On Being a Private Chef
A Michigan chef expounds upon the joys and challenges of working exclusively for one family
By Brent T. Frei
Audrey Heckwolf was a private chef in Grand Rapids, Mich., for more than six years before joining Grand Rapids Community College in January 2006 as assistant professor for advanced tableservice through the school’s fine-dining restaurant, The Heritage, which is open to the public. In her new role, she oversees evening service for the award-winning restaurant and teaches service to students enrolled in GRCC’s culinary- and hospitality-degree programs.
Heckwolf thrived in her previous job as private chef for a distinguished Michigan family (the name of which is undisclosed for privacy reasons). We caught up with Heckwolf at GRCC to talk about her role as a private chef and what it means that the former American Personal Chef Association has transformed into the American Personal & Private Chef Association to give private chefs a home to call their own.
APPCA: How did you train to become a private chef?
Heckwolf: I have an associate’s degree in culinary arts from GRCC, and I was very fortunate to get [my private chef] job about four-and-a-half months after graduation. I was in the service industry for 10 years as a training manager for Olive Garden restaurants, and I was a server in different establishments. My private-chef position required a higher degree of being well-rounded in terms of understanding the front of the house and back of the house.
What you get out of any culinary school is what you put into it, and as a student I was extremely focused. So in some areas I felt very qualified, but to receive an opportunity like that with one of the wealthiest families in the country, especially so soon following my training, was very challenging. I worked around the clock for the first year. But I wanted that position, and I put the work into it, the same as if I had been an executive chef.
APPCA: Did you always plan to be a private chef when you were training to cook professionally?
Heckwolf: I had worked in quite a few kitchens, and I didn’t love the professional kitchen. I loved the pace and intensity, but I had “Martha Stewart” envy of working in a kitchen that’s really clean, probably homey, but decked out with professional equipment, where I didn’t have to power-wash the floors at the end of the night or scrape food from my shoes. That’s why inviting private chef to join [APPCA] is such a great thing, because people want to get into this and don’t know how.
APPCA: How practical is it for students to aim for careers as private chefs right after graduation, as you did?
Heckwolf: I don’t think it’s practical for every graduate. Students need to develop the skill set. I was 27, and that’s an important distinction, that I was a little bit older when I graduated. Maturity is important, how to handle certain situations. People who can hire a private chef might have famous people coming to the house, and you need life and etiquette skills. I was already well traveled and had a B.A. when I entered culinary school, so I was adept at dealing with diverse people. And I respected my place as defined by the family I worked for. Some families will let their private chef eat dinner with them, but that was not the case in the household I served. As an employee, I could not sit down on the couch after dinner and watch a movie with everyone.
APPCA: What were your responsibilities as a private chef?
Heckwolf: I was in charge of anything edible. Usually, how days ran, I did not have to put breakfast out every day, because I prepared it the night before. The lives of the family I worked for were hectic, and they didn’t always sit down together in the mornings. Breakfast might be fresh baked goods or quiche, and I didn’t always have to be there personally.
I was usually present at lunch, and I packed the kids’ lunches. Family dinner was a three-course meal that I served, so I was responsible for menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, execution and clean-up on a daily basis. I also traveled with them to their other homes, and I managed their wine cellars and did all their entertaining. Depending on the size of an event, say for 300, I might not cook, but I would hire and manage a caterer and menu planning, and I would manage the valet, coat-check and the rest of the household staff for that event.
APPCA: Describe aspects of working as a private chef that made that role unique among professional cooks.
Heckwolf: As a salaried employee, when the family I worked for was out of town for a week and I didn’t travel with them, there was no food to be eaten, so in my particular case it worked out very evenly. They required utmost flexibility in my schedule, so there were days I worked 15 hours and the next day, only two. It was kind of a “work hard, play hard” philosophy that I embraced early on. I worked very hard whenever the family was there, and when they were not there, I did not have to make an appearance. That gave me some longevity in my job. I don’t think people stay as a private chef very long, because the job is so consuming. There tends to be a higher burn-out rate as a result.
The preference of the family I worked for was for me to live off-site. I was off Sundays and Mondays, very consistently. I’d work a handful of weekends throughout the year, or if I was traveling with the family, they’d return home Sunday night or Monday, so I was working.
I had incredible chemistry with the family I worked for, and there was give and take. I never had to work Christmas. I worked every Easter, usually out of town, and those are the sacrifices you make. But compared to those I graduated culinary school with, I was making two or three times the money they were, with a 401K and other benefits including health insurance. Most of my peers were working terrible hours in restaurants, nights and weekends. For them, the job satisfaction, pay and benefits were not there. As a private chef I would say many times that I didn’t have a life, but a lot of chefs feel that way. As a private chef, the family you work for takes precedence, and that can be challenging in your personal life. But I felt the job was extremely rewarding and satisfying. And really, for a chef who is fairly independent and likes to wear many hats from one day to the next, it was an ideal job.
APPCA: So why did you leave that job?
Heckwolf: I would not have left had it not been for GRCC. They came knocking on my door four years ago, but I wasn’t prepared to leave my job, and then another full-time faculty position opened, and I said no, because I loved my job. But now I want to have children, and hospitality jobs that allow you to raise a family are so few and far between. When I graduated from GRCC, I always hoped I could come back and be part of the faculty, and when given that opportunity I was absolutely blown away. I’m now in a different set of career challenges. But if I had not had the job as a private chef, I would not be qualified for this one, because I had to wear so many hats. That was a good skill set to bring to a college.
APPCA: What are some other challenges of working as a private chef?
Heckwolf: I didn’t necessarily have the time to extend myself to various organizations and do some networking, because the job was 24/7. That can be a negative. I was pulling down a great income and had a great rapport with my employer, but at times I felt isolated because the job was so consuming. If I had free time, I didn’t want to do anything culinary related, because I had a spouse at home.
Flexibility is both a drawback and a positive. I wasn’t working 9 to 5, so I could schedule my day without punching a clock. If I wanted to go in at 7 a.m. and prep for five hours and then leave for five hours, I could do that, or I could come in at 2 p.m. You need to have a lot of discipline. Having dinner on the table late was not an option.
APPCA: How easy is it to find a position as a private chef today?
Heckwolf: Private chefs are more exclusive than personal chefs, and you have to be in the right place at the right time. It shouldn’t be that way, because sometimes placements happen out of desperation. I participated in every interview to find my replacement, which took six months. It was hard to find a good fit with enough qualified candidates. Many chefs have interest in becoming private chefs, but don’t know how to get started. That’s why I am so excited to have crossed paths with Candy Wallace.
APPCA: How do you think private chefs are regarded by their peers who work in traditional foodservice occupations? Are private chefs taken seriously?
Heckwolf: A lot of chefs I’ve met did not understand what being a private chef is. They were completely in adoration and thought it’s the coolest job. Other chefs absolutely hated it and respected those who did it well and stayed with it. I would say there is a level of respect and admiration, and I never really found a lot of people thinking that we were not to be taken seriously. Because being a private chef requires such well-roundedness, it’s hard to not respect someone who has achieved balance on so many levels.
APPCA: Recap the skills that are essential for a successful private chef to have.
Heckwolf: Organization skills are key. If you’re truly organized, you can read a recipe and work on your cooking abilities. When I worked in kitchens on the service side, there were students who had more kitchen skills than I, but they didn’t have people skills. Chemistry between a personal chef and the family is hugely important, and personal or private chefs need to not be discouraged if it doesn’t work out in one household.
As a private chef, you see a lot of intimate things. At breakfast, members of the family might be in their bathrobes. You’re hearing dinner conversations that someone in the public at large isn’t privy to. There’s a comfort level that goes back to the chemistry of the family. In my particular case, the family I worked for had had several chefs prior to me, none for longer than a year, and they learned that they have a preference for females. Some families might prefer an older gentleman. In many private-chef positions, there’s a lot of “Martha Stewart” required, and not just with food. Details are absolutely paramount. If I have a cocktail reception, for instance, I’m not going to Gordon Foodservice and buy white cocktail napkins. I’m going to the specialty stores to buy ones that match the theme or décor of the event. They’re not the ones that say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day,” either, but have a subtle green pattern in them.
Another important thing for people interested in the private-chef route is that restaurant habits are hard to break. When you work in a private household, budget is not always the bottom line. If you can afford a private chef, you probably don’t care if you’re paying a premium for food. If I wanted to fly in vegetables from New York, I did. I find that some restaurant chefs cannot break out of the restaurant mold. As a private chef you might spend your time driving around looking for a favorite potato chip, and if you don’t buy that brand, you’re going to have problems. Plus, the way you clean a home kitchen isn’t the same as a restaurant kitchen.
A transition from personal to private chef would be logical. For both personal and private chefs, being able to address different dietary needs is important. I think server experience adds marbles to your basket in terms of having a diverse skill set. And you should be well-rounded in terms of travel and different styles of cuisine.
Source: Personal Chef News