What does a Personal Chef DO?

by Chef Mark Tafoya

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If you’ve been a Gilded Fork reader for awhile, you know that in addition to being the producer of videos around here, I am also a personal chef. More and more people are taking advantage of personal chefs these days, but others just may have some questions about just what is involved in having a personal chef prepare meals for their family. So I thought I’d share with you about what a personal chef does from day to day.

Problem is, I don’t exactly lead the typical life of a personal chef! Unlike most, I have reduced my personal chef business to about half of my week. I spend the rest of my time traveling to distant lands and doing video and audio shows about the foods there, creating recipes for the Gilded Fork recipe archive, and doing consulting work for our corporate clients. I guess it’s the hallmark of this Brave New World of Social Media/New Media/Entrepreneurial whatever you want to call it that people can create careers in specific niches and make a decent living at it.

I often joke with friends that if you’d told me 10 years ago that in just 10 years I’d be doing the PERFECT job for me, I wouldn’t have been able to describe what I do now, but here I am in the PERFECT job for me! It combines my 3 great loves in life: food, travel and performing.

So what does that mean on a day to day basis? It means that I cook for a few different clients on a weekly or biweekly basis, and for the rest of my clients, it means that I cook special dinner parties and cooking classes on occasion.

For a “weekly” client (one which I cook for every week) here’s how the day usually goes: It starts the night before, when I sit in front of the computer to put together my paperwork for the next day’s service. Paperwork? Wait a minute, I thought you were a chef, not a clerk! Yeah, since when I cook for weekly clients, I’m making all their dinners for a week or for two weeks, I have to be organized. I’m making up to 8 or 9 different dishes, between main dishes and sides, and I have to be organized to know just what ingredients and what amounts I’ll need. Luckily, I have software that allows me to do it in a pretty organized fashion.

I plug in the recipes for the dishes we’ve agreed upon for the service, and I get a shopping list organized by store location for easy shopping the next day. I also print out a menu with reheating instructions for my clients, labels for my containers, and copies of the recipes. Although we chefs are clever folks and know quite a few recipes, it certainly helps to have copies for reference, since unlike restaurant chefs who cook the same dishes day after day and know them by heart, we cook different recipes each day. (A couple years ago, I actually went into the database and counted, and found out that I had cooked over 600 different recipes that year!)

So with my paperwork readied the night before, I get up in the morning and prepare to cook. Now, you’ll hear other personal chefs talk about how they get to the supermarket by the time it opens, and to the clients house by 9 AM…not this night-owl chef! I usually leave my apartment by around 10 AM to get to the client’s by Noon. I take an insulated bag with my knife roll tucked in the bottom and head to the market.

I do my shopping in a flash, rushing through the produce section with my list in hand, quickly grabbing what I need and moving along. Most of my shopping comprises fresh fruits and vegetables which will be going into the 8 or 9 dishes I’ll cook that day. From the produce section, I rush to the meat counter, where the butchers know me and get ready for me to rattle off my meat order for the day, which they prepare while I head to the grocery section for dry goods I’ll need for the day.

I round out in the deli section, where I pick up cheeses, milk, and dairy, and then pick up my meat order on the way to the checkout.

Now, I’ve become somewhat of a notorious figure amongst the checkers at the Whole Foods Market I frequent. They know me as “That crazy chef guy” who has a VERY particular way he likes his groceries packed. Since I’m in Manhattan and usually hailing a cab to my client’s place, I need the groceries packed in as compact a way as possible, without damaging any of it. So I insist that they pack things in my bag in the order I place them on the counter, from heaviest to lightest. Once my big bag is filled, I put the rest into my reusable canvas bags.

Once the shopping is done, I hail a cab and hightail it to the client’s place. I got perishables!

Once there, the first task is to preheat the oven, start water boiling, and to unpack the groceries. In my case, the hardest part of my day is over, the running around! Now, I start on what I call my “battle plan”, the order in which I’ve decided to cook each dish.

Since I’m doing so many recipes, and they need different cooking times, I usually start with the recipes that take the longest to cook, or to cool down, and work my way to the quicker ones, or the ones that don’t require any cooking, like salads. I try to do related prep tasks together, like chopping garlic and parsley in batches, the way a restaurant chef would do his mise en place. I usually find that I can have about 3 active dishes going at a time. While I have one dish simmering on the stove, I can have a second roasting in the oven and be doing prep for the third.

In some cases, though, recipes can collide in midstream, and I’ve found myself with all 4 burners occupied and not enough hands to keep them going! Just yesterday, I was making a bolognese sauce, an alfredo sauce, and an asian stir fry all at the same time. As I flicked the wok to keep the vegetables moving, I whisked with the other hand to keep the cream for the alfredo sauce from scalding! At one point, I was sure that I would make a mistake and flick vegetables into the cream sauce, or perhaps spill roux or parmigiano into the stir fry! Luckily, that didn’t happen!

As the dishes come off the stove or out of the oven, perhaps the most important task happens. I have to cool each dish quickly to get them to pass through the temperature danger zone (TDZ) and package them. We personal chefs use a number of methods of cooling, from ice baths, to fans, to stirring. The important thing is to get the dishes fully cooled in under 2 hours. They have to be cool enough to be packaged without having any condensation develop on the lids, which can create crystals and the dreaded freezer burn on dishes that are put in the freezer.

Once cooled and packaged, I put my pre-printed labels with the name, date and heating instructions on them so that the client will know exactly how to prepare them so that they serve up as if I had made them a la minute. I finish cleaning up. As you can imagine, a service can create a whole mess of dirty dishes, so I try as best as possible to clean as I go. I finish up, sweep and mop the floor, and leave the kitchen as I found it (sometimes cleaner.)

By this time it’s usually around 4 PM or so, and I’m ready to get off my feet. I sling my bag with knife roll over my shoulder, now much lighter, and head out the door to the subway, and home to my dog Stiva and a waiting cocktail!

Here’s a video I shot with the folks at About.com showing you just how I manage to do it all in one day. Check it out!

You can see the full video and post at About.com

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