A Guide for Clients: The Right Questions to Ask!
Table of Contents
Introduction: Recent Changes within the Private Chef Industry
When COVID-19 grew to unprecedented levels during the past few years, the private chef industry changed dramatically: it suddenly became an excellent alternative to the restaurant industry for many people! Before this, our industry was mainly assumed to be a service for the "rich and famous." But now, hiring a private chef has become much more of a mainstream service!
However, a significant difference between these two industries - both in the dining business - is that private chef companies are rarely discussed in standard media outlets like restaurants [unless they are a more extensive catering company]. And because of this lack of discussion and familiarity, it is much more challenging for people to shop successfully within our industry!
And so the question becomes:
"How do I understand what company is the right fit for my gathering in an industry that I'm not as familiar with?"
Before we begin, I will say this next part with sheer honestly: I am the Co-Owner of a private chef company, and therefore, I am admittedly a biased source on the topic! But I am also an experienced source!
In my past seven years of consulting with clients and studying our competitors, I have gained a broad understanding of what's out there, what to watch out for, and what questions you should ask to get the most relevant information from each company.
Because unfortunately, Googling "Private Chef Toronto" [or another city] will yield the same vague results as Googling 'Best Restaurant in Toronto' - absolutely everyone in the industry will appear, regardless of quality. The search page will consist of the chefs who bring low-end ingredients and the chefs who have integrity and passion for their profession. The ultimate challenge is becoming familiar with who is providing what based on what you see online! Because what happens when the services provided are different from what is pictured online [read: underwhelming] on your special day?
In 2022, any business can hire a website designer, a food stylist, and a copywriter to add famous slogans like "Artistic-Fresh" and "Our chef is passionate about food!" to their website.
Further, we live in a world where fast-food chains like McDonald's and A&W advertise their products as ethical, free-range, GMO-free etc. But when the cost of the fully prepared burger is even less than the price of the cheapest ground meat you can find in a grocery store, a giant red flag should appear! Because when we add in some of the other inevitable costs of doing business [labour, advertisement, rent, corporate salaries, etc.], we've way exceeded the current price of the prepared burger.
And so we must begin to ask questions:
How feasible is it that this inexpensive burger came from a small batch of ethically-raised cattle?
How trustworthy are the "company ethics" they boast to customers?
Who enforces these said "ethics?"
How small is a "small batch?"
And therefore, how can we see beyond the [completely legal] marketing to truly understand what we are getting?
The best place to begin is with a healthy dose of skepticism. Then, start asking the right questions! And in this way, you can educate yourself about the industry while avoiding some of the unfortunate pitfalls.
As both Co-Owner of a private chef service company and someone who has hired many private chef companies for my special events [read: market research], let me share my experiences with you!
Part 1: The Four Private Chef Company Models
Let's start with the basics! There are four types of businesses within the private chef world:
1. Small Private Chef Companies usually have one chef and possibly several cooks. In some companies, the head chef who built the company under their reputation will send cooks on their behalf to execute their vision - they won't be present! In other companies, the head chef will always be at your event.
Hidden Truth: Some companies are intentionally vague when asked who will be cooking at your event, and the chances of a completely different chef showing up are high!
TIP: Read through each company's Google reviews to see if their past clients always refer to a singular chef or if multiple chefs are mentioned when rating their experience.
2. Catering Companies offer banquet-sized catering services [weddings, showers, funerals, cooking classes] and in-home private chef services. But their focus is on the big catering events because they draw the most revenue! These companies often have a kitchen facility where the products are delivered and cooked in mass to be warmed up at your event later. They usually employ a variety of cooks and chefs, all of whom they send to events.
TIP: If a catering company is named after a famous chef, ask if that chef will be at your event before paying a premium fee!
Hidden Truth: If a company "specializes" in catering and private chef services, will the private chef menu/ingredients differ from their large-scale catering menus/ingredients? In other words, will you receive a meal worth $250.00 (the average price of a private chef/person)? Or will you receive a meal worth $75.00 (the average cost of a catering plate)?
Will you receive pre-made and re-heated food? Will the chef use an array of ingredients or just the ones purchased for their [read: less expensive] wedding plates?
TIP: When it comes to a difference in price tags, ask yourself what level of execution you expect to receive from a private chef!
3. Recruiting Companies also have an arsenal of chefs they know personally or receive resumes from. However, these companies do not have kitchen facilities and do not know very much about the cooks they send to clients beyond what is written on their resumes.
Hidden Truth: I frequently see these companies online in the local chef's forums, searching for cooks! The company does not know the chef they send to you, more often than not, which leaves the door open for surprises - and not the fun kind.
4. Websites & Private Chef Apps are corporate, Uber-style services that present you with a list of various chefs in the area to choose from, all offering their different menus for your choosing.
Hidden Truth: There's no fact-checking process for the application, and anyone can create a profile to offer their "services" to clients - yes, even you can!
Also, the company is often not located within Canada, which begets questions such as how they could have vetted their cooks and chefs beyond simply sending them to your event as a test run? Furthermore, what happens if the cook does not show up? Will you receive a quick solution from a company that operates in a different time zone? When these corporations exist outside of our timezone and country, the question must arise if there are any issues with your event whatsoever, who do you call in a timely manner to find resolutions?
Part 2: How to Ask the Right Questions
Let me help you ask questions that the average person would not know because asking the right questions is the only way to fully understand what you will receive for each price tag!
Furthermore, it will ensure that no additional [read: hidden] fees appear on your bill after signing the initial agreement.
1. QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CHEF
A. What is the full name of the chef that will arrive at your doorstep?
Check who will be arriving at your event ahead of time with the company! You might be surprised to hear this, but the chef cooking the menu matters way more than the written menu! The difference between a disappointing dinner and an outstanding dinner is a well-trained, experienced chef with good technique. Of course, a good chef has experience and techniques that bring out exquisite flavours. Still, an exceptional chef will go even further than a well-plated, well-executed dish, additionally providing an artistic experience.
Don't let it fool you if a company's name is after a famous chef; this renowned person will probably not be at your event. However, they won't share this information with you until the day of the event - unless you ask!
After all, when the price tag is the same, would you rather receive a specific chef's experience, technique, personality, and level of plating? Or a cook executing the chef's menu for them?
The difference between the two cooks is between a 'wow experience' and an underwhelming experience!
B. So how do I know if a GREAT chef is coming to my home?
It starts with learning how to read between the lines of the average private chef's biography. Of course, like in any industry, there's usually a good reason for the lack of specifics and the use of fluffy slogans on a resume! And equally so, the more detailed the information, the more trustworthy it is.
Begin with experience - where has the chef worked before? What chefs have they studied aside? When you see phrases like "I have worked under the best chefs" and "I have worked in some of the best restaurants globally," get in the habit of asking for specific names!
When you see that a chef has worked in a Michelin Star restaurant, ask what their position was! Were they a dishwasher, an accountant, a custodial person, or a station chef? If the chef worked in the kitchen, did they peel vegetables in a basement or were they the sous chef?
Of course, according to the law, they all technically work there with any of these positions! But did they receive the experience you assume they did? The techniques and experiences learned in each position are vastly different, yet all people will claim to have worked at a Michelin Star restaurant!
TIP: Do you want a potato-peeling cook from a Barcelona-based Michelin star restaurant? Or would you rather have the Sous Chef of a highly rated restaurant in Pickering, Ontario? I know my choice! And if a "Michelin Star Chef" is offering an event for $180.00 per person, it seems too good to be true.
Moving along, we can next check what each chef does during their day-to-day - we are best at what we do daily! Similar to athletes, the art of cooking requires practice that 'keeps you in shape!'
Has the chef been in practice frequently, hosting and cooking at events? Or was their last event five years ago? Does their portfolio utilize a food stylist for staging the food during a photoshoot? Or are their photos representative of the level of plates that will arrive at your table? Does it seem as if their day-to-day gig is amassing food into chafing dishes, or are they plating haute cuisine daily?
The way to know the answers to these questions in 2022 is to check their social media feeds!
The style of dishes seen on a chef's Instagram or Facebook page is likely what you will be getting at your event. At the bare minimum, it visually describes the style of cooking they do best! For example, if a company appears to do catering jobs with chafing dishes and shared plates frequently, they have the most experience in this type of dining service!
It is also essential to check the photos the company is tagged in - this is where you will see actual pictures of their dishes, captured by clients at the table! Do they look like the photos on their website and social media [read: the ones that have been food styled]?
A fine-dining cook will not pretend to specialize in making food in chafing dishes for a 500-person wedding. Likewise, a catering chef shouldn't pretend to be a fine-dining chef for one night! These jobs take different skill sets, each significant for other occasions. For example, we do not hire a portrait painter to paint the walls of our home, though both are very skilled and meaningful positions for different reasons.
TIP: It is suspicious when a chef has either no pictures of food, only a few photos of food, or outdated photographs. Either the company is not proud of what they do or simply not working enough!
2. QUESTIONS ABOUT THE 'EXPERIENCE' YOU WILL RECEIVE
The questions to ask in this section are actually directed at yourself: Are you looking for a dining EXPERIENCE or simply tasty food? And what do YOU define as having had an experience? Because the new industry buzzword is experience, and some companies believe dropping food at the table constitutes the use of this word.
So what does the word 'experience' mean to you?
Does good food cooked with careful attention constitute an experience? Does pretty plating comprise an experience? Is an experience had when a chef lists off the ingredients on your plate? What is the extra oomph that you expect? What additional value do you seek to receive that goes above a restaurant or takeout from this experience?
Here are a set of questions to ask yourself to determine this answer:
Is my experience defined by the service of the evening or by the tastiness and presentation of the food? For example, is a beautifully-plated dish experienced the same way as sloppy service versus attentive service?
Do I want the chef to take care of the service aspect of the evening, or do I want them to focus on my food?
Do I care more about having a clean kitchen throughout the evening and receiving my food at 5-minute intervals than the quality and preparation of each dish?
When is pre-cooking my food considered 'too soon' - hours ahead? Days ahead?
Do I care to have any meaningful conversation with the chef about each dish as part of my experience?
TIP: You can also check a chef's social media feed to see if they have exciting things to say about their food - things that go beyond listing ingredients on your plate. If there are compelling captions, you will get that during your event!
And finally, one of the most critical questions of all:
Will the dining experience be impacted negatively if the chef arrives at my event by themselves?
Yes! There is only so much that one human can do while maintaining quality, no matter how experienced they are. Do we honestly expect one person to cook and plate all courses, serve and collect the dishes, wash and dry, provide attentive water service AND have educational conversations about our food? If we expect a level of dining excellence for the price tag, then this is a point where most people are set up for event failure.
The food will either be sloppy or cooked ahead of time, and you will experience forgetful or non-existent service, rushed conversations, or a combination of all three. Another scenario: your dinner will be perfect, but 9 hours long!
TIP: Always ask how many people will be coming to execute your event for the price tag!
3. QUESTIONS ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS
a. QUALITY & FRESHNESS
Do you care if your food is fresh or not? Further, what do you consider to be fresh food? Lastly, how do you know if the chef is bringing fresh food to your event? And when were the ingredients for your event purchased?
Indeed, some people do not care if their fish was purchased a few days ago or if it came from the freezer. But if another company will buy your fish the morning of your event for the same event price tag as the frozen-fish company, you're losing out on a part of your dining experience while they save money. By not serving you fresh from the market ingredients, a company can save thousands of dollars a year - at your experience's expense!
'Trust the Chef' is a saying I encourage you to follow regarding details like menu progression and doneness of a steak. But if you have standards and do not want to be disappointed in this industry, please do not simply 'Trust the Chef!' Because, like anyone, chefs are human beings who range in integrity while doing business. And also, many times, a chef does not have the final say within a company structure!
TIP: If we cannot simply trust the word of a chef, how do you know if your food is fresh? Ask to see the market receipts and/or raw ingredients!
Receipts demonstrate when the food was purchased [date on the receipt] and where they bought it. Salmon from a fishmonger is fresher than fish from the supermarket – and don't get me started about the quality!
If the company or chef cannot [read: will not] mention the names of the stores they sourced ingredients from, this is another red flag! It usually means their ingredients are dropped off once or twice a week by an industrial-scale food supplier. And if your event is five days after the drop-off date, we know how fresh your ingredients are!
b. WHEN WILL MY INGREDIENTS BE COOKED?
Here is an excellent example of the importance of timeliness: Do you prefer your steak to be grilled yesterday and finished in your home during the event? Or do you like your steak cooked just before being served to you? If you care for freshly cooked food [read: best flavour and texture of ingredients], hire the right company!
From my personal experiences with hiring private chefs, most of them cooked 90% of the dinner before coming to my home - we do not know if it was cooked that day or a week before! So again, we circle back to the integrity of the chef and their word above all.
Here are several reasons for cooking your food ahead of time:
a. The chef doesn't know if you have the appropriate kitchen equipment at home.
b. It is more manageable and less stressful for them, as it removes the multi-tasking and skill required to accomplish this with all the table service and maintenance needed as they are a one-person band.
c. It's much more economical for a company to buy a whole fish and cook 20 filets in their kitchen, re-heating it at your home later.
d. It creates less mess in the kitchen and will not trigger the smoke alarm. But, yes, some clients care more about a neat kitchen and absolute silence than the freshness of the fish.
The overall question inevitably becomes, are you satisfied with paying $250.00-$300.00 per person and receiving frozen or pre-cooked food?
Because how and when an ingredient is cooked matters to the flavour and texture of the dish! Within my set of expectations, commercial ice cream doesn't cut it when paying $250.00 per person! Fresh ice cream can be made without gums and artificial chemicals if prepared precisely 3-8 hours before consumption.
TIP: Ask if the chef will come with RAW ingredients and cook everything in your kitchen. Do not accept any less unless you are paying less money!
C. WHAT IS THE QUALITY LEVEL OF MY INGREDIENTS?
When we shop at No Frills versus at a farmer's market, there are different price tags on the ingredients that are not just about the store location or the swanky environment you're shopping in. Instead, it is based on the quality of produce [and its health] that they sell.
I once hired a private chef who charged me $350 per person, arriving with yellow No Frills bags full of produce for my event. We did receive a giant cheese board [way too much, in my opinion], but if you care for quality rather than quantity, this was a big faux-pas for me.
Where do companies buy their meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, etc.? For example, I sincerely doubt that catering companies purchase ingredients for their smaller, less-frequent private chef dinners separately!
TIP: How do you know if a yellow bag is heading to your event at the time of booking? Ask them during your phone consultation what small, local businesses they source their products from - Google them!
Part 3: Be Firm About the Total Cost of your Event
TIP: Ask for a detailed estimate to be sent to your email before signing a contract, not a guesstimate!
Unfortunately, many people's approach to sales is to appear cheaper than others, displaying last-minute hidden fees after booking the date with you. Some companies will even write a menu before disclosing these fees, putting you in an awkward position if you cancel.
Yes, these companies will do anything to get your business - it doesn't matter if they upset you at the last minute. But unfortunately, the private chef business model is mainly built on the idea of once-in-a-lifetime clients, not returning clients.
TIP: If a company reveals hidden fees as close to the event as possible, do you think they have integrity regarding the freshness and quality of your ingredients? Will they have integrity in treating your home or guests with respect?
Here is an example of a hidden fee: some companies will include dining ware [dishes, cutlery, glassware, napkins] in your per-person cost. And some companies will ask for additional charges the day before when they finally ask!
Here are a few questions you can ask private chef companies to understand better what is included in your quote:
1. Are plates/cutlery/napkins/stemware included in the price?
2. Are servers included? How many people will be in my home executing this dinner?
3. Are all food ingredients included?
4. Are there any hidden fees I should know about like delivery fees, catering fees, and cancellation fees?
5. Is there a markup or corkage/sommelier fee if you order wine through the company?
Conclusion: The Unspoken Truth
All decent private chef services will cost you [more or less] the same amount of money per person if all the components that ensure a quality dining experience are fulfilled. And when the price tags of two different companies do not match, it is up to you to find out why. How upfront is each company being with you about your wants and needs?
As Co-Owner of Chef & Somm, I know from hiring other companies within our industry that they all cost the same amount of money by the end of the evening. However, when the two quotes did not match at the beginning of the consultation process, that is when we know there is an honesty problem in our industry.
So before going out to shop for a private chef experience, I encourage you to ask yourself what you want, need and expect out of an evening at home! Preparing your expectations beforehand will guide you in asking the right questions to set your event up for success.
What will you receive for your money? What type of chef and level of dining will you experience?
Because I find that there are two rules of thumb in life that you can always count on:
If it looks too good to be true, it probably is! And of course, it can always be done cheaper: