When to hire a chef

While you can hire a personal chef for a small dinner party in your home, it tends to be a more long-term relationship, not just a special event for which you'd normally hire a caterer.

Busy professionals may crave a sumptuous home-cooked meal but lack the time or skill to prepare it for themselves. Families involved in tons of extracurricular activities don't want to rely on fast food every night. And while they can't fit in the time to cook between dance recitals, football practice and piano lessons, they may choose to have a chef prepare dinner for them.

Senior citizens who have trouble moving about or simply prefer to spend their twilight years engaging in other hobbies may hire a chef.

You might hire a chef if you have special dietary needs or restrictions. It can be more challenging to cook gluten-free, vegan, low-calorie or diabetic-friendly meals, and you or your loved ones are on a strict diet, you may prefer to have a professional help you meet those dietary needs by planning and cooking your meals.

Some people choose to hire personal chefs on a short-term basis. For instance, the first several months after a new baby comes home may be the ideal time for parents to bring in a little help in the kitchen. Or, after a major surgery or injury might prohibit you from moving easily about the kitchen.

How to find the right chef

Just like anyone who's providing a service for you, you want to interview a few personal chefs to learn more about their cooking style. Be sure to ask chefs about their training, education and previous professional experience. Likely, they'll also have several questions for you to answer regarding your likes and dislikes, dietary restrictions and overall meal planning goals.

Chefs worth their salt pride themselves on whipping up delicious meals from the ingredients and flavors you love best. Not only will they prepare some of your favorite comfort foods, but they can also introduce you to new and exciting foods you may not yet know you love.

You'll want to open up a dialogue as you're hiring your chef so that both of you can determine whether the relationship is a good fit. Ask for sample menu plans to ensure you share the same vision for how meals will go. Additionally, it's okay to ask the chefs to prepare you some samples. After all, how will you know you'll love their food unless you try it?

Lastly, you should ask for references from previous families the chef has cooked for, a culinary school mentor or other culinary professional who can speak to the quality of the chef's work. Additionally, Angie's List is a great place to find reviews and ratings for chefs in your area.

How much does a chef cost?

Chef offer many different pay rates with factors based on where you're located, his or her experience, the number of people being served and the number of meals per week. Certain parts of the country will be more expensive both in food prices and cost for services. Prices may also increase if you are requesting multiple courses, such as salads and desserts be included, or just a main dish with no sides.

Some chefs charge per person, averaging $20-30 per plate, whereas others charge $30-40 per hour. These costs often include meal planning, grocery shopping and meal preparation, but you'll want to make absolutely sure what's included with the price and rate (see below).

Some companies may require a minimum number of meals be prepared at a time (1 or 2 weeks), whereas others may charge a monthly flat fee of up to or more than $1,000 a month.

When shopping for a chef, you have many variables to consider. If you live in a town with a nearby culinary school, you may be able to hire a newly graduated chef needing experience for a lower price. You may also see a pay difference between chefs who has their own business and are working for hire versus a those affiliated with a personal chef service.

What's included in a chef's cost?

Most chefs will take care of everything for you, and all you have to do is eat. The chef will do the meal planning for the agreed-upon number of meals and do all the grocery shopping for you.

The chef then comes to your home and prepares multiple meals at one time, often 1 or 2 weeks work per visit, and stores the meals in the refrigerator or freezer for you. The chef then cleans up and leaves your kitchen just as it was before he or she arrived.

When it's time for your family to eat, you'll just need to pop the food in the oven or heat it up on the stove, saving you a great deal of time in preparation. You and your family can now enjoy restaurant-quality meals in the comfort of your own home.

Some families choose to have all three meals prepared for them in advance, whereas others find that just a dinner preparation is enough through the week.

Catering & Chef Services

Catering Options

Before you begin calling catering companies, prepare a list with as much detail about the event as possible. The most important thing to know, beside the event date, is the location. Have at least a general idea of your budget for food and drink. The caterer will also need to know the number of guests and how the meal will be served.

There are several options for meal style:

Buffet style is when all the food items are set out on tables and the guests serve themselves. If you are on a tight budget, a buffet is typically the least expensive option.

A sit-down dinner is usually more expensive because there is a wait staff to serve the food.

A food station is when foods are grouped together and different stations are placed around the room.

Hors d'oeuvres are served by a wait staff or set on a table for the guests to serve themselves.

Also, let the catering company know if you or guests will provide some of the food. Ask about serving pieces as well. Special foods, cakes, for examples, will need special utensils.

If you plan to serve alcoholic beverages, ask if the caterer provides the bartender and drink supplies and whether the number of guests necessitate more than one bartender. If you have a tight budget for drinks, ask about only serving cocktails for a specific time. If you provide the alcohol, ask how much the bartender charges per hour. Also ask if bartenders are tipped separately or if tip is included in the total price.

How to find a caterer

One of the best ways to find a catering company is through an event you've attended. Get referrals through friends and family or if you have a favorite restaurant, ask about catering. Get referrals where you shop for specialty foods. Consider also how Angie's List can help. Members have access to local reviews on caterers, chefs and experts in more than 550 other service categories.

When you interview a caterer, ask about:

• Certifications, including health certificates. When the health department inspects a food service, they give the company a report. Ask to see the most recent reports.

• How long they've been in business.

• Where the caterer shops. Does he or she use fresh, local meat and produce or canned and frozen foods?

• Special dietary concerns of any guests. Ask if the caterer can prepare a separate meal for guests with food allergies or specific needs, such as a kosher, vegan, gluten free or children's meal.

• Where the food is prepared and cooked. A small, new caterer may cook at home, while an established caterer may have a separate preparation facility. If at all possible, tour where the food is cooked. Notice if the area is clean and organized.

• Whether the caterer is licensed to serve alcohol. Ask if bartenders are experienced with mixing drinks to order or if there will be one kind of cocktail available.

• How the food is being transported. Does the caterer have vans or other vehicles used solely to transport food? A small or new caterer may use a family vehicle. Consider asking to see the type of transportation that will be used.

Additionally, always ask to sample the caterer's food. During the tasting, the caterer typically will prepare several options from different menus. Request a tasting for each course that will be served, including meat, side dishes and desserts. Be sure to have a tasting close to your event date, so you can taste what's in season. Remember to discuss any guests' special dietary needs again.

Cooking classes

Some personal chefs also offer cooking classes. Cooking classes can teach you how to make healthier meals for your family, how to make a wide variety of food or simply the basics, if you're new to cooking. To learn more about benefits and costs, check out the Angie's List Guide to Cooking Classes.

Catering contracts

Before you sign a contract with a caterer, be sure to ask about:

• The caterer's insurance.

• Whether the staff are employees of the caterer or are hired through a temporary agency.

• Whether the staff are covered by workers' compensation insurance.

• If you have any questions, ask before you sign the contract. Be sure that the document:

• Is concise and clear.

• Includes all important information, such as details about cost, food, beverages, duties and hours for wait staff and how they'll be dressed. If you prefer the wait staff be in uniform, or have any other specific requests, make sure it's covered in the contract.

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