Everyone’s a little stir-crazy these days, even inside the sprawling Southern California mansion where Catarina* works as a private chef. The family she’s exclusively cooked for during the last eight years canceled their vacation last week, and now they’re practicing social isolation — at least, as far as they’re concerned. “The only people who are coming and going are myself, the housekeeper, the house manager, the dog walker, the dog trainer, and themselves,” she says, “because they’re going to the office, supposedly with no one else there.”
Catarina’s clients have rich-people blinders on when it comes to their own staff, she says, which is putting everyone in the house at risk. She’s doing her best to mitigate it: She wears gloves when she’s cooking in their kitchen. She maintains six feet of social distance. But the family fails to realize that an offhand request for omelets for breakfast can send her to grocery store after grocery store in search of a stocked egg case. If anyone’s going to be Coronavirus Mary, it’s her.
Like Catarina, Ashok* has been working on salary for a wealthy Arizona family for years, cooking soigne meals and catering parties at their house. When the state’s stay-in-place orders first came out his employers let him stay home, and he used the time to take on side clients for people in lower-income brackets: “less fancy things for people who just need food on the table,” he describes via text. He also started picking up extra food and cooking through the night to deliver free meals to older people in his community.
But the situation blew up last week when, coronavirus be damned, the wife of the couple he usually cooks for was determined to host a party for two dozen people. Ashok had to shut it down. “I told her there was no way to prepare the menu because I just cannot get a hold of the food supplies,” he explained on a chef-oriented Reddit thread. “Also told her I would not force my helpers — bartender, sous, servers, etc. — to come in during this time. I don’t want to lose my job, but it’s stupidly irresponsible of me to be going shopping on a near daily basis right now as well.”
The family agreed. In fact, he negotiated three paid weeks off, after which time he will deliver meals to them without making personal contact. It’s a good thing — in the last few days he started feeling feverish. He hopes it’s exhaustion. Now he’s at home, waiting out the symptoms, asking friends to take over the volunteer cooking he was doing on the side for other elderly neighbors.
Like delivery drivers and grocery store clerks, personal chefs who make a living cooking in other peoples’ homes are being asked to put their bodies on the line each day. But for what greater good? Some are comfortable with the extra safety steps they’re taking. Others aren’t sure they can afford to turn down the work. Most know that, in the face of blithe ignorance, it’s up to them to keep themselves and their clients safe. Even the employers who claim to be diligent about social distancing seem to think their kitchen is some kind of immunity bubble and that their chefs conjure up ingredients in a virus-free poof of smoke.
According to the U.S. Personal Chef Association, there are an estimated 9,000 private chefs working in the U.S. today. Association president Larry Lynch says 90 percent of the group’s 1,000 registered members cook meals in clients’ homes rather than in the relative safety of a rented commercial kitchen. That doesn’t count the untold number of private chefs like Catarina, under contract to a single wealthy family, or gig workers who book home-based dinner parties through popular online services such as MyTable, TakeAChef, Cozymeal, and Table At Home.
Many of these larger booking companies are operating like it’s business as usual. According to a March 19 email sent to participating chefs, Table at Home did relax its reservation policies and told chefs that canceling jobs wouldn’t count against their ranking, but at the same time, the company reassured them, “We will continue to try to drive requests on our platform using our marketing and promotional campaigns. If you are still interested in working, please propose on as many opportunities as you can.”
Another service, MyChef, is using the epidemic as a recruiting tool. On March 25, it placed an advertisement on the Boston job boards: “Are you out of work due to COVID-19?” it begins. “Would you like to still advance your career by creating your own culinary business?” The ad specifies, in fact, that its service brings cooks to clients’ homes, with no mention of ensuring their safety. (At the time this article was published, Massachusetts had not issued a stay-in-place order.)
Restaurants, too, have been asked to take on private cooking gigs — but they’re largely turning them down, not just because state and city stay-at-home orders only allow pickup or delivery. Taking their equipment over to an apartment that might be contaminated? Cleaning clients’ uneaten food off their dishes? One infection among the staff could be the death blow for an ailing business. But the situation is a little more fraught for personal chefs, many of whom operate as independent contractors or small businesses.
While Lynch says that some of his members have seen demand for prepared meals rise, that’s not the case for Grace*, a personal chef in the Washington, D.C., area. Grace has hung on to two meal-delivery clients, but others have canceled after losing their own jobs. “I’m empathetic because I understand if all you can afford is to go to the grocery. But then I don’t have a client.” She makes a good chunk of her income cooking private meals. One dinner in mid-March paid enough to cover her bills for the month. Nothing is on the books for April. She’s looking into a Small Business Association loan to carry her over until the work picks back up again.
DeWayne*, who normally spends his evenings cooking for small parties, has taken on grocery shopping for housebound clients to make up at least some of the income he’s short. Desperate to protect his 2-year-old daughter and her immunocompromised mother, he’s staying out of other people’s homes altogether for now. But the pandemic hasn’t stopped potential customers from asking. Some people, upset they can’t go out to their favorite place, have even directed him to the restaurant’s menu and asked him to recreate it. Not wanting to burn a potential future gig, he usually saves the lecture and just tells them he’s already booked. Another chef probably said yes.
Even though most state and municipal orders only consider restaurant takeout and food delivery to be essential services, Lynch of the Personal Chef Association believes that the work of providing nutritious meals to families in this crisis time fits the definition of an essential service, too. He’s working with lawyers to draft language making the case. One personal chef Eater spoke to said his wealthy client floated the “essential services” line past him — if he stopped working, the family would be stuck ordering takeout! — but he turned them down, essentially putting himself out of work.
In webinar after webinar, Lynch is sharing the latest information about contamination from the FDA, CDC, and EPA. Their safety guidelines suggest that cooked food itself won’t transmit the virus. That said, Lynch advises personal chefs to take many extra precautions. “You have to ask the right questions of clients and make it really clear: If you decide to engage, you’ll keep social distance,” he tells them. “You’ll be sanitizing every surface, including doorknobs. They’re to stay out of the kitchen. If you’re going to serve something, put it in the fridge and move out, sanitizing on the way out.”
Bill*, who has cooked for a family of Midwestern billionaires for many years, said that these added safety measures are just an extreme form of the social distancing that he already practices with his clients, and he’s fine with it. (“It’s not a Downton Abbey kind of thing, but I respect their privacy,” he jokes.) When they’re not traveling together to one of the clients’ coastal homes, he has begun cooking meals in his own kitchen and biking or driving the food over. He now puts on gloves once he enters the house and leaves dinner in the fridge, organizing it into plastic tubs with instructions on how to heat and assemble them.
But if it’s the coming-and-going and related exposure that’s the real concern, there’s one solution that a number of rich families have proposed to their chefs: Move in. DeWayne received one offer that sounded tempting at first: Full-time work at well above his $500-a-day rate. There was a catch, though. “You can’t go home at night,” the client told him. “We need you to be here so we’re all sheltering in place together.”
Catarina’s bosses have also suggested she self-quarantine in their home. She’s been close to the family for years, but for the moment, she is holding them off, smiling away the occasional snippy comment that she doesn’t have to be there if she doesn’t want to. “I’m concerned that I might have it as an asymptomatic carrier,” is what she tells them. “You don’t want me moving in.”
*To safeguard their livelihoods, Eater guaranteed anonymity to any source who requested it.
Jonathan Kauffman is a Beard Award-winning writer based in Portland, Oregon, and the author of 2018’s Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.