It took about ten seconds of tweeting with Chef Mark Tafoya (that’s @ChefMark on Twitter), a personal chef in New York City, for me to realize he knew great food. Probably because I’m slow, it took me a couple of days to realize he was the same chef I had been listening to on his Remarkable Palate Podcast on the Culinary Media Network.
That’s why I was all a twitter (sorry…) when I got the chance to call him while he was on the job. We talked about what it means to be a personal chef and how to make great food.
“So, what is a personal chef?”
I wanted to start the interview with an easy question. Apparently, it wasn’t that easy. According to Chef Mark, there is confusion over the terms “personal chef” and “private chef.” Private chefs are employees of a patron and work only for that one employer. Like a butler or a driver, they are part of the household staff and they are expensive.
Mark is personal chef. He is neither a full time employee, nor expensive. Instead of living with his clients, he goes to their homes and prepares meals for them in their own kitchens. After cooking the meals for his clients, he places them in storage containers and puts them either in the refrigerator or the freezer. It’s kind of like having frozen dinners if your frozen dinners were made by a gourmet chef and cooked to your exact standards.
“What’s the most important thing for a personal chef?”
Chef Mark wastes no time answering that good communication is key to his business. “I’m not here to stoke my ego,” he said. Instead, Chef Mark wants to make food that his clients want to eat and the only way he can do that is if his clients tell him what this is.
He recalls one client who kept apologizing that he didn’t like one type of food or only liked another in certain situations. Mark laughs, saying he had to finally tell his client to stop apologizing. “It’s going to hurt my feelings a lot more when you fire me than if you tell me you didn’t like my dish,” Mark informed the client. This apparently relaxed the client and Chef were able to go on and provide his client with the exact dishes he wanted to eat prepared exactly the way he wanted to eat them. Such is the way to success in the personal chef business.
Over time, Chef Mark learns what his clients love. For instance, the client whose house Mark was at was an admitted carnivore. When I talked with him, he was making all sorts of amazing dishes like pork loin stuffed with chorizo and jalapenos, broccoli with a Dijon vinaigrette, a fresh apple salsa for another meat dish, and a salad (even carnivores need some greens.) Of course, if the client had been a vegetarian or had special dietary needs, Chef Mark could have easily prepared dishes for them. Believe me, I’ve seen his vegan recipes (available in Gilded Fork Cookbook.)
“How did you get started as a personal chef?”
By asking this, I found that Chef Mark got started in the normal fashion: he went to Yale to study French and theatre. Like you do. After realizing he might not make it as an actor, he got hired as the food director/event coordinator at his friend’s party house. There, he realized how much he loved cooking and eventually became a personal chef.
“Do you do private events?”
I figured he did, but I wanted to ask Chef Mark anyway. I was right, they account for almost fifty percent of his business and are, in fact, one of his favorite parts of being a personal chef. In fact, after he got done with his client’s weekly meals and our call, he was headed to a home in New Jersey so he could cook a three year anniversary dinner. And, oh yeah, he cooked the couple’s proposal dinner five years ago. (I have no doubt, the food sealed the deal.)
During his career as a personal chef, Chef has done so much more than I can fit here. He was voted Marketer of Year twice. He appeared on Fox News as an expert on personal chefs. He is a member and an instructor in the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA) and as I write this, he is in New Orleans teaching personal chefs to appear on television.
As I mentioned before, he’s a great podcaster and he’s also a cookbook author, having recently worked on The Gilded Fork Cookbook with Jennifer Iannolo from the Culinary Media Network. Oh, and he’s an expert in storing and cooking food so that it freezes in such a way that it reheats perfectly. (Which may be of interest only to me.)
The only thing that keeps Chef Mark out of my kitchen is the fact I live in Kansas, but it doesn’t stop me from asking him questions, listening to his shows, or buying his cookbook. If that sounds like the type of chef you want cooking for you, head out to his website marktafoya.com or call him at 917.405.0088.
The picture was taken by Chef Mark on his iPhone after we stopped chatting. That is the actual set of meals he did for his client. Looks good, huh?