This week we talk with Chef Chris Cunningham who has been a Private Chef for most of his career, working for 4 wealthy families over the years and still works with one and has done so for the past 16 years. Chris is also writing a book about his Private Chef experiences and enjoys sharing the joy of his work with others in the industry. We ask Chris about his work and what it takes to be a happily employed Private Chef.
Chris your work experience and qualifications make you a sought after Private Chef world wide. Not only do you have a Grande Diplome De Cuisine Et De Patisserie but you hold a B.A. in legal studies from the University of Pittsburgh. What prompted the change from legal studies into being a Chef?
Actually, I have always been into cooking. I started baking cakes and selling them when I was twelve years old and even catered in college. I was interested in law, but after a trip to Europe, specifically France, I fell in love with cooking all over again. I decided that if I was going to cook for a living, I was going to learn in France.
You also mention that you not only worked for one Billionaire, but you actually have worked for four! Do you still continue to work for them in any capacity or others as a Private Chef?
Yes, I still work for the same family and have for 16 years. I began when their children were 3 an 4. I just sent the youngest off to college. Yes, they are still Billionaires, but don’t act like it. We are very close. I have worked for three other families, all of whom are so called “Billionaires”. I don’t think about that very much, I have a job to do and can’t get caught up in the hype.
What is the most amazing/interesting or just plain weird experience you have had with a client when cooking for them?
When I began in private service, I was the Chef for the President of American University in Washington D.C. During graduation, the daughter of King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordon was graduating. The king was not supposed to attend, but decided to come at the last minute. I had prepared a private reception lunch for the royal family in the President’s office. The King decided to hunch down behind the door and jump out and surprise his daughter when she arrived. She was thrilled and tears flowed everywhere.
What would be your most difficult part of the day when working for a wealthy family?
The constant interruptions make the day difficult. There are a lot of people, working and maintaining a 40,000 sq food home and property. My kitchen is located right in the middle of the main house. Workers, deliveries and other staff are always around. It just slows down my job, even though there is no way around it.
What is the most unusual dish you have had to prepare for a family you’ve worked for?
My boss is of Lebanese descent and her parents owned a number of restaurants while she was growing up. A dish of lentils and rice called Mujadara is one of the families favorite side dishes. The recipe consists of a small list of simple ingredients. Perfecting it the way they wanted took me almost a year. One of the most difficult tasks of being a private chef is making the families traditional foods taste like they are used to.
Who in the industry is your favourite Chef?
Thomas Keller is my favorite chef in the industry. His meals are perfection and creative. His restaurants are amazing, especially his organization in the kitchen.
What’s one piece of advice you valued receiving in your career?
The owner of the yacht I spent five years working on was a very successful businessman. When he hired me, he didn’t offer me a starting salary. He asked me what I wanted to be paid. He explained that the hours are long, the job is demanding and he wanted to hire the best person. His advice is hire the best people and pay them what they think they deserve. Then he gave me more than I asked for anyway. He explained, people generally know what they are worth, but will often sell themselves short. It was a great lesson for me.
What tip/s would you give to those who are looking to be a Private or Personal Chef?
It’s personality, not necessarily the food. Succeeding in a private chef position is 90% personality and 10% skill. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be a good cook, but if you work everyday inside someone’s home, they had better like you, If you screw up a sauce, you can’t swear and throw the pot at the dishwasher, when your boss is twenty feet from you playing with her five year old. Don’t miss out on a great career, just because you think you are not a good enough chef. Wealthy employers are looking for more.
Do you train or coach other up and coming chefs in the industry? If so what is the most valuable piece of advice would you give?
I do work with other chefs in the industry. Travel, travel, travel! As a chef, you will learn so much from other cultures and cuisines, but you must go there. Also, work in as many venues as you can. All chefs have something to teach you. Don’t discount the other cooks around you either, many have a wealth of experience but don’t necessarily want to deal with the management side of the industry.
What are 3 favourite places/dishes you love to prepare?
I wouldn’t say I have three favorite dishes to prepare, but I do love putting together speciality events. I then can research many different dishes to prepare. Everything from breaking the fast on Ramadan, to preparing a Passover Seder dinner, to having a memorial Japanese dinner for the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian. Ok, I love making beans and greens, cassoulet, and a really good homemade Reuben.
If you could prepare a full course menu for anyone in the world, who would it be?
I would like to prepare a full course meal for both sets of my grandparents. I didn’t know them very well and my paternal grandfather died before I was born.
You are currently writing a book about your experiences working as a Private Chef, when are you planning to publish it?
Writing the book has been an on going project for five years now. I have recently changed literary agents, but I hope the book will come out sometime late next year.
Are there any projects that you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our audience?
The book and related articles are pretty much taking up most of my time. I have two more articles coming out in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, one on my days in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu and the other about working on a private island.
Thank you Chris for sharing a great insight into your experiences as a Private Chef. Best wishes for your book and we look forward to reading it when it is published!