Chef Chris Spear explains how being creative is just as important as being a great entertainer when you're a personal chef. Plus, why digital recipes are vital to business success.
I started my personal chef business, Perfect Little Bites, 11 years ago with the goal of bringing the fine dining experience into a customer’s home. In a lot of ways, I am an entertainer. I bring everything with me - china, linens, equipment - cook the food on-site and oftentimes, do culinary instruction.
It took me several years to figure out my process and build up momentum enough to become a personal chef full-time. I’ve found my footing and have even developed a community of like-minded industry experts called Chefs Without Restaurants for customers in need of a personal chef in Maryland-DC-Virginia.
From costing, to scaling and planning, as you can imagine, being a successful personal chef has a lot of challenges. People are always asking me for some tips on how to start a personal chef business. So here are a few things I recommend as you start your journey as an entrepreneur.
How to Become a Personal Chef - 5 Tips for Success
Do - Practice with friends and family
To become a personal chef, the first thing you need to do is get out there and practice. Cooking in your home or at a restaurant is so different from cooking in other people's houses. Find a neighbor, a relative, or someone who has an anniversary or birthday, and just offer to cook for them.
It could be as simple as a two-course dinner to see what it's like to take all of your stuff into someone's house to cook on a stove you’re unfamiliar with. You also need to understand how you cook with people talking to you and watching.
As a personal chef, you have to be able to deal with whatever comes your way, whether that's a dog or kid running through the kitchen, having five things cooking at once, or people asking a whole bunch of questions. You can’t just think, “I’m a chef, I make good food and will just go to a person’s house and cook it.”
Don’t - Focus only on your food
As a personal chef, you’ve been hired for more than just your food. You need to think about what your experience is going to look like overall. For a lot of chefs, this is really hard to accept. You have to let go of some of your ego to be succesful.
For example, when I was starting out, I told myself I wouldn’t make something like a chicken parmesan because it seemed a little mundane. But if it’s a client’s favorite dish, why should my personal bias get in the way? You’re a chef and can do a great job of it. Why not make the best chicken parmesan they’ve ever had?
Do - Ask for reviews early on
Once you start booking clients, reviews are super important. A lot of my customers today tell me that they went to Google and picked me because I was the top-reviewed chef in the area.
People love social proof. And when someone says they had an amazing time, they want to experience it too. Because only 25% of people actually write up reviews, make sure you ask everyone you can as early as you can.
I pride myself on the fact that I have exclusively five-star reviews on every platform - Google, Yelp, and Facebook - in the 11 years I’ve been a personal chef. It can feel like a lot to repeatedly ask for reviews, but being persistent can help your business grow significantly.
Don’t - Underestimate the power of a network
A lot of personal chefs come from big operations, where you have a lot of people to bounce ideas off of and work with. But when you start your own business, you don't usually have anyone. Most of us are a small team, if not just one person.
Since we’re doing everything, including business development, having a stream of referrals can really help you out. If you’re booked on Friday night, but someone wants to hire you on the same day, it’s great to have another chef you can recommend. Not only will your prospect be grateful, but your referrer might pay it forward to you later on.
Being a personal chef is much easier if you have people to lean on who know what you are going through. Even a network of just four chefs in your local community can be a huge help. You are not only sharing job opportunities, but resources and advice.
Do - Work with vacation rentals
I did a whole podcast episode on this, but I would say that one of the biggest business drivers for me has been working with vacation rentals like Airbnb. They account for about 90% of my business these days.
If a guest is hosting an event, then more than likely they are looking for someone in the area to cook for them. Reach out to the owners and operators of vacation rentals, not Airbnb directly. Ask them if they will pass on your contact info to upcoming guests.
A lot of times people say, just leave a card. However, by the time guests get to a house, a card's not going to help if you’re booked out two months in advance. Make it easy for the owner and operator and put together a media kit or PDF they can share as a welcome package.
Don’t - Rely on a recipe journal or binder
As a personal chef, it just makes sense for your recipes to live in a digital format. You’re always somewhere new and can’t risk leaving a notebook or binder at home. I find meez to be the most dependable professional recipe tool out there.
Being able to take my recipes in my pocket everywhere I go has been huge. I want everyone to be a better cook and mention meez to clients whenever I can.
Here are four ways I use meez as a personal chef:
Some of my clients ask me to send them recipes. This is so easy to do with meez. I can just pull up the recipe on my phone, type in their email, and share a link with them instantly. This is also really helpful when I am planning a cooking lesson at a client's home and working with freelancers. Instead of printing recipe packets for everyone, I can just email them a meez recipe.
meez really comes in handy when you have to create a recipe for an odd number of guests. All you have to do is put in how many people you are cooking for, and it scales the recipe exactly. That means I can leave a house with little to no food waste, whether I’m cooking for five or ninety-nine people.
As a personal chef, you are at someone else’s house, not a commercial kitchen or your own place. Previously, I would bring a little manila folder with all these paper recipes. Keeping them organized was hard, plus they often weren’t scaled or converted. Now I can just bring a tablet or my iPhone, pull up the recipe in meez, and get started.
As personal chefs, our menus change every day. And sometimes you make a dish, prep too much, and have to use an ingredient by the next day. For example, I do an apple fennel celery salad and almost always have fennel leftovers. Before, I wasn’t sure what was the best way to use an ingredient like this. But now with meez, all I have to do is type’ fennel’ into the tool and it will pull up all recipes with fennel listed as an ingredient.
Being a personal chef is an extremely rewarding career choice if you have a passion for cooking and entertaining. Like I mentioned before, dipping your toes into it is a good first step. Cook for friends, family or people they know to get a feel for the experience. If you love it, then it’s time to start making your business and outreach plan.
About Chris Spear
Chris Spear is the chef and owner of Perfect Little Bites, an in-home personal chef business based in Frederick, Maryland. You might also know him as the host of the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast, and the man behind the culinary networking organization of the same name. Chris graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a B.S. in culinary arts, and has been working in the foodservice industry for almost 30 years. Now Chris splits his time between cooking unique dishes for his guests and engaging with the culinary community he built. He has written editorials for StarChefs, and some of his recipes can be found on the Garden & Gun and Imbibe websites.