Silicon Valley Private Chefs Dish on Catering to the Tech Class

John Barone spent years working in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. There was Jean-Georges and Daniel in New York; The French Laundry in Napa, California; and stints at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Central in Lima, Peru.

But none of those jobs have made the chef as happy as the job he has now, cooking lunch and dinner five days a week in the home kitchen of a wealthy Silicon Valley couple.

Barone, who left the high-stress world of fine dining a decade ago, started out cooking for the couple twice a week to give their full-time chef some time off. When the pandemic hit, the full-time chef left, and Barone took over.

He started living with the couple for part of the week to reduce their exposure to COVID-19. Soon he was flying on a private jet to their house in Hawaii, where one day in March, after two years on the job, he spoke with Insider.

Barone, who grew up in New Jersey, estimates that it was his eighth trip to the Big Island, which has given him time to get to know the local farmers and find out who sells the best fish in town.

“I am just happy. I work for really great people now,” Barone said.

Private-chef jobs have been in increasingly high demand, thanks to the explosion of people working from home and indoor dining bans that put many high-end chefs out of work. Even with tech stocks tanking ahead of fears of an economic recession, work-from-home is here to stay — as are Silicon Valley’s many millionaires and billionaires.

Of course, working in the homes of busy, health-conscious, secretive millionaires and billionaires can have its downsides. Nondisclosure agreements are par for the course, as are special diets. The travel can be burdensome and not always to gorgeous getaways like Hawaii.

While Barone works for “great people,” some clients can take advantage of having a paid employee at the house and expect them to babysit their kids, run errands, or act as a chauffeur, Silicon Valley private chefs told Insider.

“Some want you to be a butler and put slippers by the door,” said one private chef who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

Some want you to be a butler and put slippers by the door. Anonymous private chef

Despite the risks, high-end cooks are increasingly leaving the hustle and bustle of Michelin-starred kitchens for the mansions and vacation homes of Silicon Valley’s elite. They say the salary and other perks make it worthwhile, especially if you end up with a family that treats you with respect.

One job listing in San Francisco offered $8,000 to $12,000 a month with a requirement that the chef is “able to deliver tasty, creative meals free from dairy, wheat, gluten, sugar, and salt.”

Another listing for the Silicon Valley suburb of Atherton had a salary range of $104,000 to $170,000, depending on experience, and a long list of requirements, including “spatial awareness” and the “ability to distinguish, with a degree of accuracy, the differences or similarities in intensity and quality of flavors or aromas.”

Women's hands picking up Chinese food

Working in the homes of busy, health-conscious, secretive millionaires and billionaires can have its downsides.

Crystal Cox/Insider

That’s about twice the pay as cooking at some fine-dining restaurants, where some chefs said they’ve heard of wages totaling as low as $45,000 and up to $80,000, even while working 100 hours a week.

From the NDAs to the high-flying perks and special diets, some of Silicon Valley’s private chefs share their experiences.

Max Porterkhamsy is a former executive chef of the Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room in Kenwood, California, and he previously worked at the prestigious Le Bernardin restaurant in New York. When he turned to private cooking several years ago, he stepped into a different and sometimes surreal world.

He mentioned a time a client sent a private jet to pick him up. A different family had Porterkhamsy living with them in an $80,000-a-month rental unit and driving their rented Lamborghini.

The family, Porterkhamsy said, was “afraid to drive the vehicle but wanted to go for rides in it. So I spent two days just driving random people around in the Lamborghini.”

Today Porterkhamsy and his wife, Khambay, run Epicurate, an online marketplace like Airbnb, and a private-chef website, Vine Dining. Instead of renting houses, clients can schedule services from a curated list of high-end chefs.

The company is built on a core tenet of the private-chef world, which is that people who hire private chefs often have more money than they have time.

“What they can’t afford is an evening of disappointment,” said Porterkhamsy, who still occasionally cooks for private clients.

Preventing disappointment is a big part of the job. Whether it’s an afternoon snack of carrots and hummus or a birthday cake, chefs become an integral part of their clients’ daily lives. They must anticipate their clients’ needs, including the best time to put out freshly baked cookies.

“You have to really anticipate what their needs are before they know they need them,” Barone said.

You’ll probably overhear conversations that are private. Chief John Barone

The job of private cooking can be surprisingly intimate. Unlike working in a restaurant kitchen, working in someone’s home requires a level of hospitality that can be uncomfortable for more introverted types.

“You almost have to learn a different way of thinking,” Barone said. “You’ll probably overhear conversations that are private. You have to be aware of your surroundings and how people are feeling.”

In some ways, being a chef is like running a small business. Many of the chefs Insider spoke with have to create menus days or weeks in advance and get the sign-off from their clients. Most are also responsible for keeping the kitchen organized and clean between meals. For those who work as freelancers, moving between clients and events, it literally is a small business.

On top of cooking three meals a day, full-time chefs may be expected to do all of the food planning and shopping for the household, which requires building relationships with small farms and meat vendors to ensure that the ingredients are always of the highest quality .

Since it can be hard to find certain products in remote areas, traveling chefs often find themselves packing private planes with ice chests full of favorite food and wine.

While food preferences change from person to person, chefs with experience cooking Asian-fusion dishes are in high demand in the Bay Area, where many high-level executives come from across the Pacific. Paleo, keto, and vegan diets are extremely popular, as are diets that exclude dairy and gluten. Once, Porterkhamsy said, someone even told him they had a salt allergy.

Woman's hand pouring syrup over pancakes

Traveling chefs often find themselves packing private planes with ice chests full of favorite food and wine.

Crystal Cox/Insider

While it’s common for job ads to specify that they want a chef with a background at Michelin-starred restaurants, Barone said most clients don’t want restaurant-style food seven days a week.

Compared to people dining at restaurants, Barone said, people eating at home “prefer more home-cooked food.”

“I’ll be making quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids,” he said. “They’re not eating caviar and shrimp cocktails.”

Besides their cooking skills, the most important skill in the world of private chefs is discretion. No influential person wants their private family disputes, dealmaking, or political wielding leaked to the public.

Barone, Porterkhamsy, and the other chefs I spoke with for this story wouldn’t tell me clients’ names or any specifics about the people they’ve worked for. One chef said she couldn’t talk to me at all because she’d signed an NDA with every single client she’d ever cooked for.

This emphasis on secrecy often starts at the beginning of the hiring process. One chef said he did a weeklong trial run for a Silicon Valley client without meeting or learning the identity of the person eating his food. Job ads usually list the employer as an anonymous holding company or a recruiting firm.

Ultimately, some retired restaurant workers decide private cooking isn’t for them. But instead of returning to restaurant work, some have built new careers doing meal prep for multiple families, cooking at executive retreats and outdoor dinner parties, or running things behind the scenes at boutique meal-delivery companies that bring freshly made meals to the masses.

Restaurant hours are brutal. The salary is not very good. Chief Entzel Nolan

Working near San Francisco, some people said they found higher wages and less stress moving away from the kitchen and into the world of food tech, where they found high-paying jobs working on everything from menu planning at food-delivery startups to research and development on synthetic meats.

Jessica Entzel Nolan worked for Gordon Ramsay and as a pastry chef at Morimoto in Napa before leaving to work in San Francisco. Her post-restaurant jobs included managing culinary operations at David Friedberg’s technologically enhanced quinoa restaurant Eatsa and running research and development at the now shuttered on-demand meal company Sprig.

Man's hand squeezing lemon into a salad bowl

The ability to make healthy foods and cater to special diets can also come in handy.

Crystal Cox/Insider

“Restaurant hours are brutal. The salary is not very good. You’re working weekends. You’re working nights — those are the top varsity positions,” Entzel Nolan said.

“Switching from restaurants to tech is something a lot of chefs do later in their careers, especially if they’re thinking of starting a family,” she added.

Entzel Nolan enjoyed her time working in tech. With her nights and weekends free, she could finally “date and have a normal life.” But in 2019, she decided to stop working altogether.

But she did go back to cooking. The position is live-in, requires babysitting, chauffeuring, and running errands.

It’s for a family—her own.

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