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Interview with a ...
Personal chef

| December 2021

BLS Fast Facts: Cooks, private household. 2020 employment: 40,900. 2020-2030 projected openings: 6,100 each year, on average. Typical entry-level education and training: Postsecondary nondegree award; less than 5 years of work experience in a related occupation. 2020 employment distribution: Self-employed workers 79%; Other 21%. May 2020 median annual wage: $32,630

Learn more about this occupation in the Occupational Outlook Handbook

Linda Berns

What do you do?

I’m a caterer and a personal chef. I cook for special events, families, and individuals who need meals delivered to their homes. I customize my menus according to the personal requests of each client.

I also cook for people who have significant health conditions and create meal plans and recipes for them. Many of the people I cook for use the menus I create to learn how to cook for themselves and become healthier. I often lose clients this way. But it’s rewarding to help them improve their health.

Describe a typical day.

I have several different “typical” days. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m cooking furiously to make sure that I get everything done for meals delivered on the same day. I write warming instructions with every meal so the client can heat their food in a way that preserves its flavor and nutritional value.

On other days, I’m taking care of the office part of my business. I talk to people and give them options based on what foods they like to eat and what fits their budget. With many of my personal chef clients, after I’ve cooked for them once or twice, they have me cook for them whatever I like to make and whatever I think they’ll enjoy. I work very hard to make sure that I don’t repeat meals, that their food responds to their health conditions, and that it’s delicious.

How did you learn to cook?

My grandmother taught me; I went to the culinary school of Gramma Frieda. I loved to cook with her! There were no written recipes. You’d feel, smell, or taste food to decide when it was ready for the next step—or to eat. It was a very hands-on approach that I still use today.

In what other ways did that experience help prepare you to be a chef?

My grandmother took me shopping with her to buy ingredients. We’d go down to the bakery to buy a 2-cent piece of fresh yeast to make pastries, for example. She had good relationships with vendors for meat, fish, and vegetables. They would pick out their best food for her because of that special connection. She was a great model for me. I learned how to ask the right questions about the food I bought.

That’s also part of how I learned about the importance of developing relationships. I now have relationships not only with my vendors but with my clients. I cook for them for years. Many of the older people I cook for, I also now cook for their children.

Did you go directly from cooking with your grandmother to cooking professionally?

No. I had a graphic design company for over 20 years, at a time when there were no computers. But then technology began to change the job, and it didn’t allow me to work with my hands as much as I wanted. I’m very tactile.

One day, my husband and I were watching a television program about how to become a personal chef. I realized that cooking could be the perfect second career for me. For years, my gift to family and friends had always been to cook meals.

My husband signed me up for the 3-day course. Marketing, and how to promote yourself as a small business owner, was a big part of the instruction; I already had that experience. What I needed to learn about was packaging, temperature control, shipping, and how to meet state and county regulations for healthy commercial cooking.

Tell me more about how you changed careers.

The organization that taught the personal chef course had about 300 or 400 members. But at the time, I was the only truly kosher chef. To establish my kosher credentials, I got several part-time jobs. I cooked for a university’s Jewish student organization, supervised non-Jewish caterers cooking kosher food, and cooked 150 to 250 meals per week for a synagogue. Cooking took over my graphic design work. Now, over 22 years later, I have a hard time not cooking.

What’s the most challenging part of your work?

Researching the best foods for people who have significant health conditions and preparing healthy meals that they’ll enjoy. It’s the most challenging and rewarding thing I do.

What do you like best?

So many things! Making people happy and having them enjoy their meals is the very best.

I love teaching people how to cook and how to have fun cooking. I design recipe sheets and games to educate people about good nutrition and how to keep themselves healthy.

And I really enjoy cooking with children so they learn to appreciate food and enjoy eating a variety of foods. Once I taught a class of 5- to 7-year-olds. They learned about different countries and what food they eat. The kids chopped and mixed foods, and at the end of class, they ate what they made. I designed a take-home recipe sheet with information about each country and the dish they made so that they could make it at home with their parents.

When I’m catering a special event, I like to cook meals that contribute to its success. On sad occasions, food can provide a gentle, comforting way to ease the pain for family members. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a personal chef?

You have to love to cook and make people happy with what they eat. And, if possible, take care of clients with what they eat so that you’re helping them stay healthy. Whether I’m cooking at home, in someone else’s home, or in a commercial kitchen, I express my concern and care for others with everything I cook. It doesn’t matter what the occasion is: a weekday meal, a special event, or a holiday.

You can also have fun building relationships with clients and vendors. That’s a bonus for your own happiness.

Finally, be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do, but don’t stop exploring and learning. You can do anything that you want to do if you ask lots of questions and learn how to do it.

Steven Marcroft is an economist formerly with the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS.

Suggested citation:

Steven Marcroft, "Personal chef," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2021.

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               Linda Berns