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Personal Chefs Ease Hosting Stress

Photo provided by Alekka Sweeney. Photo credit Jeronimo Creative
Photo provided by Alekka Sweeney. Photo credit Jeronimo Creative

Hosting a dinner party for the holidays or for a special occasion can be enjoyable but stressful. Running in and out of the kitchen to check on dinner can limit quality time with guests. That is why some people turn to hiring personal chefs for their gatherings. The primary benefit is freeing up your time to be a participant at your own party, along with convenience and providing an elevated experience to your guests.

Frank Tokach is the former executive chef at Pittsburgh Rare at the Sheraton in Station Square, which won best new restaurant in the city six months after it opened. He got the idea to become a personal chef when his restaurant, RedWood Café, flooded, so he packed up the dinner and brought it to a client’s house. “I thought, ‘this isn’t a bad idea; let me keep this on the backburner for a while,’” he said.

When Covid hit, Tokach officially started his personal chef business. He cooks for couples during the week and reserves the weekends for larger parties, including a recent 500-person company picnic. He creates customized menus for clients, though he said some of his most popular requests are his crab cakes; Bloody Mary-marinated filet mignon topped with horseradish butter; seared scallops with honey truffle and lavender glaze; and smoked maple carrots.

For parties of seven or more, he brings waitstaff.

Working in someone’s private kitchen is a win-win for both the client and for the chef. “The same job and kitchen can get boring, but with this job, each kitchen is completely different, and all ovens cook differently, so it’s a whole new challenge,” he said. “But I do prefer my pots,” he laughed.

Tokach said that he also enjoys the personal experience as well as the relationships he builds with clients. “You’re inviting me into your home; it’s more intimate and special than going out to a restaurant.”

Alekka Sweeney has been a professional chef for 30 years, focusing much of her career on teaching cooking. After Covid, all of her teaching jobs disappeared within a day, so she turned to catering and becoming a personal chef. “Someone asked me if I could help them out with breakfast, so I started making cinnamon rolls. Then I started delivering weekly meals to clients, and that pivoted into me doing home cooking classes and private events,” she said.

To keep clients interested, she provides different offerings and is constantly changing her private events menus based on what inspires her and what is seasonal. Examples include her Italian and French-themed menus.

Sweeney is hired for in-home private parties along with bridal showers, bachelorette parties, bar mitzvahs, corporate events and more. For in-home parties, people can choose a menu from her website or she can work to customize a menu. Usually, she will utilize the customers’ equipment unless she needs something more specialized, like a pasta maker. “I do all the shopping; then I come to the house an hour prior with an assistant, cook all the food and serve the food. We clean dishes and we fill the dishwasher. As a host, it makes it really easy,” she said.

“I love this because when you work in a professional kitchen, you’re around the same group of people 12-14 hours a day, and you never really get to meet the clients,” Sweeney added. “I’m a big people person, so I really like interacting with my clients and guests. The variety that I get with each event is what I really like, too, and being able to share in people’s family celebrations.”

Chef Art Inzinga has been cooking professionally since 1972, having worked in such restaurants as Del’s and Hydeholde. Inzinga is currently the coordinator of the culinary program at Community College of Allegheny County.

Inzinga got his start as a personal chef by working for one family who owned homes in Pittsburgh and three other locations. “I would travel to these different places, cooking sometimes personally for him and his family but a lot for some type of business functions. I really enjoyed working for him and his family; we developed a close friendship and relationship. When it was just a family function, most of the time I would prepare a meal and would sit down and eat with the family,” he said.

Inzinga is hired for holiday gatherings or other special occasions, or even charity functions in people’s homes. He believes that the whole process—from choosing a menu to scoping out the kitchen beforehand—is a collaborative effort with the client. “That is one of the attractions as to why someone would want a chef to come into their home—they have more choice as to what the menu will be. I consider myself fairly versatile with a pretty large repertoire,” he said. He usually is fine with using the clients’ utensils but always brings his own knives or sometimes, some of his own pots and pans.

For Inzinga’s part, he enjoys changing things up. “You’re not bound by the mundane parts of working in a restaurant. It’s a one-off thing, it’s always a little bit different, and you get to meet some new people without being bogged down by the day-to-day minutiae of running a restaurant. It’s a lot more fun,” he said.

Jasmine Smith, known as Chef Jae, not only is a personal chef but has a food concierge program—a monthly meal delivery subscription program focusing on clients’ health and wellness needs. With either aspect of her business, she is able to accommodate any dietary restrictions. She also does restaurant consulting and private chef consulting. Smith has been hired for special occasions and has cooked for as few as two people, all the way up to 300 people at a corporate function.

The flexibility in her menus allows people to design their own. “I don’t have any stagnant menus because I am not a restaurant, so all of my menus are curated based on health, wellness, medical conditions, food allergies and dietary restrictions. It also allows me to curate menus on a seasonal basis and what is available,” she said.

“Hiring a private chef is about quality, it’s about a person’s palate and travel and food experience and culture. Those things play a huge role into the experience they are trying to create, because prepared food is convenience, while having a private chef is an experience,” Smith added.

Like many personal chefs, Smith enjoys the versatility of her profession. “I especially like dinner parties. You meet new people, and I get to be a part of important, memorable occasions all the time.”

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