Mind your own (private chef) business

Over the course of the 12 years I’ve been a private chef I’ve been asked at least 10 times by chefs who want a more flexible and lucrative career to explain the ins and outs of how I run my culinary arts business. Though it’s changed over the years, here are some basics that haven’t.

1.Keep a food journal. I always have a notebook around where I record recipe ideas, successes, and failures so I can refer back to it during critical moments when I’m short on time but need an answer fast. If a client wants to know what I put in something, or I need to remember what ingredients a client dislikes or is allergic to, I can find the answer quickly. If I want to repeat a recipe I made last year, there it is. If I figured out what it cost to make a particular dish, I don’t have to do it again the next time.

2.Use a shopping list form. I created a shopping list form that divides my daily shopping list into six categories: meat, dairy/eggs, frozen, produce, grocery, and bulk (which often includes spices). This way, I can get everything I need in each department of the store without having to back track, thereby saving time (and therefore money).

3.Figure out how much you want to make and then work backwards to establish prices. Once I’d been cooking professionally for 10 years, I wanted to be earning a rate that reflected by skills and experience. I knew I would be resentful if I was working for less than I felt I deserved, and would eventually burn out.

Once I figured out the hourly wage I wanted to make and how many hours it would take to cook a week’s worth of dinners (usually four meals with leftovers for two other meals), I had my labor rate.

4.Take time off. I never cook for clients on Sundays or Mondays so I always have a weekend. I also eventually stopped working on major holidays. I’m willing to drop food off the day before a holiday, but it’s important to me to be able to be with friends and family on important days.

5.Keep track of your finances. I started keeping receipts for equipment purchases, laundry supplies, office supplies (my computer and Internet costs too), and even the utilities in my house since I used part of it to cook and part of it to manage my business. This habit, plus using a skilled accountant to help me file my taxes enabled me to deduct all of my expenses and save a bundle off of self-employment taxes at the end of the year.

Being a private chef works very well for me. It allows me to work fewer hours and make more money than I was able to doing restaurant work. If you’re a chef with an entrepreneurial bone, it might just be for you too!

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