The reasons for hiring a personal chef are as varied as the reasons chefs choose to work as a personal chef. On the client side, people might lack time, cooking skills or adequate culinary equipment. Sometimes, especially for a special event, the host whose task it is to cook for the event would prefer to be with guests versus in the kitchen. Chefs are motivated by a variety of reasons, too: earning extra money, having a more flexible schedule, or wanting to grow their range.
For Eric B. Nelson, being a personal chef is all about the opportunity to interact with people.
“I look forward to it,” says Nelson, who has several side gigs as a personal chef in addition to his regular job as executive chef for the Davenport Grand’s restaurants.
Nelson enjoys the live theater aspect of private events, similar to working in open kitchens, he says.
“I have no problem being somewhat of a card and having a great time.”
More than in his corporate job, cooking for a small group allows him to focus on relationships “with purveyors, with people that you’re gonna cook for, [even] relationships with the earth,” Nelson says.
His sweet spot is cooking for between 15 and 18 people, which ensures all the meals come out perfectly.
Nelson tries to stay within a client’s comfort zone on both the menu and the price per plate. When he works through the local startup Bookoo Chef, for example, Nelson charges $115 per person for an egg-centric five-course meal he calls “Yolking It Up” that includes smoked egg yolk on pan-seared trout and jazzed-up deviled eggs .
Nelson is one of nine chefs on the roster for Bookoo Chef, a Spokane-based clearinghouse conceived in response to rising demand for personal chefs, says Justin O’Neill, who co-founded the company with local restaurateur Matt Goodwin.
“After talking with some friends, we realized that there is no central booking app — like airbnb or Uber — that connects hosts with private chefs,” says O’Neill, who’s also a chef and Spiceology account executive.
Since launching in March 2022, Bookoo (bookoochef.com) has completed 12 bookings and is now into the 2023 calendar, O’Neill says.
“The most common event seems to just be people and families having a get-together,” he adds.
O’Neill says he’s been surprised that the demand for private chefs has increased post-pandemic, even though restaurants are open again.
“Clearly people’s eating habits were changing and have changed,” says O’Neill, also explaining that people seem to want something experiential beyond restaurants or takeout.
Bookoo’s platform features many notable chefs in the region, including O’Neill, Eat Good Group’s Aaron Fish and Cochinito Taqueria’s Travis Dickinson. Each chef offers between a three- and seven-course experience at a fixed price per plate, such as Modernist Cooks’ Amanda Hillman, who resurrects her first cooking job at Sala Thai to provide a five-course “Trip to Thailand” ($160/ person) including lemongrass chicken and sweet mango rice for dessert.
Meanwhile, Isaac Cunnington, who created his business My Sushi Sensei (mysushisensei.com) after a pandemic-related layoff, offers hands-on cooking experiences. He teaches clients to make sushi: temaki or hand rolls ($75/person) and makizushi or rolled and sliced sushi ($100/person).
Like the sushi chef Cunnington, Nelson’s increased private chef work resulted from a pandemic pivot. Until spring 2020, Nelson was busy running the Davenport Grand’s six dining venues and occasionally teaching classes at his alma mater, Spokane Community College’s Inland Northwest Culinary Academy.
Then—bam! — the doors closed on the region’s culinary and hospitality industry, and Nelson found himself more-or-less alone in a 718-room hotel, the only kitchen employee not furloughed. And while it wasn’t quite as scary as that Jack Nicholson scene in The ShiningNelson was going a little stir-crazy.
“I had a lot of time to think, and I didn’t have any employees,” says Nelson, who started planning day trips. Joined by Maggie, her lovable 160-pound St. Bernard-mastiff mix, Nelson drove to Missoula, Lewiston, Sandpoint, Yakima and even Canada, where they were turned away because the border was closed.
Although the trips helped his mental health, it was a drain on his pocketbook until a colleague suggested Nelson monetize all his “gallivanting.” Thus, Gallivant Chef was born.
“At first I didn’t think it was going to be anything,” says Nelson, who parlayed his writing background into a blog portion of Gallivanting Chef (thegallivantingchef.com).
“I thought it was going to be a fun little avenue to write [and] have something creative to do,” he adds.
But it opened the door to more work as a private chef, including for Bookoo Chef.
And the Instagram Nelson made for Maggie was a hit (@maggiemoostbernard), prompting one company to send so many free doggie toys he had to ask the company to stop sending them.
Hittnie Walker was also looking for a creative (and money-making) outlet when she started Personal Chef Northwest (personalchefnw.com). Based out of Post Falls, the self-taught cook specializes in providing both event-based and weekly, personalized meals.
For weekly meals, says Walker, clients are typically busy — working parents, people traveling — or they have health issues or just don’t like to cook.
The other part of her business is more event-based.
“People are usually wanting to bring the restaurant to their house to celebrate an event, or a lot of people [are] on vacation and want to have someone cook for them after being at the lake all day instead of going out.”
Always a self-starter whose past gigs included working as a nanny and bookkeeper, Walker didn’t intend to start a private chef company. A few years ago, she responded to an advertisement for someone to do specialized weekly meals similar to the keto-based diet to which she was adhering. Walker had always enjoyed cooking, liked the flexible schedule, and soon found herself with more and more clients.
In 2017, Walker launched her company, steadily building a client base and repertoire of 200 recipes. She charges $50 an hour (more during the holidays) with a four-hour minimum, and not including food.
Walker figures it’s a better deal than meal service kits, which still have to be cooked and cleaned up after, she says. And it’s just as affordable, she says, especially for her clients who are definitely not rich.
“All of our clients are pretty much middle class, just busy working families,” Walker says. “And who wants to cook when you come home after working nine hours?”♦