, striped shirt and tie. “I’m really enjoying your food,” he said. “Would you like to be my private chef?”
Within a few days, Allen had quit his job as sous-chef at Roy’s Newport Beach and settled into the kitchen of a 30,000-square-foot Harbor Island home where the well-dressed gentleman and his wife – both highly successful entrepreneurs – lived with their four children and two dogs. For the next two years, Allen met the family’s every culinary craving. He prepared pescatarian fare for mom, meat-centric Paleo meals for dad and the two teenage boys, gluten-free pasta for the grade-school daughter and freshly made purees and brown-rice cereal for the baby.
The family entertained frequently, and Allen’s mandate was to “wow” the guests.
A certified sommelier and a classically trained chef, he’d create wine-pairing dinners of six or seven courses for 20 people, served at a long, formally set table on the deck just yards from the ocean. “There was wagyu beef, sushi, truffles, the whole shebang,” Allen says. “Cost didn’t matter. I remember pouring an $800 bottle of a rare 1962 Château d’Yquem Sauternes to complement seared foie gras.”
Today, Allen is the private chef and estate manager to a Yorba Linda family. He regularly cooks aboard one of their three yachts or their private jet. Allen recently traveled with the father and 10 of his guy friends to the family’s four-story, 13-bedroom home in Cabo San Lucas. There he grilled lobster and steak, showering the latter with truffles. Allen’s skills are in such demand that as the family is about to leave for a 10-day vacation without him, he’s juggling offers from three clients who want him to cook for them during his break.
Along with nannies, housekeepers, drivers and personal trainers, a private chef is now an indispensible part of the well-staffed household. Christian Paier founded the company Private Chefs, Inc. 20 years ago. The agency represents more than 3,000 chefs and places them around the world. Business is brisk. “Private chefs are more popular than ever,” Paier says. He can barely keep up with the demand in Orange County. Right now, he has five positions to fill here.
Each of those placements, Paier says, requires a chef who can prepare healthful farm-to-table cuisine. “But people also want someone who can take it up a notch and turn out a six-course gourmet dinner when they entertain,” Paier says.
Beyond these essentials, requests can get very specific, from a chef with a nutritional degree or a background in organic gardening to one with tattoos (“Rock stars will say they want a chef who can party,” Paier says). Having the equivalent of five-star in-home room service comes with a stiff tab: The annual salary of a private chef starts at about $75,000 and can go as high as $185,000. “It all depends on expectations,” Paier says. “Someone who is looking for Michelin-star quality is going to pay a lot more than someone who just wants a chef who can prepare basic meat and potatoes.”
These days, it’s very rare for a chef to live in. But many are expected to keep the kind of hours of a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and take care of the weekend grocery shopping before they take their leave on Friday night.
Nick Crane cooks for the family of one of Orange County’s most high-profile celebrities. (Private chefs typically sign confidentiality agreements that restrain them from sharing the names, or habits, of their famous clients.) He shows up at their Newport Beach estate at 6:30 a.m. to prepare an egg-white frittata or quinoa topped with a fried egg for mom and dad, and French toast or pancakes for the kids. After he packs school lunches – turkey burger sliders and quesadillas are in regular rotation – he heads to Gelson’s or Bristol Farms for the day’s fresh ingredients. “Nothing I use comes out of a can or a box,” he says. He’s back at the estate in time to prepare lunch for the parents, as well as the afternoon’s healthful snacks: energy bars made with dates, nuts, goji berries and a thin layer of dark chocolate, a fresh pitcher of green juice and a quart of bone broth, the rich, meaty stock that has become a mainstay of Paleo-leaning diets.
Crane doesn’t mind that dinner typically means cooking a different dish for each member of the family. Before becoming a private chef, he worked at Stonehill Tavern at the Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, so he’s accustomed to feeding people who want things their way. He does, however, have his limits. “I’ve gotten offers where cooking for the family dog was part of the job description,” he says. “I respectfully declined.”
Not all of Orange County’s wealthiest residents choose to retain a private chef who’s dedicated only to them. They may prefer going out to restaurants a few evenings a week, relying on the housekeeper for everyday cooking or donning an apron themselves. Instead, in a kind of affluent twist on the sharing economy, they’ll call upon a personal chef a few times a month or a few times a year. That’s where someone like Maryann Minck comes in. She has half a dozen clients for whom she’ll regularly drop off meals meant to last for a few days. Other clients hire her to bake cupcakes for little Jason’s class, deliver a month’s supply of her homemade granola, cater a cocktail party or supervise a three-week cleanse.
“The type of person who can hand this part of their life off wants to make sure they’re very well taken care of, and they know that I’m a healthy chef,” Minck says. “Honestly, if I could afford me, I’d hire me.”
Just as there are levels of refinement in restaurants, from fast casual to white tablecloth, there is a hierarchy among the households that employ private chefs. Christina Lundahl is a Swedish-born chef who moved to Southern California 20 years ago to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. “When you first start working in private homes, you might begin with a family that’s low-key and just wants food left in the fridge with instructions on how to reheat,” she says. “Then you work your way up to more demanding clients and very large homes.”
For seven years, Lundahl has been cooking for a billionaire who lives in a sprawling Newport Coast estate. The staff includes five housekeepers and two chefs, each with an assistant. (Lundahl works four days a week, overlapping with the other chef one day.) Lundahl’s workday often stretches to 12 hours and requires impromptu menu planning; she may learn on an hour’s notice that eight guests will be staying for a late dinner. She maintains a pantry that’s as fully stocked as a restaurant’s so she can offer unexpected visitors whatever they’d like. Still, she has been stumped. “Once someone wandered into the kitchen and wanted a hot dog,” she says. “I could prepare any kind of three-course meal on the spot, but I could not produce a hot dog.”