A personal chef’s pandemic pivot

The pandemic left this in-home cook’s side job in limbo, and the industry’s future still feels up in the air.
lamb loin chops with a spiced crust, served with salad and basil pesto
Photo by Sujhey Beisser
Sujhey Beisser started moonlighting as a personal chef four years ago, making dishes like lamb loin chops with a spiced crust, served with salad and basil pesto.

When I decided to start offering personal chef services four years ago, I knew there was a rising demand for this work and room to grow. Having a diverse background was another positive angle of my small business — I was one of the only Latinas in the space locally. I decided my focus would be on special occasions and in-home cooking lessons, which would allow me to run my business while keeping my day job.

I wanted to express my passion for cooking while sharing my talent with others through my food. I take the time to understand what my clients want when creating a unique, custom-designed dining experience. Unlike going to a restaurant, where you can order only what is on the menu, I collaborate with clients to create a custom menu.

The holidays in 2019 were busy, and 2020 was booking fast. I prepared for a busy year ahead. I was booked from January through June and sold gift certificates that still had to find their way into my calendar. Little did I know we were about to face a moment in history that would shift the world essentially overnight.

COVID-19 adversely impacted nearly every small business, mine included. For the very first time, I canceled all my bookings. Filled with uncertainty while watching how this pandemic fundamentally changed our day-to-day lives, I was faced with the many challenges every other working mom and small business owner was dealing with.

Sujhey Beisser

Courtesy of livinginbalancemadison.com/Tim Fitch Photography

Surprisingly, the demand for personal chef services increased during the pandemic in bigger cities. With people choosing to stay at home for safety, having someone prepare family meals at home provided an alternative to the takeout or delivery options.

That was not the case for all personal chefs. “If we did not have COVID, I would be doing pop-up dinners. When COVID hit last March, I focused on taking care of my toddler,” says chef Jenny Lee of Perilla Kitchen in Milwaukee. “My predicament is commonplace among women. Because of COVID, we’ve cut our hours to take care of our kids.”

I decided to wait instead of reinventing my business; thankfully, I have the financial ability. Last summer when things seemed to be looking up and small outdoor gatherings were happening, I picked up the pace again. I was able to cook dinner for smaller parties. Hiring a personal chef became a great alternative for people celebrating birthdays and weddings.

When the COVID-19 cases started to increase in the state and the public health authorities banned all indoor gatherings with people from different households, I decided to pause my services again for the safety of my clients and myself. Going into someone’s home is a great responsibility that requires much integrity. Safety is my first priority, and many other personal chefs feel the same.

“With respect to the service — I’ve learned this is a people business, not just a good business,” says chef Imani Graham of Milwaukee’s Mentionable Eats.

What the future holds for my business is not clear to me right now — though I will keep in touch with my book of existing clients to make sure I am ready to serve them when the time is right.

Sujhey Beisser owns Five Senses Palate. She started her business as a food blog that transitioned into a personal chef service. Find recipes and more on her Instagram account, @5sensespalate.