A Chef With Freedom
Chef Nathan Stewart is a lauded private chef working out of Los Angeles and a new CASA mentor! I sat down with him to discuss his career, cooking, and the program.
How did your career in cooking begin?
I got started fairly young. My real interest started around 11 or 12, and was inspired by some of the cooking icons at the time. My first job was working for a family friend’s pizzeria at 14. It’s the youngest in New York they’ll let you work. I was working doing all these illegal things– working stand mixers that were as tall as me and could have mangled me. I enjoyed it and it was my first time having personal money. I turned around and bought some cookbooks. From there I went on to be a dishwasher for a small steak house, from 16-18. I worked my way up to prep cooking then line work, and apprenticed with their meat cutter, learning butchery, and eventually apprenticed for their head chef. I got to see all the aspects of being a chef that aren’t glamorous– the financial aspect, inventory, the long hours. It was a great opportunity. I think that’s the best way to learn. It’s important to pay forward our knowledge in this business. That’s why I love CASA, it creates this opportunity for students— to learn the fundamentals and logistic aspects of the industry firsthand.
I know you are technically a “private chef;” what exactly does that mean?
I straddle the line between “private chef” and “personal chef.” A private chef has fewer more dedicated clients, and a personal chef might have a few more clients with a more diverse offering. Originally, I concentrated on a few households as a private chef. That led me to some other relationships where I could pick up more clients. It can be a difficult path, it’s not the same as a career in a restaurant. I don’t have a concrete brick and mortar. I have to sell myself. There’s so much competition in this industry. Your reputation is everything. You need to maintain good relationships and follow through on your word. I like the challenge. It’s motivated me to be a better mentor too, it’s an empowering process.
Obviously, chefs who have a restaurant are tasked with expressing their creative vision through a unique menu. Are there ways you can maintain creative autonomy and still cater to the desires of your clients?
There are opportunities to create your own menu, but it depends on your relationship with your client, and the level of autonomy they’re willing to grant you. It’s all a part of the courtship process. You’re getting to know one another, and at some point, you’re syncopated. There’s a mutual understanding, and you can express more autonomy at this point. You find ways to be creative within the structure you’re given. In a haiku, you have a rigid structure, but there’s plenty of freedom within that structure. I can pick the clients I want to work for, in a restaurant you can’t really pick your clients.
I have a friend in New York who is a private chef for a single family. It’s a pretty wild job. I think he maybe only works a few weeks out of the year, as they’re never in the city, but occasionally he’ll get a call at 1 AM from the house manager, being like, “So-and-so has decided to stop into the city with some friends to go shopping tomorrow, they’ll need breakfast for 16 people by 8 AM…”
That kind of thing can definitely happen. All of that gets outlined in the contract. Private chefs are working an on-call position. But also, that’s why private chefs are the highest paid chefs in the industry.
What are the benefits to being a private chef over a chef owner?
Private chefs can work all over the world, doing seasonal work anywhere from a mansion in Dubai to a yacht in the Caymans. I worked at a resort in Hawaii for three years. The earning potential is huge. Chef owners are investing a ton of time and money into their restaurant, and most restaurants eventually fail. There’s a lot of freedom being a personal chef, and you really are your own master.
“Private chefs can work all over the world, doing seasonal work anywhere from a mansion in Dubai to a yacht in the Caymans.”
How’d you find CASA?
I found CASA in a round-about way. I was new to LA and looking for new opportunities. It seemed like a great way for me to do multiple things. Freelancing, consulting, and teaching. It allowed me to take on a mentor/instructor role, which I get a lot of satisfaction from.
How long have you been with the program?
I started in October 2022. I was assigned my first student that December.
What do you see as the benefits of a mentorship-style of learning?
It’s much more personalized. I will tailor the lesson for the students’ requirements, needs, and interests. Every student has a different question, every student has a different starting point. All of my students have a lot of passion, they’re all hungry and have engaged in self-learning. Being able to find and meet the needs of each student is much easier through the program than in a large classroom. Mentorship allows me to better understand cooking through my relationships with students. I want to be the person that invests the time in students to pass on my knowledge. CASA champions this old school apprenticeship model of taking someone under your wing and bringing them up.
“I want to be the person that invests the time in students to pass on my knowledge. CASA champions this old school apprenticeship model of taking someone under your wing and bringing them up.”
What qualities do you look for in a mentee?
I really appreciate a sense of enthusiasm and passion. That demonstrates that they are going to be receptive, that they are hungry for knowledge. Along with that, a willingness to apply the knowledge they’re getting. If they have the initiative to purchase a five-pound bag of onions and practice chopping at home, that also shows me that they are invested in taking this education somewhere.
Do you have any advice for someone considering the program?
My first piece of advice, from a practical standpoint, is to ask yourself if this is a career you want to be in for 20 years. Secondly, I would advise them to consider a career in hospitality, for what it offers in personal growth. I think the culinary profession is extremely honorable.