Sales executive Tony DiLeo wanted his wife’s 50th birthday celebration to be a night to remember. The 11 guests devoured a six-course meal, which included brussels sprouts and butternut squash skewers, seared duck with a fennel salad, and a thinly sliced filet with truffled corn. Each course was paired with wine, from an Austrian white Gruner Veltliner to a pinot noir from the Russian River region of Sonoma.
The best part about the evening, says DiLeo, is that guests didn’t have to leave his Laytonsville home. DiLeo hired Ellicott City private chef Kevin Brothers on the recommendation of a foodie friend to devise the menu and prepare the meal.
“There’s something about having someone cooking in your home that has a romantic quality to it,” DiLeo says.
Many who love to entertain are adding some drama to their dinner parties by turning to private chefs, of whom there are as many as 12,000 in the U.S., estimates the American Personal & Private Chef Association. That number is projected to grow to 20,000 over the next five years as more busy professionals seek expert help in the kitchen. Having someone else do the cooking and cleanup also allows hosts to serve more complicated dishes and spend time with their guests.
To have a successful evening, hosts advise talking with the chef ahead of time to plan the details, including the menu and the cost. Expect to pay, on average, the same as you would pay in a restaurant —if you were picking up the entire tab.
DiLeo, who spent about $2,000 on his wife Debbie’s party, says the money was worth it. Watching the chef at work was part of the evening’s entertainment.
“Having a chef there is kind of an event and activity wrapped up in one, in the comfort of your own home,” DiLeo says.
Convenience and cost
Chefs typically charge by the number of guests — anywhere from $39 to $200 per person, depending on the number of menu items and type of food you plan to serve. That doesn’t include alcohol and other beverages, which hosts typically buy on their own. Some chefs suggest wines that go well with their dishes, as was the case for DiLeo’s party. Some chefs charge extra for the cost of groceries and an hourly fee for their prep time. You can expect to pay extra — from $25 to $50 an hour — if the chef brings an assistant or server. Others automatically include a tip in the total cost.
Even with all of those fees, the convenience is worth it to many hosts because it saves them time.
“Someone else is doing all the cooking, and you’re getting a quality of food that you wouldn’t get in my house,” says Monkton resident Faith Nevins Hawks. “As a host, I love it because instead of working at your party, you’re enjoying it.”
Hawks has used a personal chef service to host several backyard pool parties. In October, she plans to hire Baltimore’s Nutreatious Personal Chef Service to cook for a girls’ night at her home.
Hawks, who commutes from her northern Baltimore County home to downtown Baltimore’s Marks, Thomas Architects, says that hiring a personal chef is the only way she can entertain guests on a workday without leaving the office early.
Finding a chef who suits your needs is the first step. Most people rely on referrals or choose someone whose food they enjoyed at another party.
Tom Locke, a retired FBI agent in Gambrills, liked Jim Holderbaum’s prime rib and his shrimp and lobster boil so much at a July 4 rooftop party in Annapolis that he invited the chef to throw a pre-wedding party for 30 in September. Holderbaum, whose Bowie company, Range and Reef, specializes in outdoor events, prepared his signature dishes for Locke and his then-fiancée, Theresa Gourley (now wife, Theresa Locke).
Like many private chefs, Holderbaum met with his client at his home before the event to check out the space and plan the menu.
“I don’t agree to do anything over the phone or email, Holderbaum says. “I’ll go to the host’s house and talk to them about what they want [the event] to look like.”
Other chefs are OK with confirming the details over the phone. That was the case for Hilary Yarmus, who hired Baltimore’s PlateDate to prepare a three-course vegan birthday dinner celebration at her Pikesville home in September that included three of her girlfriends.
Yarmus advises giving as much detail as possible about the menu you want ahead of time. For instance, Yarmus wanted the chef to make a vegan “crab cake” with hearts of palm similar to the one served at Clarksville vegan restaurant Great Sage. It was topped with a basil caper remoulade, while the main dish was a stuffed acorn squash with a wild mushroom pilaf.
“Pick things that you wouldn’t want to cook yourself,” Yarmus advises. When you have someone else cook for you, go big.”
Before the chef arrives, clean your house and make room in the kitchen.
“An empty sink, clean countertops and space in the refrigerator is the best gift you can give a personal chef,” says Nutreatious CEO Dana Sicko.
Expect that the chef will arrive at your house several hours early to set up. Holderbaum arrived at Locke’s house at 12:30 p.m. for a 6:00 p.m. event. This gave him time to prepare the prime rib and set up tents, tables, chairs and a bar. Holderbaum brought his own pots, burners and grills to the event. Other chefs, however, may use your pots and pans. Chefs will also clean up after the event.
Creating an experience
Creating an ambience similar to a restaurant’s can be done with a few simple steps. Stream some music, and use your best cloth napkins, tablecloths, polished silverware, a simple floral arrangement and your best dishes, says Baltimore chef Erik Berlin.
Kevin Brothers says he provides flowers, candles and seasonally appropriate decorations. A server on hand makes sure glasses are filled.
Watching the chef in action can be part of the evening’s entertainment and what makes the experience different from eating out.
“People come around and ask questions, so it’s really participatory,” Holderbaum says.
But some chefs, like Brothers, advise keeping guests — especially pets and kids — out of the kitchen for safety reasons, as you don’t want them near hot pans and boiling water.
DiLeo’s two younger kids, ages 7 and 12, hung out in the couple’s basement, while his oldest child, 14, ate with the adults.
Having his kids around was also one of the reasons DiLeo wanted to keep the party at home. He figured his wife would enjoy the evening more if the kids weren’t stuck with a baby sitter.
Yarmus says part of the experience of a girls’ night in is getting to savor the meal.
“This is so much better than going out to dinner,” she says.“You could stay as long as you want, linger over courses. Everyone was so much more relaxed.”