Dining Features

East End Private Chef Industry Is Booming in the Age of Social Distancing

Once luxury, now necessity?

Between indoor and outdoor dining, takeout and delivery, the East End culinary scene seems almost normal, with a veritable smorgasbord of options across the Hamptons and North Fork. But there is yet another method of experiencing the exquisite local flavors of summer, and it’s seen quite a boom in recent months—private cheffing. East End private chefs and staffing agency owners have congregated around the metaphorical roundtable to provide the inside scoop on the recent rise in staffing requests, the unique health benefits of hiring a private chef right now and the exciting ways they’re helping their clients experience the world from the safety of home.

A Slow Spring Brings a Summer Boom

Normally, I’m slow one month out of the year, and that’s January. After the 15th of February people start calling and thinking about booking their chefs. This year, that didn’t happen. Then March, nothing. April, nothing, because no one really knew what they were doing… And then all of a sudden, at the end of April and beginning of May, it was an avalanche of people deciding, ‘Okay, we’re moving our entire family out to our summer home, and our summer home will now be our permanent home…’ Our chefs are now working seven days a week for a family, instead of just Friday, Saturday and Sunday. —Jack Kelly, founder of JKC Collection and Pro-Eats

Initially, when the pandemic first hit, in March and April, demand was way down as most clients were being extra cautious about having anyone in their homes. However, since May, the demand for private chefs has continued to rise, even more so than in seasons past. —Melissa M. Psitos, founder and president of Lily Pond Services

This year has been atypical in our industry, like it has for most businesses on the East End. There is a rise in demand, but the urgency and timing have been uncharacteristic of previous years due to the virus. Our clients are extremely serious about the safety of their families and domestic staff and are therefore cautious in their approach to transitioning new people into their homes. —Forrest Barnett, vice president of Hire Society

Hampton Domestics chef Brian McDonald, Photo: Courtesy Hampton Domestics
Hampton Domestics chef Brian McDonald, Photo: Courtesy Hampton Domestics

Home, Safe Home

The main benefits of having a private chef right now are protection and less stress. Clients don’t have to worry about social distancing because everyone is at home. And convenience also, but, at this point, it’s mainly about the virus. —Vincent Minuto, professional chef and owner of Hampton Domestics

Now more than ever, a private chef is more of a safety precaution and less of a luxury. Having a private chef, as opposed to relying on takeout and socially distanced dining, offers the ultimate in safety, comfort and customization. Unlike takeout or dining out, our private chefs devote their attention solely on a client’s dietary needs and preferences. Clients get the benefit of restaurant-quality food in their homes, without the hassle of curbside pickup or the risk of COVID-19 exposure while dining out. —Melissa M. Psitos, founder and president of Lily Pond Services

In terms of avoiding the virus, having a private chef will help reduce the risk of infection simply by reducing the number of people you come into contact with. It will be more difficult to get any reservations at any restaurant. Diners will have to follow many more rules and in some cases time restrictions when dining out, so it will not be the experience we are used to. This is not to say you shouldn’t dine out, we have great restaurants on the East End. They employ many talented hard-working community members who rely on the season, and they all need our support. —Joe Cipro, professional private chef

During these times of COVID-19, a perk of hiring a private chef is added safety precautions. Many private chefs are living in-residence with the family or are provided with housing close by, which minimizes exposure. Additionally, these trained chefs often have the relationships with food vendors to safely procure the provisions needed to cook for the families without having to physically go shopping at multiple stores. —Forrest Barnett, vice president of Hire Society

Professional private chef Joe Cipro, Photo: Lenny Stucker for society-in-focus.com
Professional private chef Joe Cipro, Photo: Lenny Stucker for society-in-focus.com

Controlling What Goes into Your Food, and What Doesn’t

Certainly, when you hire a private chef, you’re pretty much in control of your culinary universe. You can say, ‘Look, I really like using walnut oil or avocado oil; I want to stay away from corn oil. You can absolutely control your diet 100% when you have a private chef… It’s about fresh, organic food, but people are looking to experiment, and that all comes back to the fact that people are looking for something else. —Jack Kelly, founder of JKC Collection and Pro-Eats

Everyone’s on a diet—no carbs, healthy food, salad, chicken, fish, no frying. It’s all about healthy eating! —Vincent Minuto, professional chef and owner of Hampton Domestics

Some people know exactly what they want and like to be involved in menu planning, others like to be given a list of options, and some rely on the chef’s skill, creativity and knowledge of the their palate and preferences to surprise them at every meal. I have not noticed a shift during the pandemic. —Joe Cipro, professional private chef

Our clients absolutely love eating as local as possible. The peak-season produce and seafood on the East End are some of the best in the world, which is one of the perks that make our area special. Because of the transparency local food purveyors are able to provide, I believe private chefs cooking with local ingredients brings comfort to our clients during these uncertain times. —Forrest Barnett, vice president of Hire Society

Living Vicariously Through Exotic Meals

A lot of our chefs are not only really terrific chefs, they’re really great at creating experiences—setting a dinner table, creating themes, creating moods. Like, we’re going to have a Summer Solstice or we’re going to celebrate some obscure person’s birthday. It’s all about creating daily experiences in the Hamptons this summer because people can’t really leave their house. What we’ve been finding is that people are rediscovering themselves through entertaining at home. Families are forced to get to know one another. It’s more than just food—it’s a big lifestyle change… Our chefs are creating theater and a story that’s tied to each meal. Everybody is slightly stir-crazy, so the chefs are coming up with, like, a cocktail hour with a special cocktail that came from the Taj restaurant in Bangkok. It’s really so much more about creating theater than ever before; it’s about a home celebration… and creating a desire to travel or a desire for adventure. —Jack Kelly, founder of JKC Collection and Pro-Eats

We are seeing an increasing number of clients requesting themed, exotic or international meals. For example, one client, whose family ordinarily travels to Sicily every year, has requested a traditional southern Italian meal as a way to bring the Italian experience to them. Given the current travel restrictions, clients are increasingly seeking international flavors as a way to bring the travel experience to their table. —Melissa M. Psitos, founder and president of Lily Pond Services

Sang Lee Farms produce at the East Hampton Farmers Market, Photo: Barbara Lassen
Sang Lee Farms produce at the East Hampton Farmers Market, Photo: Barbara Lassen

From Farm to Dining Room Table

Sourcing really hasn’t changed a lot. The only thing that is different is that our chefs are ordering certain things, like spices, online. Clients who love Kobe beef or all kinds of interesting things like quail, duck and Canadian geese—they’re flying a lot of those ingredients in. There’s still the old standby of farm stands that our chefs love going to, because a big part of living in the Hamptons is that we need to support our local farmers, which our chefs do. —Jack Kelly, founder of JKC Collection and Pro-Eats

A lot of the chefs are having food delivered, so they don’t have to leave the premises. Most chefs are doing that; they’re having everything delivered. Nobody wants to walk into the supermarket. It’s still scary. There are places that are wonderful with delivery out here… There are organic farms that specialize in produce that deliver. There are fish companies that will deliver if you want certain fish; they’ll FedEx it out! The rich can afford to pay $50 for a chicken and then another $25 to have it delivered. —Vincent Minuto, professional chef and owner of Hampton Domestics

Although our chefs have always preferred locally sourced farm-to-table food for their cooking and menu planning, this is especially true now. Given supply chain difficulties and a desire to support local businesses, our chefs are prioritizing shopping locally whenever possible. —Melissa M. Psitos, founder and president of Lily Pond Services

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