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Out-of-work chefs are leaving NYC to cook for billionaires

Chefs from some of New York City’s top restaurants are leaving the business to work for billionaires after , Side Dish has learned.

Out-of-work chefs from Jean-Georges, Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se and Gramercy Tavern are being poached by talent agents and even real estate brokers to work for wealthy families since the coronavirus shutdowns , sources said. The supply of quality chefs is so abundant that some wealthy people say they’re getting cold called about the latest candidate.

“I received a call out of the blue asking if we wanted to hire a top chef who had worked for Jean-George’s,” one billionaire real estate developer told Side Dish.

For unemployed chefs, it’s often the only way for them to make money doing what they love at a time when sit-down dining is prohibited by the state lockdown.

“I was laid off six weeks ago. It just wasn’t possible to stay, no matter how much the chef wanted to keep us. I can’t stand not working. I miss being in the kitchen,” said Ian Tenzer, a 29-year-old former sous chef at three-star Michelin restaurant Eleven Madison Park, named the world’s best restaurant in 2017.

“Working as a private chef has always been a part of the industry I had thought about working in and, at this point in my career, it’s a good choice economically and professionally,” he added.

Indeed, stand to get a 20 percent-to-30 percent pay raise, as well as other perks including better hours, sources said. Sous chefs at top restaurants can earn between $120,000 to $200,000 a year working full-time for a family, compared to closer to $100,000 working at a restaurant.

Personal chefs also commonly earn discretionary bonuses, especially if they are being asked to shelter-in-place with their families during the COVID-19 pandemic, says David Youdovin, chief executive of Hire Society, which helps individuals recruit private staff.

“The vast majority of restaurant chefs are grossly underpaid, and seldom receive benefits,” and now clients are being “very generous and accommodating,” Youdovin said.

One drawback is that you never know what kind of family you’ll get, chefs said. Some families are “lovely, adventurous and curious,” but others can be quite the opposite. They can be rude and “even physically and verbally abusive. I have heard horror stories,” one chef who asked to remain unnamed said. “Money can be a very corrupting influence.”

Peter Tenzer Photography

Working in a restaurant, by contrast, gives rising chefs an opportunity to learn from the best, and there’s often a strong sense of camaraderie that can’t be replicated in a private home.

“When you work in a restaurant, you are part of a team. There are peers you look up to and others you teach. The team becomes your family and you learn to love everyone. That’s the hardest part about leaving [the restaurant job],” Tenzer explained.

The pandemic also has made the interviewing process more challenging. Normally, people vying for a private chef position will cook up “tastings” for families in their own kitchens, but now chefs are preparing tastings in their own homes and then dropping them off at their prospective employer’s front door.

This social-distancing measure, along with virtual interviews by Zoom or FaceTime, are making it tough for both the chefs and families to determine if they are making a good match, Youdovin said.

“Part of being a private chef is being able to interact with the family, the kids, their guests. It’s about having the right charisma for the family. Some are more formal than others. It’s about chemistry as well as tastings,” Youdovin added.

For some chefs, the new gigs are short-term, until the pandemic subsides. Brokers Dolly and Jenny Lenz, who deal in high-end real estate, say they have sourced two top chefs for two different families who have rented Hamptons estates to wait out the crisis. People quarantining in rental homes are often looking to hire chefs, nannies and housekeepers to shelter-in-place with them during this time, Dolly Lenz said.

“The families interviewed the chefs and hired them,” Dolly Lenz said. “The hard part is that the chefs had to agree to shelter in place. They can’t leave. But they are only staying until the city opens up and they can go back to their restaurants.”

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