NEW YORK – In July, Ms Tashea Channell Younge, a private chef and caterer from New York City, flew to Los Angeles, all expenses paid, to cook a private dinner in a luxurious kitchen for 15 people. She then cooked for National Football League wide receiver Noah Brown and some teammates. Later that month, she was back in New York for a candlelit private dinner on the waterfront, complete with rose petals and a view of the Empire State Building.
The settings were glamorous. The pay was too. In one month, Ms Younge made more than US$12,800 (S$17,460). She documented all of it on TikTok.
A new chapter in the age of food celebrity is unfolding online as many more cooks take up careers as private chefs and go public with the perks of the job. Those details used to be, like the job, completely private. Chefs and their clients have kept a veil of secrecy over the transaction and many chefs sign non-disclosure agreements.
But over the past several months, on TikTok and Instagram, the young, beautiful and culinarily inclined have begun straddling the worlds of catering and influencing as they share videos of their daily lives as private chefs, bouncing between luxury destinations with their clients or living rent-free in guest homes.
The money is good and there is plenty of creative freedom. But the videos do not always show how lonely the job can be.
Ms Younge, 27, knows she gets hired because she is fun to be around. But she also knows that she is on a private jet or yacht for one purpose – to cook.
“It’s so dangerous to blur those lines,” she said. “You’re not a guest, at all. You’re not their friend, at all.”
Ms Abby Cheshire, 28, who teaches culinary arts at a public high school in Florida, has spent three summers on a yacht in the Bahamas as a private chef. She cooks during the day and edits the footage at night. Over time, she has learnt to be politely invisible, which is hard on a boat.
“I think they’re used to having employees around,” she said.
Several agencies that help clients find private chefs said the pandemic marked a turning point for both groups. Ms Sami Udell, founder of private chef agency WholeSam, was desperate for chefs just a few years ago. Sometimes, she turns to classified advertisements website Craigslist to fill gigs.
Restaurant chefs sneered at private chef work, she said. But when the pandemic shut down dining, cooking for a single wealthy family started to seem safer, more fulfilling and more lucrative than cooking takeout in a crowded, poorly ventilated kitchen or collecting unemployment benefits.
Now, Ms Udell says she gets at least 10 messages a week from prospective cooks looking for job advice.
Since 2018, Private Chef Match, another staffing agency, has had a 75 per cent jump in applications from candidates who wish to leave the restaurant world or never enter at all, said its founder Daniel Wood.
For private chefs, the perks are real. Most are paid better than they would be in a restaurant.
Mr Reilly Meehan, 32, has worked full time as one family’s private chef since 2021, splitting his time between Phoenix and Southampton, New York. He says he makes 40 per cent more than he made cooking at a private men’s club in San Francisco, and receives full benefits now too.
Ms Udell said chefs in Los Angeles can make US$100,000 to US$175,000 a year. They get vacation days. Some charge a minimum of US$500 a day for private chef work, or more than US$150 a person to cater events.
“Before the pandemic, it was quite rare to meet a chef earning more than US$200,000,” Mr Wood said. “Now, the highest earners in the country are in the US$200,000 to US$300,000 range, plus benefits and bonuses.”
But the headaches are real too. Many clients have strict dietary rules, and others invite friends at the last minute.
“It’s hard for me to say no,” said Ms Ashley Cunningham, 27, who has worked for a handful of National Basketball Association players. “Because I just feel like it’s kind of my job to make sure they’re happy.”
And many chefs said clients expect them to show up on little notice. Mr Tejas Jhaveri, 25, a private chef from Oahu, Hawaii, received a text message late one night requesting he cater an event the next day, with mere hours to plan, shop and cook.
“They become like a family friend, but at the same time, they’re employing you,” he said.
Among actual friends, those sorts of demands would seem disrespectful. “I just think they value time differently,” Mr Jhaveri said of private chef clients.
Mr Rob Li, whose immigrant parents ran a restaurant in upstate New York, has his own summer apartment as a private chef on the Hamptons compound of a billionaire. His client is easy-going, so it almost feels like cooking for a roommate, he said.
Life on Long Island is languid. Between cooking and grocery shopping, Mr Li, 26, lounges and edits footage of lunches and snacks for his TikTok account, which often get millions of views. But it can be too quiet. He sometimes spends all night on FaceTime with friends who are hanging out together in New York City.
“It’s just me and him,” he said of his middle-aged client, adding, “We don’t talk or interact that much just because of the huge age gap. I feel like there’s nothing that we can talk about, really.”
Other chefs who live with their clients while working have to leave loved ones for months.
Since relocating his family from San Francisco to Phoenix for his private chef job, Mr Meehan travels without his partner and their dog during the summer to work at his client’s Hamptons home, where he has been posting videos.
He is welcome to have friends and family visit, but the separation is hard. “Those days that I’m alone and it’s just me here in the house, it’s psychologically not easy,” he said. NYTIMES
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