Chef Sharon Worster became a personal chef after spending 17 years as a nurse. When her husband’s job landed her in Texas, she set out to find a home for her family and a new career. Following her lifelong love of cooking and an entrepreneurial spirit, she started Neno’s Personal Chef Service in The Woodlands, Texas, in February 1999.
In March 2000, Chef Worster co-founded the Personal Chefs Network to promote the industry by helping new personal chefs get started and by facilitating communications among the seasoned professionals. In addition to Neno’s, she now trains others to become personal chefs through PCN, offers online PC related classes, and sells educational materials.
A mother of three, Chef Worster is passionate about her career and the personal chef industry, and she is also a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Tell us about your career as a personal chef. How and why did you become involved in the field?
When my husband’s career led us to another state, and after spending 17 years as a nurse, I decided that was the time for transition to another career for myself. Ready to leave nursing behind, I began researching other options. A newspaper story about the Personal Chef caught my eye…I called her…and the rest is history! Since this first spark, I have launched and operated a successful Personal Chef Service as well as a professional organization for new and seasoned Personal Chefs.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
My biggest inspiration in my career was my husband. He was moving us a thousand miles from my family. This presented me with the opportunity to do some research and start a fresh new career in our new location and we made this change so I could have more freedom to work at my own pace, even taking time off before I began my search.
Do you have a culinary specialty and why did you choose it?
In my Personal Chef Service, I’ve found that my clients love home cooking & comfort foods. I have a few gourmet items on my menu that sit there without ever being ordered. While I update my menu on a seasonal basis, my best sellers are Shepherd’s Pie, Meatloaf, Stews, & Lasagna. There are clients who prefer more upscale menu selections and markets for those as well.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I love the creativity it involves and being my own boss! It is great not working for anyone but myself. Being in the kitchen is wonderful, but setting my own hours & doing what I think is right for my business is the best. Plus, nothing is better than going to “work” and making great money doing what I love…cooking!
What was your greatest success and biggest setback?
My greatest success has been my great clients. I have the BEST clients in the world! I have become part of their lives & love to see them be able to gather around the dinner table again with their families. It provides a great sense of achievement. My biggest setback was not financial, but emotional. I began cheffing for a terminal cancer patient that recently passed away & that was very difficult.
You co-founded the Personal Chefs Network. Why and what has it done to help your career?
The Personal Chefs Network (PCN) has helped me help others in a whole new way. As a parent of three children, I’ve always been helping others it seems. PCN was born because I have a passion for helping others not just in the start-up phase of their new businesses, but offering assistance every step of the way as well. PCN provides a variety of tools to help new Personal Chefs succeed at what they are doing through an extensive networking system. We also offer a “home” to seasoned Personal Chefs as well. Everyone at the helm of PCN is a WORKING Personal Chef! I think that makes all the difference in the world when you are looking for a leader or someone to help you personally.
What exactly do personal chefs do?
We go into the homes of our clients to prepare food for them after meeting with them to determine their specific likes & dislikes, favorites, allergies, special diet parameters, etc… After shopping for the freshest ingredients, we prepare, and then package food, leaving a menu with complete heating instructions. Many chefs will freeze the food, but I leave the food freshly prepared in my client’s refrigerator & let them decide what they would like to freeze for later.
Tell us about your work. What do you like most, least?
I do a LOT of grocery shopping! I actually like to grocery shop, so I don’t think that is a negative & recipe research is non-stop. I’ve been able to put many of my favorite family recipes to good use and I love cheffing a recipe that one of my client’s have given me. Being my own boss was real important to me and I come from a long line of women entrepreneurs & I’m proud to join their ranks.
The thing I like least about my job is when I forget an ingredient and don’t seem to be able to alter my recipe with something I have on hand or in the client’s pantry. You have to be able to land on your feet to quickly alter a recipe & doing so makes you very successful. Things will go wrong out in the field, but you have to be able to adapt & overcome (just like in the Marines? LOL). When I have to leave my cooking to run to the store & pick up an item, it takes me out of what I call ~The Cooking Zone~ & gets me off track. There are a lot more things I love about cheffing than I dislike about it. Not many people can say that about their current job!
What are the tools of the trade you use most?
The tools that I rely on most are the things that help me transport my gear easier. My duffle bag on wheels is the one thing that helps me tremendously. I keep the same things in it all the time without unpacking it, only restocking certain things like oils, salt, & other spices. A good reliable cooler is something else you can’t live without either.
All that said, the thing that I use the MOST in what I do are the member’s online forum at Personal Chefs Network. When you have made a Personal Chef discovery, had a crummy day, or experienced joy such as a new client, you can go to the forum at the end of the day & meet your cheffing friends. If you need encouragement? It’s there. If you need help? It’s there. Searching for a weird or lost recipe? Help is on the way. It is like having a water cooler at the end of a hot day in the kitchen. We really do help each other out and I think that kind of support is necessary.
What are your favorite kitchen gadgets? Why?
I personally love the Pampered Chef garlic press because I don’t have to peel the garlic to use it. I have one in my cheffing kit, one in my kitchen, & tell everyone how wonderful they are. After that I would have to say that my knives are IT. I took a knife skills class from Nicole Routhier, famed CIA graduate & noted cookbook author. She taught me how to properly handle, care for, & use a variety of knives and it has greatly improved all area of my cooking & food preparation. Since I’m autodidactic (self-taught), I rely on specialty classes to help me fine tune my personal food knowledge. I actually look forward to cutting things up now with my newfound knowledge.
How much of your work is done outside of the kitchen?
Due to health department regulations, all the actual food preparation and cooking must be done in the client’s kitchen. The only work I do outside of my client’s kitchen other than the shopping is the menu preparation. I leave a typed menu that has the complete heating directions included. If you have arrangements with a commercial kitchen, you could use it, but there are food transportation guidelines that must be met. That’s one of the most appealing things about the Personal Chef concept for those who love to cook…no regulation. However, we do encourage our members to educate themselves in all aspects of food safety by attending courses, and offer online classes covering this topic as well.
What are some of the skills that help all personal chefs succeed?
You have to be able to market yourself and your small business. Your marketing skills have to be in use at all times! Many people that are shy about this can have a tough time. You have to be able to get out of your comfort zone, go out there and help your clients find YOU. Of course, being really organized helps too. I have a knack for that! J And, do I need to say that you need to be a good cook.
How important are professional certifications to personal chefs, such as Executive Chef or Master Chef?
My viewpoint is that, culinary-trained or not, we are equally Personal Chefs. Our clients are busy working people that are time-starved and want something on the table that isn’t fast food, frozen pizza, or requiring them to dine out every night. When I was first starting my service, I told folks that I was a nurse for 17 years, and they didn’t ask me about my training but what could I help them put on the table for dinner? That is really the point. You can make your own Personal Chef Service whatever you want it to be. If you want to prepare sophisticated gourmet fare, then my advice is to make sure you are charging enough to make a living at it. If you want to cook dinner for people the way your mother (or father) did, then go out and make a living doing it. Either way, you will be fulfilling your dream to own your own business, help people eat healthy, work your own hours, be creative, and COOK!
What are some common myths about personal chefs?
The most common myth is that only the rich can afford us. We are not live-in private chef of the past. We are custom made for busy working families that need to buy time. You CAN buy time! With our help, you can spend more time with your children, at your job, in your garden, or whatever you want and know that your dinnertime dilemma is solved.
What are the best ways to find a job as a personal chef?
Depending on the area you are in, there are various marketing considerations. Members of PCN can use our Media Relations Coordinator, who will assist you in writing your press release using your biography, and then actually send it out to up to 10 media contacts for you. Marketing yourself is key.
How much are personal chefs generally paid? How high and low is the range, and what’s the average?
Currently, there is not much standardization in our industry but I’m always hoping to change that. The member’s of PCN accuse me of carrying a “big stick” when it comes to them not charging enough. It is a LOT of work, what we do. Since we offer several pricing options in our educational materials, your take home pay is varied, but using guidelines that we set forth, you should be able to charge between $300.00 – $400.00 for your services, but many chefs charge as low as $250.00. The fee can include the cost of the groceries or not and can vary depending on geographical location. My fee is “per service” and includes the cost of groceries. So, if I chef for a client every week, they pay me weekly.
How can graduating culinary students get a foot in the door in the personal chef industry? Are there agencies or companies that hire personal chefs?
We have several members that have recently graduated from culinary school that have purchased our materials, joined Personal Chefs Network, and started their own successful businesses. Simple as that! Our highlighted chef for this month found herself with more clients than she ever dreamed of having within weeks of joining us, working our plan, then working for herself.
I believe your success is dependent on YOU – how bad do YOU want it and how hard YOU are going to work to make it happen. I do not know of an agency that hires Personal Chefs, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
How much does it cost to get started?
You do not have to go out and buy a bunch of new equipment to get started as a Personal Chef. This job is one that you can add to your collection as you find out what you will need. You will also find out that many of your clients will have specialty cookware that you may prefer to use. The idea is to take less, as you get more experienced, not more.
What do you have to take with you?
You should take everything you need until you get used to what your clients have available to you. I’m partial to my own knives and even though some of my clients have great knives, I really want to use my own. I also don’t leave anything behind other than food after I’ve been cheffing either, like trash, etc… The first time you go, you will look like you are moving, but you will soon figure out what you can live without.
Other than creating great food, what are the most important qualities that make a successful chef?
I would have to say hard work & determination… along with a passion for cooking… The success of your own Personal Chef Service is up to you!
How important is it to create & maintain relationships within the culinary profession? How about with other personal chefs? If it is, how do you do it?
As far as networking yourself in the industry, it has never been easier than it is right now. At Personal Chefs Network, we believe in service after the sale and my partner, Wendy Perry, and I are dedicated in offering every opportunity known to help you out. Like I said before, I think you are smart to support the organization that supports the industry you are involved in. We are also members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
How important are professional organizations like PCN?
Being a member of a professional organization like Personal Chefs Network can only make you a better PC because you are around others that are doing the same thing on a daily basis. By displaying the logo and your affiliation with a professional organization, you are affirming your commitment to your profession and showing your potential and current clients you ARE a professional, and not just a cook. No matter what your profession, there is always a certain degree of credibility that comes from being professionally associated.
How is the job market right now for personal chefs? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?
There has never been a better time for people to start their own Personal Chef Service. It is reported that about 100,000 homes are now employing a Personal Chef and that number is expected to double as more and more busy, working people find out about what we do and how we can help them simplify their lives. Entrepreneur magazine named it one of the top ten businesses to start up. Over the next five years PCN is dedicated to making the word Personal Chef a household name and hope to expose this industry not only nationally but also internationally. Over the next decade I see the sky as the limit and am anxiously waiting the day when all our chefs are cooking as much as they want.
You did not receive a culinary degree. How important is having a culinary education to succeeding as a personal chef?
I think that having a culinary degree would certainly be a plus (but not necessary) and I encourage every Personal Chef to advance their knowledge in our profession. Everything that you can do to make your service better for your clients will only bring more business your way.
For those who have the talent already, should they go to culinary school if they aspire to become a personal chef? Why or why not?
Currently, we have several members who are finishing their culinary education. For some people, this gives them added confidence. It is a very personal decision to attend or finish your culinary degree. While I personally know it isn’t necessary to be a successful Personal Chef, I’m sure it will only make you better at what you do. Being the best at whatever you do is key.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the culinary arts?
I know this is an old saying, but doing what you love and the money will follow can ring true. It has for me. I could never imagine making money doing something I love. The truth of the matter is this, not all people love to cook! Hard to believe I know, but what I’m doing for these busy families is what I set out to do and what I’m good at. Knowing that I can help others at the table or in their own Personal Chef business start-up is reason enough to believe.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a culinary school?
For me personally, I would suggest you look at your own goals to see what you want when you are finished. Do you want an actual college degree when you are finished or do you want a culinary only degree? What is available in your area and is it feasible for you to attend and do they offer the hours that suit your current job situation.
What should culinary arts students try to get out of their education?
I’ve been out of school for a long time, and I think everyone should learn as much as they can no matter what they do. You know your own strengths and drawing on them should come natural. If not, you may want to reconsider what you are doing.
Are there schools or training courses designed specifically for aspiring personal chefs? How does this education differ from the traditional culinary schools?
Our educational materials ~The Making of a Personal Chef~ are the newest and most comprehensive set of information available out our industry. If anyone is aspiring to become a Personal Chef, recipes are the backbone of our service, but so are knowing how to freeze and heat foods successfully. Then, you must transfer that knowledge on to your clients. Our materials keep you from having to reinvent the wheel so to speak. Wendy and I are out there working in the kitchens with you every day and we know that our organization can and will make a difference for anyone starting up in this industry today.
What are some trends that you see in the field of personal chefs that might help prospective students?
Some of the latest trends in our industry are hiring assistants to help you with the food prep, some of the shopping, and especially the cleaning up so you can chef for more than one client per day. It is almost impossible to do more than one per day on your own. Also, many Personal Chefs find they are so busy that they entertain going into the HMR or Home Meal Replacement business. Catering special events is also a side arena that our materials supply information on.
Has advancing technology affected personal chefs?
Yes! There are many new products available to us. New carrying cases, coolers on wheels, and new cookware have made our job much easier.
What role do computers and the Internet play in the every day life of a chef?
Daily, I am printing menus for my clients, printing recipes, searching for recipes, changing my brochures, sending & answering e-mail, and I don’t know what I would do without a computer!
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed as a personal chef?
I love what I do and it shows. If you are looking to enter this great industry, PCN Is “The Place to be to be the BEST PC” and I believe that with all my heart. If I can do this, anyone can!