Personal chef services are becoming increasingly popular, also on the Garden Route where locals are making the most of Plettenberg Bay’s “party town” status.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Grace Harrison
For Ritchie Rorich, becoming a personal* chef was the culmination of passion, work and life experience. “A good personal chef doesn’t just walk out of chef school and start cooking for small groups. The required skills set extends beyond putting a decent meal together – including interpersonal skills, business acumen, administration and marketing.”
A trained chef with more than 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Ritchie believed in the potential of personal chefs on the Garden Route long before it was all the rage. “Not only did many patrons of establishments where I worked have the financial resources to afford a personal chef, they also had a real appreciation for good food – it seemed ideal to me.” He eventually made the leap early last year and hasn’t looked back.
“Diners have become increasingly dissatisfied with the overall restaurant experience. Multiple disruptions, crowded restaurants, unsatisfactory service, parking issues and ambient noise are just some of the reasons why more and more people are calling in personal chefs. By hiring a personal chef, clients can have the benefits of someone else doing the cooking within a controlled environment and without concerns like drinking and driving.”
The restaurant environment also makes it difficult to ensure dietary requirements are met. “The chef at a restaurant may just be an employee, cooking the recipes of someone else with produce that was delivered in mass. A personal chef can be more expressive and takes personal responsibility for every plate he delivers,” Ritchie says.
A personal chef also has the opportunity to share his passion and raise awareness about the importance of responsible and sustainable living. “When I cook, I tell guests that everything on their table – including the spices and the crockery – is locally produced. I source all the food myself, mostly directly from the producer. Everything is free-range, organic and fresh.”
Raised in Gauteng, Ritchie travelled extensively after school, starting on a Kibbutz in Israel. “The exposure to multicultural influences changed my approach to food entirely.” Working in different hospitality jobs in the United Kingdom, restaurant kitchens nearly put him off the career that would become his destiny. “The kitchen is a volatile place and I really did not like the chefs who came across as rude, abusive and arrogant.”
Back in South Africa his time in the Eastern Cape – which included earning a living from baking bread and cake – made him realise he was happiest cooking for others.
In 2005, at the age of 25, Ritchie started training at HTA School of Culinary Art under Stephen Billingham, the current President of the South African Chefs Association. He worked at The Ritz Carlton Naples in Florida (the hotel group’s signature hotel) and the six-star cruise liners Crystal Cruises, finished off by four months in Brazil. “I loved eating with the locals and went around with a notebook, asking the mothers and grandmothers their cooking secrets.”
A weekend stopover in Knysna would turn into permanent residency and work, first at 34˚ Degrees Tapas and Oysters and then at the Hunter Hotels’ Zinzi restaurant. When his daughter was born, Ritchie sought a different pace and used his local connections to spread the word regarding personal chef services.
“Interestingly, my experience in Israel in particular would become significant as a large Jewish community live, work and play here. Not only do I know their traditions and their food, I also know how to run a kosher kitchen.
“Being a personal chef is very rewarding. Every client is different and challenges are as diverse as travelling with every kitchen utensil you can think of, to catering for fussy children. Every empty plate is a compliment and every referral a blessing.”
At 5.30am during summer holidays, when all-night partygoers drag themselves into bed and dedicated runners head for the beach, Nadia Beutler and her team go shopping. “It is quite surreal to be working at full steam when most others are in holiday-mode but after several years of having Christmas in November, our family is now used to it,” she says with a grin.
Nadia owns Eden Hospitality Group, a company that supplies a wide range of services including personal chefs, personal shopping, catering, wedding and event coordination, hospitality training and more. “When you live on the Garden Route, it helps to be a jack of all trades.”
She has been cooking for private clients since 2011 and has seen the niche grow exponentially over the past few years. “This past season, we served 19 families in Plettenberg Bay and Knysna over a four-week period, seven of which were personal chef services for at least two meals a day. Some families use our services every year and they have become friends.”
Depending on the client, Nadia will stay discreetly behind the scenes or engage enthusiastically. “Breakfast clients often like us to prepare the meal and leave before they get up, but some are happy to sit in their pyjamas and chat with us over a cup of coffee. A typical evening meal would be a selection of large platters and salads where everyone can sit around a table, nibble and chat. On good-weather days we do braais and sundowners on the beach.”
But personal chefs are no longer just a holiday or special occasions treat and an increasing number of permanent and semi-permanent residents are making use of their services. “It’s not uncommon to get a phone call from someone not in the mood for cooking, or wanting to host friends over a weekend.”
It is also not as expensive as one may expect and locally compares in price to a three-course meal in an up-market restaurant. “Just think how much more intimate a marriage proposal could be, or how much longer that dinner party could last if you need not consider noisy restaurant guests and kitchen closing times.”
While perhaps strange to cook in a kitchen that is not your own, the majority of clients’ kitchens are well equipped. Most clients require that the shopping is done as well. The service includes cleaning up afterwards.
“Personal chef work is so much more than putting a plate in front of a guest. It requires fine-tuned people skills that can determine a client’s insecurities, moods and needs. The balance between respecting client privacy and being available for service is very fine.”
Born in Somerset West to German parents, Nadia inherited her dad Horst’s passion for food. “While dad prepared food he bought from a delicatessen, I enjoyed decorating the table. I understood from an early age that food was meant to be an experience.”
Being able to speak German ensured her casual work from the age of 16 at nearby Hunter’s Country House, where she first worked as hostess and later as concierge. She moved to the Cape Winelands after school to pursue experience in the hospitality industry and worked for top establishments such as Arabella Hotel, Haute Cabrière and 96 Winery Road Restaurant. When she fell pregnant with her daughter Crystal, Nadia returned to Plettenberg Bay.
Nadia landed her first personal chef job while working as office manager of Lunchbox Theatre, with which she remains associated as chairman of Tshisa Talent. “The English family wanted Yorkshire Pudding, which I thought was a dessert of course. They nonetheless enjoyed my honesty and my food, and personal chef services proved to be a relatively unexplored niche market in Plettenberg Bay. Our association with Plett Villas, an agency renting out luxury homes, has been a valued connection. These days it fills our summer calendar from November to April, and bits and pieces in between. The remainder of the year is made up of weddings, training and consulting. It has become a full and rewarding life of service and fun.”
*There is an international distinction between a personal and private chef, the latter is usually dedicated to one client.