Chefs leave restaurants to work in private homes

Melissa Sosa had a 6-year-old at home and a salary as a restaurant chef that hadn’t changed within her son’s lifetime.

Forget that she was well respected among her peers and worked in prized Miami restaurants with James Beard award honors, including Zak the Baker, Pubbelly, Sugarcane and, lastly, Balloo.

She had accepted she would “be broke,” making $15 an hour, working 10- and 12-hour days at a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Brooklyn last year — when the coronavirus forced restaurants to close.

That’s when a Miami friend called with an offer: Would she consider coming back to be a personal chef?

A private plane flew her from Miami to the Bahamas, where she cooked in an island vacation home for 15 people over seven days around New Year’s Day. As a private chef, she says she commands $60 an hour.

“What I made in a week, I would make in a month in a restaurant, sweating my bum off working on a line,” said Sosa, a 12-year restaurant veteran.

Sosa, 29, has not returned to restaurants after restrictions were eased. And she’s not alone.

More restaurant chefs, from line cooks to the second in command in well-respected kitchens, are making the decision to work as personal chefs after the pandemic exposed their industry’s fragility. Some are moonlighting on their off days. Others left restaurants altogether. It’s another dent to a big Miami hospitality industry struggling to staff up in the pandemic.

But for chefs who have turned years of restaurant experience into cooking in private homes, it has been a revelation.

“I didn’t feel like I was a success as a mom and wasn’t a success in my professional life. Now I’m succeeding at both in a way I never have,” she said. “It’s been really life changing, and people need to know it’s possible to do this.

CHEFS FOR HIRE

Demand for private chefs has been skyrocketing.

Larry Lynch, president of the Orlando-based U.S. Personal Chef Association, said his group has about 1,000 members — including 260 who joined last year during the pandemic, most out-of-work restaurant chefs.

“The work behind the line is hard, and a lot think, ‘There’s got to be something better out there.’ That’s what we heard: ‘We just don’t want to go back to the line again,’” Lynch said.

As part of a chef’s dues, the organization not only helps place chefs, but also ensures they have all the appropriate business licenses, food handling and food safety certifications, liability insurance, even continuing education.

Miami-area chef David Melendez decided to focus on being a private chef two years ago, before the pandemic. His company, Soflo Chefs, is busier than ever.

In 2019, he worked 90 events. In 2020 that number nearly doubled to 170. Halfway through this year, he’s already hosted 240. He and his team make between $25-$100 an hour, he said.

“It’s better than standing on your feet all day on a hot line,” he said.

Some chefs have signed on with companies that pair them with this kind of work.

Besides opening a new restaurant in Miami Beach and preparing to open two others, Michael Kaplan was a private chef who started New Wave Hospitality to place chefs with private cooking jobs on the side. Kaplan learned to appreciate the work early on as the private chef for the billionaire Nelson Peltz.

During the start of the pandemic, Kaplan had wealthy clients who were looking for big dinner parties, but not in restaurants. Count David and Victoria Beckham among them. And there were restaurant chefs out of work as governments closed indoor dining to slow the spread of COVID-19 cases.

“People still had to eat and they were craving the restaurant experience,” Kaplan said. “We found an insane amount of talent out there, people ready to get back to work and people willing to pay to have that experience at home. We married the two together.”

New Wave has amassed a roster of more than 15 chefs that he helps place in everything from one-off events to part-time cooking in homes to full live-in chefs. Chefs are vetted with private tastings, lengthy interviews and matching a chef’s personality to the job.

An experienced chef can make anywhere between $100,000-$150,000 a year as a personal chef — to start. That’s not counting the use of a car, living quarters and, often, health benefits, Kaplan said.

NOT JUST FOR THE RICH

Those turning to private chefs are not just the ultra-rich.

Melendez said he has seen more people eschewing restaurants for chef-prepared dinner parties at home.

“It’s not for the rich and famous anymore,” he said. “They want to Instagram every dish, and capture every milestone. It became cool to have a personal chef.”

He said his company has packages for as little as $65 a person — and most of the dinners he has served in private homes in the last year had fewer than 15 people. For comparison, Miami Spice — the annual, summer dining promotion at more than 200 Miami-Dade county restaurants — charges fixed-price dinners for $42 a person.

Melendez compared his rates to a dinner for two at a steakhouse like Ruth’s Chris, $200-$240.

“That’s about what we’d charge but we bring the event to you,” he said.

Andy Bates, a television chef for Food Network UK based near Miami Beach, has worked almost exclusively as a private chef. In Miami, he has had out-of-towners stay at Airbnbs, and he brings everything for the blowout event, from silverware and plates to table decorations. And, of course, they handle all the dishes.

“It’s all about you that evening,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is sit down and eat, and it’s all done.”

‘IT’S AN EYE OPENER’

For most chefs turning to private work, it’s about being in control.

Sasha Ariel Ullman, 31, has worked at some of Miami’s best restaurants, including 27 Restaurant in Miami Beach and Coral Gables’ Madruga Bakery; and she worked as a chef for Michelle Bernstein. But she has worked exclusively as a private chef since November of last year. It was a big change for someone who has been cooking in restaurants since she was 14, working at the Boca Resort dining room.

“I love being a chef in a restaurant kitchen but it’s also taken a huge toll. It’s a really stressful, really hard job,” she said.

Ullman met two families during lockdown in Miami and is spending the summer in the Hamptons, where she is living with one and cooking for another. It’s another world from making $18 an hour in an independent, 50-seat restaurant.

“I always told myself I’m not in this for the money. It’s what I love. But this has shown me I can save for my future and do what I love,” she said. “This whole thing has been an eye opener.”

Still, it has been an adjustment, she said. Working directly for a client means learning about making corporations, paying taxes, building a client base, things she never had to think about in a restaurant.

“You have to learn to be a server, a bartender, a nanny sometimes,” Ullman said. “It takes someone multifaceted to succeed at this… You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself.”

That variety is what appeals to some chefs. In the last year, Sosa has cooked one-off dinners, served a 10-course tasting menu, made a taco night for a supermodel and her family, and now she spends most of her days meal-prepping for a family. She does this from her home.

“You enjoy your work more and you can see your bank account benefiting from it,” Sosa said. “It’s the most beautiful thing that’s happened in my career.”

Sosa, a Key West native, is spending this week cooking for a family at a resort home in Islamorada, shopping for fresh ingredients and writing a different menu every day of the week. Then, she’s taking a month off. And that’s not something she ever imagined she could do as a chef.

“Wow, I can take a four-week holiday! Can you believe it?” she said.

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