Occasionally, a story begins with its ending.
This story ends with an emphatic “Oui!”
The question that prompted the response? “When you look back on your career, would you still make the choice to become a private chef?”
So, you have the question and its answer, but that is not what this story is about. This story is about the journey that brought a very talented and accomplished man (someone who likely could have succeeded in life at anything he set his mind to) to such a decisive answer.
Recently I had the honour of meeting that man. We will call him “N” since he works in a world ruled by discretion. The meeting had been planned for many months, but our professional commitments kept preventing it from taking place. In life some things are worth the wait. This is one such instance.
Guidance for those considering becoming a private chef
We persevered because we both knew that this is a story that should be told. It is interesting and filled with useful guidance for those considering becoming a private chef as well as for families thinking of hiring one.
So here is N’s story. It begins in the south of France and revolves around a boy whose father was a grocer and grandfather a farmer. Food – the growing of it and its marketing — were the stuff of N’s childhood.
At the age of 16, when the French school system required N to decide between learning a trade, entering academia, or leaving school altogether, all N knew was that, whatever he chose to do, it was going to involve food in some way. It was a critical decision and N has never looked back. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I think the proverb is an appropriate one for N.
So, it was off to culinary school in Monaco where N learned “La Technique,” foundational for countless great Chefs. He attended the program for four years and, upon graduation, found his very first job.
This wasn’t any old job… far from it. N was hired to work in Alain Ducasse’s l’Hôtel de Paris in Monaco. It was an auspicious start to a career with a singular upward trajectory. N trained at l’Hôtel de Paris for three years. During that time the restaurant achieved three Michelin Stars.
When I asked N what it was like to work in the kitchen of a luminary like Alain Ducasse, he paused and said: “Everything was always so quiet…” and that “the silence was motivating” since it was rooted in a deep respect for the all-important ingredients and all the people responsible for bringing those ingredients into the kitchen of l’Hôtel de Paris. N considers Alain Ducasse to be a genius and his own experience in a Ducasse kitchen as pivotal. As N says: “It was a beginning for me. If I had worked under someone different, I might be a different kind of chef today.”
First Private Chef position onboard a private yacht
It was during this time N was asked by a friend if he would consider accepting a position aboard a private yacht as a chef. This position translated into N’s first land-based private chef position, which saw him travelling between Switzerland, Austria, New York, London, Antibes, and Bahamas. He stayed with this family for five years, travelling from one fantastic destination to another, as he successfully made the transition from a commercial kitchen into the rarefied world of a private chef dedicated to a single family. And, while working for Alain Ducasse offered a certain kind of glamour, this position provided glamour and then some. As a young man, N’s salary went from low to… shall we say comfortably high, and he was able to travel to some of the most luxurious cities and island resorts the world has to offer.
N does say that when he accepted this position it was with a young man’s arrogance that he knew everything. When he looks back, he thinks he could have stayed with Alain Ducasse longer to hone his “Technique.” As N says: “It’s the perspective of time that allows me to see this.”
After this position, N was recruited to work for a Saudi Prince and later for British nobility and eventually for a Forbes 100 family in Canada.
It’s been a long journey and while, in hindsight, N says he might have changed a few things along the way, the fundamentals about working with food have been a constant for him.
With N’s basic backstory told, here is our interview.
Can you explain the difference between a private chef, a personal chef, and a chef that works in a restaurant?
The words “private” and “chef” say it all. You work for one family and you need to understand them completely. You need to know their tastes, how they are feeling at any given time, what they are thinking… You need to know everything.
A personal chef is someone who comes up with ideas and suggestions for different families. They likely already have their own recipes and will want to use them. It is a position that is closer to a caterer than a private chef.
A restaurant chef only occasionally sees their clients. The relationship is not an intimate one. In some ways a restaurant chef’s food is more about them than about the client.
Generally speaking, what are the responsibilities of a private chef?
Well, it does vary from home to home, but in most cases the kitchen is the heart of the home. So much takes place in the kitchen and it all factors into whether or not the family will be happy with what comes out of it in the end.
Do you think there are personality differences between private chefs and restaurant chefs?
Oh definitely! Ego plays a big part. A private chef must be prepared to make a dish even if they don’t like it. They must set aside ego. On the other hand, a restaurant chef has weeks to work on a menu that reflects who they are. They have ample opportunity to perfect their menu. As a private chef, I need to get it right every time. I am only as good as the last meal I prepared.
I had a principal who once said to me: “Everyone can make a mistake, but only one!”
You have worked in restaurants, on yachts, as well as in private homes. What did you learn from each environment?
I think my experience with Alain Ducasse was most important. I learned to love, care and respect the ingredients. I still practise that respect.
On a yacht you learn organization and planning. You also learn how to survive in close quarters. It teaches patience.
As a private chef I learned how to teach myself the “palate” of a household. This takes time with a family and there will be mistakes. There are tricks though. A simple one is to examine the plates as they return to the kitchen. There is so much you can learn from those plates.
You have also worked for royalty and Forbes 500 families. Do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald was correct when he wrote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me”? The quotation does go on in more detail, but you get the gist.
Yes. Absolutely. [N laughs at the question]
They do think and act differently and as a private chef you are exposed to their world. You experience top hotels and taste the lobster and caviar.
I always have to remind myself though that, while I might be living the life, I am always at work. You always need to remind yourself of those boundaries.
What do you think is the single most important adjustment that a chef makes if they are to transition from a restaurant to a private home?
Forget everything you’ve learned and start over again. Keep your knowledge and maintain your technique, but these are two very different worlds. Take, for example, that in a restaurant you likely work on stainless steel surfaces, whereas in a residence you might be working on the finest of Italian marble. The distinction is both small and significant.
In a home, you also have to remember that your principal can walk in at any moment. It is their kitchen and so everything must be meticulous… always. In a funny way, Alain Ducasse helped prepare me for this.
Besides formal culinary education, are there things individuals can do to prepare themselves for a career as a private chef?
Something that I think is very important is that you need to like your principals. If you like them, you will develop a feeling for them. You cannot do a good job as a private chef if you don’t respect and understand your employers. It does work both ways. Respect is mutual.
What does it take to succeed as a private chef?
I hope this makes sense, but you need to absorb your principal. You need to understand that your position is all about them. You need to always be thinking “How can I please them or surprise them?” In some ways, they become your obsession. You will never have the ability to say no. The answer must always be yes and then you figure out a way to make that yes a reality. You also have to be curious and always be researching any and all things related to food.
What is it that you love most about working as a private chef?
Maybe this is a boring answer, but it also seems true to me. I think it comes down to making my principals happy. The position does offer a good lifestyle, but you do give up a lot for it. If you want a social life, forget about it. Between the travel and long hours, I suppose these are the downsides to the profession.
There is a growing phenomenon in my city, where families are hiring private chefs but also assigning them the role of household manager. Do you have an opinion on that?
I do. If principals truly enjoy good food and food is what is important to them, I don’t feel an individual can properly fulfill both roles. Something is bound to suffer. There have to be professional compromises if the positions are combined. It’s a question of priorities.
On the other hand, I do think private chefs can set and serve at the table. This should not be a problem for them.
All families and households are different – even if in small ways. You mentioned that, where food is concerned, a household has a “palate.” As a private chef, how do you teach yourself a family’s “palate?”
For me it is all about observation. I look at the plates that come back , what has been consumed and what has not, and I take careful notes. It also helps to have good lines of communication with staff. They will often know so much more than you. A private chef also needs to have good communication with their principals.
I have worked with lots of private chefs. Many of them struggle with producing menus for their principals. Why do you think that might be?
I would say that if they are struggling it might be because they don’t know their principals well enough. It might be a matter of creativity. Private chefs need to train themselves to adapt and train their minds to always be doing research.
What advice can you give to someone thinking about becoming a private chef?
You need to be dedicated and you need to restrain your ego. You also need to be highly organized, hyper-clean and very creative. Oh, and one other thing: you cannot be afraid of long hours.
What has been your most memorable experience as a private chef?
I think it must be cooking for the Queen. That’s not bad! It is so memorable. It wasn’t an extravagant meal. Instead, it was a group of amazing people simply having a normal evening together.
And so there you have N’s story — his journey of a thousand miles. Not too many privat chefs can boast a career that includes the likes of Alain Ducasse, Forbes 100 families and British royalty. Given that N has experienced all of this and more, I understand why his “Oui” to the question “Would you still choose to become a private chef after all these years?” was offered without a second’s hesitation. And when you understand N’s story – that hard work and dedication – it all makes so much sense.
This article was conducted a written by Scott Munden, who is the president of Portico Staffing, which places high-quality estate staffing professionals in the world’s most elite homes.