The New Downstairs: Chefs
Why does a Michelin-starred chef choose to work in a private household? Certainly not to cook for the family pet. Emma Jacobs investigates.
Filmed by Steve Ager, Nicola Stansfield, Petros Gioumpasis, Richard Topping. Additional material: Getty. Animations by Russell Birkett. Edited by Nick Swinglehurst and Seb Morton-Clark. Produced by Nalini Sivathasan and Seb Morton-Clark.
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The costume drama Downton Abbey showed a time when the English elite could afford hordes of staff. Upstairs were the Crawley family, and downstairs, cooks, butlers and scullery maids. The show told a familiar story of the decline of such professions in the wake of the First World War, or so we thought.
In my job at the Financial Times, I occasionally get to glimpse into the working lives of the global elite, and I kept coming across domestic staff in those familiar yet now somewhat altered roles-- house managers dealing with globetrotting families, Michelin chefs cooking up five star meals or baked beans, and 1,000 pounds an hour tutors helping four year olds get a leg up in life.
I wanted to know how those traditional roles had shifted. What are the demands of people using these services today? And what is the relationship between them and their staff?
I remember one time, I had to feed a parrot.
No one can know who you work for, where you work.
When most people think of chefs, they think of the fast-paced, hectic world of restaurants. But the restaurant chef is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the 20th century, most chefs or cooks would have worked for private households.
Paul Brook-Taylor is head chef for the Lord and Lady of Highclere Castle, as well as for its commercial activities. He lives on the estate with his wife and two children.
When you work for a private house, you're always trying to cook like the nanny cooked. You have no recipe. You have no real direction. So it's trial and error. And do you know what, there's some old classics out there-- spotted dick, bread and butter pudding, steamed jam roly poly-- that it's nice to be able to cook that way.
While Paul's work is fairly steady, for other private chefs, life can be more unpredictable. They might get to cook with the best ingredients and sent to beautiful exotic locations, but they may also have to cook at extremely short notice or try and source unusual ingredients in countries where they don't understand the language. Or they might even find themselves cooking for the family pet.
James Hunt had done just that. After 25 years working in luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, he made the switch to private households five years ago.
One minute, you're cooking kobe beef, the next minute, you're grinding chicken and rice for Lulu's dinner, which could be their favourite pet dog, you know, or cat. I remember one time I had to feed a parrot. I was covered in bites, because the parent didn't know me.
Even so, James was drawn by the promise of generally better working conditions and pay that can reach as much as 80,000 pounds a year, a step up from your Michelin star sous chef.
I was working at a two-star restaurant in London. I would start physically working at 7:00 AM, I would finish around a quarter to 2:00 at night. And I woke up one morning saying, this is madness. You know, what am I doing it for?
James still has to be flexible, though.
The latest trip I was one was 46 days in Tangiers in Morocco, which was a 24-hour service. You could leave work at 11 o'clock at night. You'd get a phone call at 3 o'clock in the morning to come in and cook dinner for five or six people, possibly 10. You don't know. And that happened on a regular basis.
Charlotte Gillespie-Williams is a relative newcomer to the world of private cheffing. And at 24 years old, she's also very young.
Every single thing that goes on the plate, you know that you've cooked it. From the shopping to the preparation to the final finishing touches on the dish, everything is you.
Charlotte has learned to cook freshly caught game shot by her principles. Cooking for a hunt would be rare for a restaurant chef.
In a shoot, it can differ from 12 people up to 30 people. So in the morning, you would make a full cooked breakfast. Then they would go out shooting, and then elevenses. And then they'd come back for lunch. And you would do a game pie and a nice dessert, and then afternoon tea as well-- so some cakes, some sandwiches. And then at dinner, you would do canapes. And then you would cook pheasant that they shot at lunch time.
As a female private chef, Charlotte is probably in the minority today. But in the 19th century, the majority of cooks were women. Gender played a big role in the staff pecking order. For wealthy and aristocratic families, there was cachet in having a male chef.
So if you are an earl or above, you have a man cook, preferably a Frenchman. And there's a really developed hierarchy. Lower down the social strata, you might have your barons, your gentry, your knights. They probably have a woman working for them. And she, again, probably has an assistant at that point.
Your middle class person, your family, probably just employs one cook, maybe a butler if they're really lucky. And then you get further and further down until you've got one-servant families. And they would employ a maid of all work. And they probably do some cooking, but not very much.
The wealthy were quite used to eating seven courses in a meal, with the households keen to try out new and often exotic dishes. The need to be fashionable still remains, although it's more likely to be health conscious trends, such as gluten-free or paleo diets.
I was living with a lady who was on a cold green vegan diet for one month. So everything from breakfast, lunch, and dinner had to be green. It had to be vegan. And it had to be cold. So you had to deal with that. You have to deal with that and be very inventive.
For private chefs like James and Charlotte, working solo means they don't have colleagues to discuss ideas or discover trends. So in her free days, Charlotte goes to restaurants such as Street Show in Mayfair for inspiration. She can end up spending up to 100 pounds on a meal for herself.
Market research-- it's quite an expensive thing to do, because you need to know where your clients are going to eat. And you nee to go and venture out. And you need to go to what's new, what's got the latest awards. And you need to eat the food that they're also eating so you know what to cook.
While keeping up with the latest food trends is desirable, discretion is essential for any chef working in a household.
No one can know who you work for, where you work, the location that you work. And in a restaurant, it's very different, you know? You're proud to work at that restaurant. But in a house, you're proud to yourself, really. And that's the only person that can know. It's between you and your client.
In the 19th century, working for the ultra wealthy or aristocracy was seen as the peak of the cook's career. But in the 20th century, that perception was turned on its head.
So the most prestigious positions were in private houses. And that changed in the course of the 20th century with the rise of the big hotels. There were places like the Savoy and the Ritz, both of which were attached to Escoffier, the granddaddy of French cuisine. So the perception in the 20th century began to change in terms of where you worked, if you were at the top of your game.
As well as that, because a lot of private houses could no longer afford the really prestigious cooks, men ended up in the restaurant trade. And I think in terms of the public perception of private chefs, professional chefs, those people working in restaurants became the names.
In many ways, this still holds true today.
The rise of television programmes, cookery books, all the kind of public media around food, I think has led to a perception whereby a private chef is somehow inferior. They don't work the hours. It's not macho. Perhaps no one really knows what they're doing.
Others would argue that private chefs are just as skilled as restaurant chefs. But what sets them apart is personality. Philip Pesci runs an agency for private chefs.
We're in people's private homes. And therefore, we need a different kind of attitude. We need to be a lot calmer, a lot more relaxed. We need to fade into the background. There's more interaction with a private client. And you're discussing their likes, their dislikes, more sugar, less salt, to really hone in on what they're expecting from a dish.
There is no room for egos. Your whole day is to try to make life a little bit easier for the family or for the individual. And some of these individuals have very, actually, stressful lives. They don't become multibillionaires because they watch daytime TV. It's not always the case. But a lot of them do work, and work extremely hard.
Back at Highclere Castle, Paul agrees that working for a family means there's more of a personal touch than in a commercial setting.
Do I miss the structure of working for a big company? Yeah, sometimes. It's really difficult. This family saw me for a stroke. I'm not convinced any other major brand out there would have seen me for a stroke. I think they would have tossed me out to scrap heap.
The benefit working for a family is you get the personal relationship. The negative is you get a relationship. Sometimes, you fall out. And it's taking that.
Although cooking a meal for the household pet and heating up baked beans are unlikely to be what they went into the profession for, being at the mercy of an employer's taste is something that both past and modern chefs would have in common. In an age where ready meals and restaurants are everywhere, the employment of a private chef remains a true luxury.