Carol Borchardt is one of APPCA’s greatest success stories. She’s an in-demand personal chef, who dug deep and expanded her talents to include writing and food photography. In fact, she’s helped us with gorgeous photos for our Facebook page and upcoming new and improved website. Carol understands the value of smart marketing through photography and social media. And she’s melded both to launch the delightful food blog, From a Chef’s Kitchen. I asked her to tell the story of how she got into blogging and how she’s turned it a strategic way to promote her business and even add new revenues.
We eat with our eyes first and everyone loves to look at beautiful images of mouthwatering food. I have always been fascinated with food photography and all that goes into producing those beautiful images. However, it wasn’t too long ago, whenever I attempted to photograph something, the result was nothing short of awful.
As part of reaching out and getting to know people in my local food community to promote my personal chef business, I got to know one of the food columnists at our local daily newspaper. She asked me to help with a project, loved the recipes I submitted for it and subsequently asked me to do a biweekly food column containing a recipe and write-up for the newspaper. I had never done food writing before but thought it was pretty cool to be a personal chef and newspaper columnist. I would get paid and the newspaper would allow me to mention my personal chef business at the end of every column so I figured…why not.
As part of the arrangement, the newspaper was going to send a photographer out for each column. However, with my cooking schedule and where I live, scheduling cooking, styling and photographing the dish was nearly impossible. After two complicated sessions, I decided to take the photo myself. The photo was not very good, however it passed and the newspaper was happy to let me take all photos after that.
Suddenly, I was a food photographer too, which was pretty interesting because my knowledge of photography in general was quite limited.
Because of my new sideline gig as a biweekly columnist for the local newspaper, I wanted to learn more about food writing. I came across Dianne Jacob’s book, Will Write For Food. Her book is a great resource for anyone interested in writing a cookbook, doing freelance food writing and, of course, food blogging, which is how I became intrigued with it. It intrigued me because I love to create new recipes and being able to share them with the world seemed so rewarding. However, my personal chef business kept me extremely busy so I wasn’t able to delve into the process.
Then, two years ago, I was sidelined from my personal chef business due to an injury. I tripped and fell in a client’s kitchen, fracturing my right kneecap. I couldn’t work or drive for six weeks. It was during this time I realized that someday my personal chef career could end for any number of reasons. Having already experienced severe office job burnout prior to becoming a personal chef, I knew there was no way I could ever go back to work in an office. I felt I needed to have something to fall back on that I was passionate about.
That’s when my “real” food blog was born. I say “real,” because I had a small blog section on my business website, but it got very little traffic. I knew absolutely nothing about how to promote it; I didn’t even have a Facebook account until a few months before my accident. My food photography had progressed to a point where FoodGawker.com and Tastespotting.com were accepting some of my photographs so I received traffic there. Because their editors carefully curate those sites, having photos accepted was very encouraging to me.
So, with tons of time on my hands during my recovery period, I decided if I were ever going to delve into food blogging, it was the time to do it.
Because a food blog is nothing without great photography, I first immersed myself into learning everything I possibly could to improve my photography through reading books, watching online video workshops and by studying great food photography.
I then researched how to start a food blog and looked at hundreds of food blogs.
I knew nothing about social media but knew I had to learn it in a hurry because it’s one of the main ways to promote a food blog. Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, StumbleUpon, and Google+ were all mysteries to me so I had to start figuring them out.
I knew nothing about WordPress (a popular blogging platform), website design or search engine optimization (SEO). For my personal chef business website, I had always let pros at APPCA do it. This, however, I was determined to learn from the ground up, and it wasn’t long before I learned what the “white screen of death” was.
I also knew nothing about how to make money with a food blog—I just knew people did it because they published their income and traffic reports.
But, as with all journeys, they begin with the first step. My original food blog concept, which was based around my love for cookbooks, seemed to confuse everyone. Most people thought all I did was rework cookbook recipes. (Branding experts advise having a clear, definable focus.) The concept worked for Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks fame, but it wasn’t going so well for me. Three graphic designers couldn’t come up with the right logo for me so I worked until midnight many nights trying to design one myself on professional software I knew nothing about.
After hitting numerous roadblocks, I decided to rebrand last summer and change my name to what it is now—From A Chef’s Kitchen. I knew I was doing the right thing when one of the first people I told about the change said, “Now THAT tells me who you are!” I tried a graphic designer one more time and my logo came together quickly and painlessly.
Fast forward to today and I’m having a ball. I absolutely love the process of recipe development, styling the dish and nailing a mouthwatering shot. I love being able to share my recipes and passion for food with the world. It’s very gratifying receiving comments from readers who made a recipe and it’s become their new family favorite.
Through social media and particularly Pinterest, my traffic is growing nicely. Many of my posts are written from my viewpoint as a personal chef. I’m also using my food blog to help promote APPCA and personal chefs in general with my monthly “Menus” posting.
I don’t plan on giving up my personal chef business any time soon, but ways I’m turning my blog into a secondary business is through:
- Ad revenue
- Affiliate marketing (commissions are earned by helping to sell other people’s products)
- Recipe development / sponsored posts for companies. So far, I’ve worked with Calphalon, Weight Watchers and Australis Barrmundi for compensation. However, companies such as Oxo and NordicWare send products for review and I’ve also been able to add some free cookbooks to my collection.
Many food bloggers develop a product to sell such as a self-published cookbook, other food-related book or meal plans. I would like to do that someday. I hope to start doing freelance food photography work and am looking into becoming a certified food stylist.
I’m still a little shy about putting myself out there with my recipes and photography but I’m growing more and more confident about it each day.
If you enjoy photography, writing and recipe development, I highly encourage you to look into food blogging. As a mentor of mine in the food blogosphere said, “Start, and then learn.” That’s what I did!
Have you been wanting to start a blog? What’s been holding you back? If you have one, please add your link in the comment section below and describe what you’re doing.
Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.
And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!
We’ve talked recently about the importance of marketing, including taking your expertise to video and television. So I was tickled to see one of our members, Jes Thomas of Soul Food: A Personal Chef Service in Knoxville promoting her TV appearances on Facebook. If you want to learn how she has made this leap, read on.
Jes has only been a personal chef for a year. “I have always loved eating, which led me to the path of cooking,” she says. “I have been leading college ministry at my church as well as homeschooling my children. Now that they are older I have freer weekdays. I honed my skills in cooking because of all the events and gathering related to church and community. People always asked if I would ever open a restaurant but that is too much of a headache. The joy comes from people who feel ‘filled,’ both physically and emotionally. I love when my food helps them. Personal chefs combine all the best parts of cooking for others. My customers have a need and I get to fill it in a personally fulfilling way.”
Jes came to food through her work in advertising and public relations for a year following college, where she earned a BA in Mass Communication and a Masters degree in Religions Education. At the firm, Jes worked in departments with food clients and learned about gourmet foods because she was in charge of ordering the upscale lunches for client meetings in New York City. Around that time she also started baking and collecting recipes as well as take random cooking classes at kitchen stores. When she moved to her small town in Appalachia, she began to explore “cooking from scratch” because their rural town didn’t have many restaurants or specialty grocery stores. She used videos on foodnetwork.com for more education. And she spent a week in New York City at the Institute of Culinary Education, learning to make croissants, bagels, and pretzels, as well as a boot camp for gourmet cooking.
Last year, Jes took the APPCA certificate class with Candy Wallace. Part of the training included learning how to contact media outlets, which complemented her knowledge of how to write press releases. Jes says her strategy was to make her free website as professional as she could without paying for extra bells and whistles. She set up social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and About Me and then started following all the major news people in the closest city where she wanted to work. “I was hoping some of them would notice and follow me back,” she explains.
Jes got her first break when she saw that the ABC affiliate, WATE, asked the audience to send in news ideas. “I wrote up a press release about myself and the business and emailed it to the hosts of Good Morning Tennessee,” she says. “Then I tweeted the hosts and let them know I sent them the e-mail. They wrote me back and said they were interested. Within a few weeks, I was interviewed about the business.
“That is how I landed my first regular client,” she says.
After that, Jes pursued the WBIR, the NBC affiliate, because they had a kitchen on set. She sent another press release to the producer, tweeted her, and she wrote back. After her first on air appearance, the producer asked if Jes would be interested in coming back. “I have been there monthly since then. It would be great if it were a paid gig, but I will take the free publicity any day!”
As anyone who has done this knows, it can be tricky to cook on air while holding a conversation with the hosts. Jes acknowledges that it takes a lot of practice.
“I practice cooking at home and explaining it. My first few segments, I practiced the ‘script’ in my head and tried to think of all the points I wanted to cover. You’ll notice in a couple of the segments, Russell Biven, the co-host, jokes around with me. I must say, that did distract me and I lost my train of thought. There are actually quite a few blunders I have made, but I have done a lot of teaching in different subjects so I have learned to ad-lib!
“I took public speaking in college and grad school. I still get nervous about messing up, but I think that is what keeps me on my toes. I am up front every week at my church of about 100 people doing announcements and a lot of that is ad lib with my husband. Keeping thing light hearted and fun is my goal.”
At this point, Jess has a few local shows under her belt: Live at 5 at Four on the NBC affiliate, Fox in the Morning in Knoxville, and Good Morning Tennessee, which has invited her back–even though they have no kitchen. “The great thing is now I have connections on these shows, so if I want to do something different with the business I can get in touch with them and have a place to promote it.”
Have you done television spots to promote your business? How did you find your way in? How has it helped your business?
Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.
And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!
Since becoming a personal chef in 2011 APPCA member Dan Vogt has chosen his own path for operating his business. Instead of traveling to client homes to cook, he’s always opted to use a commercial kitchen for cooking and then delivers their meals.
“It’s completely custom, but I can do the cooking on my own time and I’m not bothering anyone in their home,” he explains. “I thought if it were me, I wouldn’t want to have someone in my kitchen clanging around pots and pans. I just want someone to make what I want and bring it to me. And because I rented a commercial kitchen I could service many more clients.”
Vogt’s focus has been on a clean eating approach, using local, organic ingredients as much as possible. Based in Long Branch, New Jersey, Vogt works with a broker for farmers markets in Pennsylvania who is himself a farmer. Based on what’s available, Vogt designs his menu.
“My niche is gluten-free, soy-free, and dairy-free,” he explains. “I work with doctors, with whom I’ve created alliances, to address specific diets. My meal plans can meet everyone’s needs.”
For years, Vogt called his personal chef business Food by Dan. It’s attracted both locals and vacationers at the Jersey shore. He works with NFL athletes and consults with their dietitians to optimize their nutrition. Vogt also partners with about six doctors in New Jersey. He does weight loss and lifestyle coaching with people trying to lose weight, often in partnership with local gyms.
But recently, Vogt had a brainstorm. He re-conceived the business and changed its name to Hello Chef. The biggest change was opening a quick-service storefront, also called Hello Chef, on December 7, with hours from 9 to 3 Monday through Saturday. It features breakfast, lunch, and cooking classes, while also Vogt also prepares his custom meals for clients in the back. People can come in and pick up prepared meals, they can eat in (Hello Chef seats 25), and they can set up a private dinner with Vogt, including a farm-to-table dinner party at the restaurant.
Because Vogt doesn’t have the overhead of serving and bussing staff–it’s just himself, his wife, and a dishwasher–expenses can be kept down and he can cook client meals. Eventually, he’d like to hire a line cook who can put together dishes Vogt already has prepped so he can focus more on the business–not in the business. That’s a big difference to him.
Vogt saw a huge need for this kind of quick service food option in Long Branch. “In our area, there are places where you can get good food, but it’s limited. They tend to be stuffy, high-end places where entrées are $35 to $40. Most folks can’t afford that,” he says. “I think it’s unfair. People should be able to eat real food. I want to make high-quality food at a reasonable price. So I came up with the idea of having a quick-service place with fresh real food. It’s more expensive than other quick-service places, but people understand they get what they’re paying for.”
So, is the storefront the focus of Hello Chef? No. In fact, Vogt, says, it’s basically a way to market his personal chef services. He tells of a customer who came in for breakfast, but after learning about his personal chef services, ended up spending about $200 by ordering 10 customized dinners and a couple of quarts of soup.
One recent Friday night, he hosted a girls night out with all-you-can-eat appetizers. He had 25 people at the event at $60 a person. “It’s a way to promote our real business, which is meal plans,” he says. “That’s our whole push.”
“We get summer beach crowds in Long Branch, and we’ll be marketing to those complexes,” he says. “Imagine planning a vacation and having food ready in your fridge when you arrive.”
He’s also talking to investors about launching a healthy food truck business by this summer. And, Vogt is working toward opening multiple locations with the idea of franchising some day.
Are you trying to develop ways to expand your personal chef business? Vogt has a few tips for you:
- Give thought to your goals. Everybody’s business goals are different. Do you want to build something that self sustains or something where you’re your own boss? Think about it. There’s a big difference. For me, it’s something that self sustains.
- Get creative. Consider how you can do something different to market your business. Trade your skills with a gym to get in front of clients. You can’t be stingy with it. Build that sense of trust with people and they’ll tell everyone about you.
- Marketing is what it’s all about. You can have the best food in the world but if no one knows about you, nobody’s going to care.
Do you have a unique approach to running your personal chef business? Let us know if you need any help or advise!
Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.
Charles Schulman has been in the culinary industry for more than 30 years. He came to the personal chef profession in 2008 after years of working in the hospitality industry–think hotels–and corporate world–think corporate dining rooms, hospitals, and private schools, as well as restaurants and fine dining establishments like country clubs. Based in the Baltimore area, Schulman’s last full-time gig before becoming a personal chef was as a chef for a private school.
At that point he was ready for something new and his wife suggested he look into becoming a personal chef. Years before a co-worker had talked to him about it as a career and pointed him to the APPCA. Schulman finally attended a seminar in Washington, D.C. and liked what he heard. And so he launched his business, Savor Each Flavor.
Since then he’s had a range of clients and also works part-time for a caterer and sometimes for a fine dining restaurant in Owings Mills. “I’ve learned from every one,” he says. His catering umbrella is broad. He offers dinner parties and receptions, romantic dinners and barbecues, cooking lessons and Hors d’oeuvre parties, and chef/sommelier parties. Much of his clientele comes from client referrals, although he says he’s also experimented with Groupon and Living Social.
Schulman has shared 10 tips about catering that he’s gleaned from his experience:
- Offer a lot of variety in terms of food. Create innovative combinations, especially for brunch.
- With bridal showers and baby showers, you get a lot more guests interested in healthy dishes. Be sure to offer egg substitutes or egg whites for omelets.
- Make your omelets in front of your guests. You’re creating a show and are entertaining guests, which they enjoy.
- Be flexible and know your guests in terms of the kind of food they prefer. Do they tend to prefer lighter, healthier dishes? Do they want you to make their mom’s recipe? Be open to their requests instead of strictly sticking to your menu.
- Cater to your client. They’re the ones paying you. They’re the ones eating the food. They’re the ones who will rehire you or give you a great referral.
- When hiring wait staff make sure you have good people who you know around you. They’re the first line of defense. Make sure you’re all on the same page. I have meetings before the event to review plate presentation, platter presentation, menu, clients’ rules. At the event, review every single detail before the event starts.
- Consider partnering with a wine consultant for an event. And for events for guests numbering more than 15, consider hiring a second chef to assist.
- If you’re using fresh herbs, dry them in the oven to preserve them—and you don’t have to toss leftover herbs. Instead you can put them in the freezer. With other leftover produce, you can roast them or otherwise cook them and freeze them.
- Have a good strategy for prepping so you don’t spend all your time in the kitchen cooking. Jot down menu items with recipe with a section that accounts for equipment you need and special issues like guest or client allergies to ingredients.
- Email clients with confirmation when you’ll be there, the menu, and to make sure that the dishwasher, sink, countertops, stove cleared off. If you come into a clean kitchen and clean house, you leave it the same as you found it.Clean as you go. Clean while guests are eating.
Schulman also emphasizes the importance of annual planning. From Christmas to New Years, you can find him at his computer going over the goals he has for himself and his business for the new year. And he anticipates a busy January. “I usually have a range of clients then of people who want to change their diets, who decide they don’t want to cook for themselves, or want a chef to come in and cook healthy meals for their families,” he says.
What are some of your best catering tips? What concerns do you have about branching out into catering?
One of the most important things that APPCA founder and executive director Candy Wallace likes to stress about why she developed the personal chef path is that is was designed to be a valid alternative career path to commercial cooking situations that drained the creativity and joy out of professional culinarians’ lives. It was created to offer trained pros an umbrella under which they could provide their services and skills–always in a state of evolution.
Sometimes that means leaving it for new opportunities–as our recent conversation with Nicole Gaffney showed. And sometimes it means circling back–as today’s conversation with Tracy Pizura demonstrates. Life takes many turns and Tracy, after 14 years away from being a personal chef to run her own cafe in South Florida, recently decided to return to the personal chef industry, restart her business, now named Summer Rain Cafe, and rejoin APPCA.
We chatted with Tracy about her journey away and back to learn what the pull is for being a personal chef.
Tracy grew up passionate about cooking, having first started baking when she was about eight. Her grandma would send her handwritten recipe cards with her cookie recipes on them. Tracy progressed to preparing dinner for her family of seven and says she was exposed to the finest of restaurants, which, “motivated me to continuously learn about and how to prepare all kinds of foods,” she says. “With such a large family I had plenty of tasters.”
As the oldest of five siblings, she took over meal responsibilities when her parents gambling resulted in their losing all their money. For awhile cooking was limited to things like running hot water over an unopened can of Chef Boyardee in the bathroom sink. When they finally moved into a motel with a full kitchen, she took on the cooking as a joy, never considering it as a career. In fact, she sold insurance for awhile, waited tables, did bartending. Finally, a customer suggested she apply to culinary school. As it happened, he was an administrator of Johnson and Wales University, which was opening a school in South Florida. Two-and-a-half years later she graduated at the top of her class. She also married, got pregnant, and had to figure out how to earn a living while caring for a daughter she had resolved not to place in day care. Enter the personal chef business. “I contacted Candy Wallace after discovering her on the Internet,” she recalls. “She was so kind and giving, she gave me all the support I needed without asking for anything in return. I will never forget her generosity.”
Elegant Edibles, in Jacksonville, Florida, did well, but after Sept. 11, 2001, Tracy decided to return to South Florida to be closer to her family. She closed the business, moved with her four-year-old daughter and husband and focused on her daughter–including homeschooling her. But, she says, an opportunity came her way to open a 16-seat cafe in a condominium, which she did for about a year and a half, while also occasionally cooking for a client (that personal chef bug never did completely leave her).
After separating from her husband in 2008, Tracy needed a better means of financial support for her and daughter Summer that would also be flexible. She found it in a small cafe located in a medical building near her home.
“It wasn’t up to code but I knew I could get is licensed and running. So I took all the money I could off the few credit cards I had and went for it,” she says. “That was six years ago. Summer Rain Cafe, named after my daughter, was the best decision I ever made. Summer and I worked it together. It was her last year of homeschooling and I taught her how to be an entrepreneur.”
But once Summer started high school, the long hours, the daily breakdown, and the cleaning all started to wear on Tracy, who no longer felt that creativity that comes from cooking and developing recipes. So just a month ago she closed the cafe and has returned to her original business as a personal chef, but keeping the name of the cafe for her personal chef business.
“The first thing I did was rejoin the APPCA,” she says. “I am glad to be back and hope to find old friends and meet new ones on the forums and in the area where I live.”
Tracy acknowledges that, “When you own a restaurant you have an overhead you must meet every month. This means you have to focus on making money and some of my most profitable items were sodas, chips and unhealthy snacks. I didn’t like selling those items as I don’t eat them myself. But, business is business and I was there to make money.
“Which leads me to the most important reasons I chose to return to the personal chef industry. I can run a business that is good for the community. It makes money but it truly helps people. I can choose when I want to work and when I don’t. There are new and exciting challenges with each client and I find that most of them want to eat healthier and I am there to help. It is much more creative as you plan new menus every week and are preparing all types of interesting dishes. You can focus on quality ingredients that are better for the planet. Your environment changes constantly so your not going to the same place every day.
“And, most importantly you don’t have the stress of meeting a large overhead every month.”
Because Tracy has always followed the industry–even when she was running the cafe–she has seen how it’s evolved, grown, and become more mainstream. Clients are better educated about food, and she’s found that commercial kitchens give personal chefs opportunities to streamline and cook for more than one family and then deliver meals, which enables personal chefs to compete with meal delivery services. Tracy herself has gained so much experience in the food industry. All this has given her much more confidence in her ability to succeed than she had years before.
Under that personal chef umbrella she’s creating, Tracy will certainly do weekly meal service for clients. She’s targeting clients who want to eat and live an organic and sustainable lifestyle–those who shop at farmers markets and prefer locally grown product. She specializes in unprocessed foods that are free of refined sugar, and diets like Paleo and low carb. She’s also drawn to Jewish/Kosher-style cooking and thanks a Jacksonville client for sharing so many recipes with her and teaching her kosher practices that she can use for the large Jewish population in South Florida. But she also is marketing dinner parties and cooking classes.
And, she’s no fool, she’s eying the many yacht owners in the area. “I would not mind a trip through the Caribbean as a perk on the job,” she says.
Where are you in your culinary journey? Are you contemplating career changes? How can we help you figure out next steps?
This time last year, every Sunday night for several weeks I, along with APPCA chefs across the country, watched Food Network Star with a vested interest. One of our own was in the competition. Every week, APPCA member Nicole Gaffney undertook a grueling challenge and she outlasted almost all the competition. No, she didn’t win but she made it to the finals and made us proud.
So, I thought it would interesting to check in with Nicole a year later and find out how that experience impacted her life and career. I was moved by Nicole’s personal and professional growth, as was Candy Wallace, APPCA’s founder and executive director.
“This career path was designed to be a personal chef “umbrella” under which the owner operator develops and offers services and skills that represent the chef/owner’s own level of expertise and personal preferences and specialties. No two personal chef businesses should look alike. And the process of operating a personal chef business is in a constant state of evolution,” said Candy.
“Nicole’s evolution is profound and we are not only proud of her journey but also excited for her since she is at a point in her journey, post-food TV, that she has taken a good hard look at her life and experiences thus far and has re-prioritized her needs, her truths, and her goals.
“Reading this interview,” Candy added, “reconfirmed my commitment to continue to provide training and support for individuals who choose to build a culinary career that reflects who they are, what they need to provide for themselves and their loved ones, and where they choose to go on their professional and personal journey.”
APPCA: How has your life changed a year after your run on Food Network Star?
Nicole Gaffney: It’s changed a lot and also is still very much the same. I have a brand new kitchen – so that has changed the way I cook and interact with food, as my old kitchen was cramped and uninspiring. My career path has changed, which I’ll elaborate on in the next question. But mostly, my attitude has changed. I went in to FNS knowing completely who I was, and feeling really confident in that. But after the show had ended, I didn’t know which way was up. Full disclosure: I had accepted my loss and was able to put it in perspective on the surface, but deep down I was devastated. I put my heart and soul (not to mention my life on hold) into a competition I had dreamt about entering since I was a kid. So having made it all the way to the end, and then coming out of it with essentially nothing was heartbreaking. This past year I experienced a lot of growing pains as a result, but I’m happy to say I’ve come out of that funk and feel a lot better about who I am and where I’m at in my life.
APPCA: How has your business changed? Are you still a personal chef? Are you still teaching?
NG: I’m no longer working as a personal chef. As much as I loved my clients, and loved running my business for five years, I began to feel like it was holding me back from pursuing what I really wanted out of life. I felt creatively stifled by the restrictions each client had in their diet, and rather than creating food that made me excited, I was expending all of my energy problem solving on their behalf. I was providing them with a valuable service and it was paying the bills, but I started to feel like I had hit a wall. I always felt much more gratified when I taught someone to cook as opposed to when I just cooked the food for them. I am still teaching through a few different local cooking schools, demos at food festivals, on my blog and YouTube channel. I have my hand in a lot of different pots right now and am working on monetizing the most time-consuming ones.
APPCA: Are you watching the current season? What are you looking at when viewing? Are you “virtually coaching” contestants based on your experience with the mentors or with challenges?
NG: I’m actually not! My husband and I made the decision to get rid of our cable around Memorial Day weekend in order to save a little (actually, a lot) of money, but mostly to inspire us to get out and enjoy the summer. It feels really pretentious and hippie-ish to talk about, but I’ve been really happy with our decision. We’ve been spending more quality time together with our family and friends, have been taking sunset paddles on our paddle boards every night, I’ve been learning the ukulele, keeping up with my garden and reading a lot more. I did watch the first episode online, and it brought back a lot of uneasy memories. I have to say I’m rooting for Jay – he’s a Baton Rouge guy, and I have a lot of love for that city (LSU – geaux Tigers!).
APPCA: What opportunities have you gotten as a result of being on the show?
NG: I think the biggest opportunity for me has been the overall name I’ve made for myself and the fanbase I’ve built online. It’s propelled me to be able to grow my blog and my YouTube channel with far more ease than it would have otherwise, and gives me instant credibility to brands and networks.
APPCA: Are you still connected to Food Network? Are you still in touch with some of the people you got to know on the show?
NG: I’m not still connected to Food Network. Unless I become super successful in one of my ventures, then they are contractually entitled to a piece of it. I have stayed in touch with Bobby Flay a bit, he has been very good to me in terms of encouragement to keep pursuing my dream. My other cast mates and I have all stayed in touch with the exception of Lenny. No one has been able to get a hold of him since the last time we were all together for the finale.
APPCA: Are you doing TV?
NG: Yes! I still host a local Philadelphia-based TV show called The Chef’s Kitchen where I get to cook in the kitchen with some amazing chefs. I also will be starting to represent a few different sustainable seafood products on QVC very soon, possibly as early as next week. I also post weekly quick cooking videos to my YouTube channel, Coley Cooks. I’ve found that my husband and I are not alone in the quest to do away with cable tv, and YouTube and self-created online content are very much the way of the future.
APPCA: Now that a year has passed, what do you think you learned about yourself and what you want in your career and life following what was certainly a life-changing experience?
NG: I think my biggest lesson in all of this is to care much less what people think of me. Being a young personal chef, I was always so concerned with keeping up appearances, staying PC, not wanting to offend anyone, and being seen as trustworthy, professional, and polished. I used to get really upset over any negative criticism I received online or anytime I would lose a follower. I would try to think about what I did or said that made someone dislike me, and then try not to ever do that again. I realized through this whole process that it is impossible to win over 100% of the population and I will not be everyone’s cup of tea. I learned to stay truly authentic to myself, and at times that means being opinionated, super sarcastic, having a potty mouth, and just generally being weird. I stopped being so concerned with having to uphold this perfect persona in order to maintain a business that focused on people pleasing. At the end of the day, the people who do like me will appreciate it, and those who don’t… well, I stopped worrying about them.
In terms of what I want out of life and my career, I mostly stopped being a personal chef because trying to maintain my business while pursuing these new ventures was detrimental to both. I was spread too thin and my clients always took precedence over anything else. They owned me, and my loyalty to them caused me to miss out on some really neat opportunities. The transition hasn’t been an easy one, but nothing worthwhile ever is. My goal continues to be teaching. It is my mission to boost confidence in home cooks, and to inspire them to cook as locally, seasonally and sustainably as possible. I believe that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I’m not quite sure where this path will lead me, but I’ve learned to be much more excited about the journey than the final destination.
Long before the general public really understood the term, Edward Fluck became a private chef. Certainly the wealthy among us have had butlers and cooks, but it was only around 25 years ago that they started bringing private chefs into their households.
Chef Ed Fluck, known to all as “Chef Ed,” a longtime member of APPCA, had been cooking professionally for 15 years when he was recommended for the position of private chef to Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons. More than 42 people were interviewed for the job, but Chef Ed was less concerned about the competition than the actual match.
“You have to make sure the match is perfect because it’s like a marriage. You live on site and are with the family constantly,” he explains.
That meant that he also, delicately, interviewed Charlotte Smith, Rankin Smith’s wife, during their initial meeting, asking her why they wanted to have a chef at that point in their life. He liked her response. First, she said, they wanted to do more entertaining for charities and hosting out-of-town guests. Second, she just didn’t like dealing with the kitchen and wanted to stay away. “I found that very refreshing,” Chef Ed recalls. “She was honest and not playing games.” It turned out she also needed someone to manage the house and staff of six. That intrigued him. It was a new challenge and something he looked forward to.
But he also did his research and, to his satisfaction, found that many of the staff had been there for more than 10 years—so he didn’t see it as a situation in which the client was going through a lot of employees.
Chef Ed worked for them for six years, until Rankin Smith passed away and his widow moved to Florida. During that time, he learned that not only did he and the staff have to conform to Mrs. Smith’s schedule—so did their guests. If lunch was scheduled for 12:30, not even their guests could request lunch an hour later. As she told him, “You’re not a short-order cook.”
“She was very tough but we got along very well. Even so, you always have to remember–even when they take you on vacation—that they’re your employer. You still have to make sure they’re taken care of,” he says.
As a private chef, Chef Ed explains, you’re dedicated to the client. You’re just working for one family and the tasks in his case not only involved cooking, but all the shopping, managing the household (“I logged in every phone call that came in.”), banking, and car maintenance. No, he didn’t do that himself, but hired and supervised those who did.
Chef Ed points out that the standards for a private chef are exceptionally high. “The people I worked for could eat anywhere in the world, so I had to learn to do everything in the kitchen exceptionally well. As a private chef you’ll have a brief career if you limit what you make.”
He was in his 40s when he worked for the Smiths, and Chef Ed enjoyed living on the property, although “it was kind of like being 16,” he jokes. “I’m not in my own house, but I wanted to be respectful of their privacy, so I’d call when I’d go out and come in. I wanted Mrs. Smith to know everything that was going on in her home.”
After leaving the Smith household, Chef Ed went to work for another couple of prestigious families, as well as taking on personal chef clients—but at, what he calls, “a more high-end level, going into the homes a couple of times a week to create meals that would be served that day, not frozen meals for reheating.”
Even today he still has a private chef client, but no longer lives on the property. He has the household keys, does the cooking for the family a couple of days a week, but also runs a successful weekend event business in Atlanta, sans preset menu.
Chef Ed passes on some advice for those interested in becoming private chefs:
- Get as much experience as possible before starting down the road to being a private chef. The deeper your background is in cooking, the better. The question I get asked the most is, ‘What is your specialty?’ You need to be able to do everything well. In the six years I was with Rankin Smith I cooked over 6,000 meals. If you aren’t able to do anything and everything to a very high standard, people will grow tired of your ‘specialty’ cooking. It’s like going to the same restaurant every day for six years.
- Research your potential employer. You don’t want to work for ‘a name.’ You’re going to work for and live with people. Knowing about them as people and employers is more important. You could end up working with someone who becomes a great lifelong relationship, or you could end up in a job where you are on call 24/7 and get run into the ground. And when that causes you to leave, you can create a stain on your reputation.
- If you’re working full time in one family’s home 40 to 50 hours a week, the more positive life experience you must demonstrate–i.e., responsibility, trustworthiness, and confidentiality, the better. The earlier in your life you make the decision to hone these skills the more valuable you are to your employer and the better chance you have to create the work you enjoy. Your prospective employers are looking for someone who can handle a great deal of responsibility, evaluate situations with balanced, seasoned judgment, and who has the ability to relate to all the other people in their orbit –- from the highest status to the lowest — in order to build solid relationships of trust and competence. Only in that way can that a household run smoothly every day. I read an article about private chefs/house managers and it said the average age of the chef was 50 years old.
My approach was to get “as much experience as I could as young as possible,” Chef Ed says. “I was captivated and excited about learning everything I could in as many different venues as I was able. During my 30’s, I put in my 10,000 hours of refinement,” he said, referring to Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, the 2008 book’s “10,000-hour rule”–the number of hours of practice needed to acquire mastery of a skill. “I didn’t think about being a private chef until the opportunity presented itself. Things were different 30 or 40 years ago. The business was not as bright and shiny as it is today.
“I like the world I have created for myself,” he says. “I never thought of it as unique, just a world where I was comfortable and happy and able to do what I loved.”
Are you intrigued about being a private chef? What skills do you need to hone to get there?
Photos courtesy of Edward Fluck
Throughout the year we want to inspire you with the various ways in which our members are reinventing themselves and their personal chef businesses. Tom Herndon of Hipp Kitchen in the San Francisco Bay Area is a perfect example of this. And an advocate. He’s our guest blogger this week and has some terrific words of wisdom that we know you’ll take to heart!
Businesses succeed not by being the best, the first, or the most well run. They succeed because they know how to tell a compelling story. They also learn how to retell their story over and over. This means they refuse to be hemmed in by their past. They know how to re-craft their business identity to stay in harmony with the needs of their customers. Today, especially, there is a growing need to be fluid, adaptable, flexible. Many of the strategies we’ve adopted as personal chefs may not be working as well for us now as they did this time last year. It could be for a variety of reasons—our personal lives have changed, our clients’ lives or budgets have changed, the communities we work in have evolved. For some of us our stories need to be upgraded. It’s important to learn how to craft a different story. And then a different one from that. And down the road a different one from that.
A few years ago I was lucky to be invited by Candy Wallace to speak at the APPCA convention in Las Vegas. The heart of my message was that as personal chefs we have a pretty sexy story to tell, which includes a number of unique advantages. Because we are chefs we are perceived experts on food and food service (large in part due to Candy’s success in making the APPCA a tremendous value for members and their customers). Food experts continue to be highly valued in today’s market. Because we’re cooks, we know how to make something magical out of diverse ingredients, which often includes being willing and able to adapt quickly to our circumstances.
My aim in my presentation was to point out the value of having a powerful and sexy story to tell which includes an innate skill set unique to our profession. These skills keep our work fresh, retain customer value, and help pull us through leaner times. We have the skills to adapt, to change, and to leverage our perceived expertise as food professionals to keep our careers thriving. In other words, we have what it takes to change our story as needed. Does your story need an upgrade?
I read Candy’s December blog post about 10 Ways to Revitalize Your Personal Chef Business in 2015. Items 8 through 10 particularly resonated with me because, since I became a personal chef, I have been diligent in my efforts to keep my business fresh and to continually revitalize my practice. I chose to leverage multiple passions which ended up with multiple streams of income. What I have been doing is changing my story so I can continue to offer value and to have a fulfilling life. Having various ways of making money was the icing on the cake.
Five years ago my PC business became focused on cooking for people with food allergies, a lucrative niche. I once again changed my story. I changed my company’s name from Full Fridge to Hipp Kitchen (Hipp being short for Hippocrates, who said, “Let food be thy medicine.”). But in cooking alone, I craved company. So I found a beautiful venue in San Francisco and began holding allergen-friendly cooking classes and foodie events. I’ve done over 30 parties, classes, and team-building adventures in this venue alone. I was making more money, as well as developing new relationships and keeping my creative juices floating. Now my story was that I was a (perceived) expert in food allergies.
But there was still one itch that wasn’t being scratched: my passion for travel. I came to find out combining a love for food and a love for travel was also a strong customer need.
My experience shows that you have to leap when you encounter an opportunity. Mine was meeting a travel agent who was working on organizing a culinary tour to Italy. She had the template; I had the people and the passion. I had always dreamed of doing culinary tours in Europe, so I formed a new culinary adventure company called Spirit and Spice—and couldn’t be happier. Leading culinary travel adventures is so heart-fulfilling, and as a source of income it’s been wonderful because my husband and I have been able to travel to Europe. I have lots of repeat business and my customers are still talking about the adventures years afterwards.
I have organized and led three culinary adventures to Europe. My last tour was called “Floating Through Paradise” and was one week on slow-moving French Hotel Barges cruising up the beautiful Canal du Midi in the South of France, followed by a week in Paris. Candy and seven other personal chefs joined me in the adventure. Cooking classes, wineries, olive oil factories, goat cheese farms, a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu, farmers markets, hunting wild asparagus along the Canal du Midi, and as a group, preparing the final dinner on the barges to say thank you. I brought home new techniques, new recipes, new friends, and a lifetime of memories.
I have changed my story a number of times. I went from being a home cook to being a personal chef. I went from being strictly a personal chef to also being a perceived expert in food allergies. I then became a cooking teacher, a culinary event producer, and now I am considered by my ever-widening network to be an expert when it comes to creating culinary travel adventures!
I encourage you to follow Candy’s advice and do what you can to keep your business (and yourself) revitalized. Don’t be afraid to take a close look at your main passions and figure out how to turn at least one of them into a source of income. You have the power to completely change your story. Begin telling it to everyone and pretty soon your new story will be top of mind within your network. Plus, you have lots of wisdom and inspiration offered from your fellow PC’s on the forums to help you get started.
My fourth culinary travel adventure is coming up in May. It’s called “Bordeaux to Barcelona.” I have room for a couple more people and it would be wonderful to have some fellow chefs along. Please check out the details here.
Monica Shoemaker has been cooking ever since she can remember. Growing up in Texas on the Mexican border, her first memories are of making tortillas with the family housekeeper, Maria. “Those hot tortillas coming off the griddle were my first memories,” she recalls. “I always loved cooking, loved experimenting. A friend of mine in high school used to joke that I was the only person who would throw parties when my parents were away and serve hors d’oeuvres.”
But Monica had never actually considered cooking as a career choice, opting instead to get a degree in social work. All the while, however, she had been teaching herself how to cook, waiting tables at restaurant, and did cook tableside at a chic Mexican restaurant in Houston. The restaurant asked her to cater for them and she even got a gig as a private chef for her flight instructor. Yes, she was learning how to fly.
Then she moved to Portland, following her brother, in 1996. She got married, and had a baby boy. “When my son was three I wanted to have the freedom and flexibility of having my own business and do it cooking. I did some research and found APPCA. I went to a summit that year and met Candy. She’s amazing. She’s given me lots of great business advice. I love her!”
The name for her new business, Home Plate Personal Chef Service, came to her in a dream while she was in Houston visiting her mom. Back in Portland, she was able to get clients from some of the top headquartered companies in the region, including Nike, Adidas, and Intel. She’s focused on cooking nutritious, healthy meals and loves creating meals based on clients’ special diets.
“I do everything from paleo to helping people with food allergies and sensitivities, like gluten-free and MS or other anti-inflammatory diets,” she explains. “I’m always reading up on nutrition and medical journals. People come to me because they want to eat clean, healthy food.”
But, like many chefs, she likes to have her moment to shine with food that’s a little more extravagant. “I love doing dinner parties, too, she says. “That’s when I can pull out all the stops.”
One of the greatest times of her life was a trip made with a group of personal chefs to Italy, led by Candy. She participated in a cooking course at the Academia Barilla in Parma. “It was an amazing experience. Not only were we able to taste the best olive oils in the regional and learn how they made parmesan and prosciutto, we even got to cook with a chef who cooked for the pope! I loved the produce, the little markets. It was incredible!
“But what I gained the most, aside from the amazing food and lovely scenery, were the friendships I made there–in particular, Katie Jackson and Gina Capobianco, both APPCA members, whom I’ve seen many times over the years since we met there,” adds Monica. “We travel together, meet up in other cities, and talk on a weekly basis. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for the APPCA and I was able to bond with a lot of other chefs in our association, which was fantastic since we often work alone when we’re at the homes of our clients.”
Today, Monica is weaving in a new skills set with her cooking. She just became an aesthetician. She’ll continue to work with her clients, but is also hoping to work in a wellness center to do nutritional counseling and skin care.
Monica has a special Persian-style lamb stew recipe to share–perfect for cold winter nights.
Spiced Lamb Stew with Walnuts and Pomegranate
From Monica Shoemaker
The recipe has been adapted from Jamie Oliver’s recipe. I made a few changes…but the method of cooking is the same.
2 to 3 pounds quality roasting shoulder joint of lamb, boneless
2 tablespoons plain flour
Freshly ground black pepper
1 red onion, peeled and finely sliced
4 sticks celery, trimmed and finely sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
½ stick cinnamon
1 cup walnuts, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 cups of pomegranate juice
1 cup of chicken broth
1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
Cut the lamb into thumb-sized cubes. Spike the flour with a teaspoon of sea salt and black pepper. Toss the lamb cubes in the seasoned flour.
Heat a large pan and pour in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil starts to smoke, add as many lamb pieces as will fit in one layer, cover with a lid and cook for a few minutes until soft and browned evenly. Remove from the pan, then repeat with the remaining cubes until they are all browned. Return all the lamb to the pan and turn the heat down.
Add the onion, celery, garlic, cinnamon, walnuts and bay leaves to the pan. Put the lid back on and cook very gently for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan, until the onion is softened.
Cut your pomegranates in half and ease out a few of the seeds and put to one side. Stir the juice into the lamb and top up with water to cover. Simmer very gently for 1½ hours, or until the lamb is tender, adding a little water now and then if the stew gets dry.
Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaves. Season to taste and sprinkle with the parsley and reserved pomegranate seeds. Lovely served with steaming hot saffron rice.
Photos courtesy of Monica Shoemaker.
So many chef stories begin with childhood anecdotes of cooking with grandparents or just being born with a passion for food. For Silver Plum Personal Chef’s Elizabeth Prewitt, preparing food started simply as a post-college bargain with her parents. After graduating from Auburn University with an industrial design degree, she moved back to the family home in New Orleans. The deal was that they would buy the food if she would cook it–not necessarily because she had proven skills, but because they were working hard at their consulting business and didn’t get home till late. They needed someone to make dinner.
You could call that her first personal chef gig.
Prewitt was self taught, with the help of her parents’ subscriptions to Cooking Light and Cooks Illustrated (“I have no idea why they had these subscriptions,” she joked.). She muddled along with those and chefs from Food Network. Until Hurricane Katrina hit. Then she and her parents headed a bit north to Kentucky where her sister lived in Louisville. And it was then that she decided to attend culinary school at Louisville’s Sullivan University, where she graduated magna cum laude in 2007 with a specialty in baking and pastry arts.
“I’ve always loved the arts and creative expression,” Prewitt explained. “Cooking is a way for me to be creative three times a day. I like doing things I’m good at and the more I cooked and baked the better I got. And, it’s a way to help people.”
During this time, she’d had a long-distance relationship with the man who would become her husband. He lived in Chicago, so eventually Prewitt moved there to be with him. She’d already done the restaurant shift thing, having worked at New Orleans’ famed Commander’s Palace and Louisville’s Proof on Main. “I had worked in enough restaurants to know I didn’t want to do that,” she recalled.
So, instead she took jobs that would give her steady daytime hours that would allow her to spend evenings and weekends with her husband. She worked for awhile with a jewelry designer, then as a receptionist at an architecture firm. But when the recession hit and she got laid off, she did some research on Sullivan University’s website and learned “that personal cheffing was a thing.” The university offered a degree in this but Prewitt thought, “shoot, I could do that.” She found APPCA through Sullivan, became a member, and launched her business in 2010.
Today, it’s thriving, thanks to a lot of word of mouth and a dynamic website filled with her beautiful food photography. She focuses on higher-end clientele, emphasizing high quality and customization. “I want to give my clients the experience of fine dining on their schedule in their home,” she said. She specializes in bi-weekly and monthly service and special events. “And I’ve been very successful doing that. I just stick with my strength.”
Prewitt also has a food and travel blog, onehundredeggs.com, which features recipes and her travel stories.
One thing that Prewitt feels has given her an advantage in her business–which is currently running a waiting list–is the fact that she’s a trained pastry chef and baker. “I definitely think it gives me an edge, especially for dinner parties. I can make an amazing dessert for a client that works with the savory meal I’ve created.”
Prewitt is sharing with us a simple holiday treat she makes for friends every year.
Crispy Chocolate-Mint Guys
From Elizabeth Prewitt, Silver Plum Personal Chef
Makes about 50
These could not be simpler. They’re a fantastic way to use up any leftover melted chocolate, if you ever have any. Take care when adding the peppermint oil, as one drop too much can make them taste unbearably minty.
10 ounces good-quality chocolate (not chocolate chips)
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon peppermint oil (not extract)
2 cups (about 4 ounces) puffed rice cereal (such as Rice Krispies), or a little more if needed
Chop the chocolate into 1/2 inch pieces, leaving about a third in larger 1 inch pieces (which will help temper the chocolate). Place all the chocolate in a medium to large microwave-safe bowl.
Heat the chocolate in the microwave on high for 45 seconds. Remove and stir (it will not be very melty yet). Continue microwaving in 10 to 15 second increments, stirring after each one, until the chocolate is mostlymelted, but a few large lumps remain (this is important to help the chocolate temper properly; do not fully melt it in the microwave).
When chocolate is heated enough, remove from microwave and stir gently until all lumps melt. This may take a minute or two. It’s okay if all the chocolate doesn’t melt, just remove those lumps after stirring.
Stir in the peppermint oil in 1/16 teaspoon increments (it’s easiest to add such a small amount with a dropper or pipette), tasting after each addition, until chocolate has a noticeably minty flavor. Add the oil until you’re okay with the flavor. Note: peppermint oil is potent, and adding too much can make these taste unbearably minty, but you do want it to be a little too minty right now — just a little —to account for all the cereal you’re going to add. (If you accidentally add too much oil, melt some more chocolate and stir it in. Solved.)
Add the cereal and stir until fully coated, using extra cereal if necessary. Spoon out onto a wax-paper-lined sheet tray in bite-sized mounds, a shy tablespoon or so per mound.
Let sit briefly, about 15 minutes. If properly tempered, the chocolate will begin to firm up. If not, place in refrigerator until set. Even if they don’t look perfect, they’ll still taste the same.
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Prewitt