Food

The Glamorous, Lonely Lives of Private Chefs

In July, 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 the N.F.L. 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 $12,800. 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 nondisclosure agreements).

But over the last 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.

Tashea Channell Younge said she just hopes a client has some salt and pepper on the counter when she shows up to cook for them. (Not all do.)Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times

The money is good and there’s plenty of creative freedom. But the videos don’t always show how lonely the job can be.

Ms. Younge, 27, knows she gets hired because she’s fun to be around. But she also knows that she’s on the private jet or the 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.”

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 learned 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. Sami Udell, the founder of the private-chef agency WholeSam, was desperate for chefs just a few years ago. Sometimes, she turned to Craigslist to fill gigs.

Restaurant chefs sneered at private chef work, she said. But when Covid 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.

Ms. Cheshire often leaves the galley while her clients eat, to give them privacy on the yacht.Credit…Natalie Zepp for The New York Times

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 seen a 75 percent jump in applications from candidates “who wish to leave, or never enter at all, the restaurant world,” said Daniel Wood, its founder.

These chefs are meeting a steep demand that began in the early days of the pandemic when the rich, like everyone else, were eating at home more. But they weren’t making sourdough loaves; they wanted restaurant-quality cooking.

Michael Casciello, the founder of the agency Food Fire + Knives, said interest in hiring chefs has skyrocketed. His placements of chefs have more than doubled since 2019. Before 2020, Mr. Casciello had 25 chefs in six states; now there are 133 in more than 40 states. “It seems we can’t hire and expand quickly enough,” he said.

The recent crop of TikTok and Instagram posts are just one more way for private chefs to grow their client base. And the videos may also be drawing more chefs into the business.

For private chefs, the perks are real. Most are paid better than they would be in a restaurant.

Reilly Meehan has worked full time as one family’s private chef since 2021, splitting his time between Phoenix and Southampton, N.Y. He says he makes 40 percent 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 $100,000 to $175,000 a year. They get vacation days. Some charge a minimum of $500 a day for private-chef work, or more than $150 a person to cater events.

Rob Li, one of the most popular chefs posting videos from the Hamptons this summer, works for a billionaire.Credit…Rick Wenner for The New York Times

“Before the pandemic, it was quite rare to meet a chef earning over $200,000,” Mr. Wood said. “Now, the highest earners in the country are in the $200,000 to $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 Ashley Cunningham, 27, who has worked for a handful of N.B.A. 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. Tejas Jhaveri, 25, a private chef from Oahu, received a text late one night requesting that 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.

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 easygoing, so it almost feels like cooking for a roommate, he said.

Life on the island is languid. Between cooking and grocery shopping, Mr. Li, 26, lounges and edits footage of lunches and snacks for his TikToks, 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 back 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.”

Lights, camera, herb garden: Mr. Li teases details of his cloistered Hamptons life in his videos.Credit…Rick Wenner for The New York Times

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, 32, travels without his husband 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.

Ms. Younge, the private chef who cooked for Noah Brown, regularly drops what she’s doing to fly from New York to Houston, Los Angeles or Miami at a client’s request.

Ms. Younge said her personal relationships have suffered because of her work. She has missed many birthdays, and friends don’t ask her to go out anymore.

“I feel like I know a lot of people, but I don’t have a lot of friends, and I’m OK with that,” she said, adding, “I got into plenty of arguments. I got cursed out so many times. And I can’t say anything but ‘I’m sorry.’”

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