The hottest new restaurant in Halifax could be your dining room if you hire one of the city’s many personal chefs. Two new chefs set up shop in the past year, expanding the ever-growing market for in-home dining options.
Once the realm of a wealthier set, hiring a chef to prepare an elegant, multi-course dinner for guests is now surprisingly affordable. Diners who would normally celebrate a special occasion like a birthday or bachelorette party at a restaurant are chipping in for a more personalized meal instead.
Somporn Chaiyasen started his personal chef business, Min’s Kitchen, about a year ago, providing authentic Thai food to customers all over Halifax.
Chaiyasen started his business at the urging of his friends, who were used to seeing his nightly dinner creations in their Facebook news feeds.
When he cooked for two friends’ engagement party, party guests hounded him to start a personal chef business, possibly to gain unfettered access to the customized Thai buffet he’s known for. After that it was a done deal.
Chaiyasen grew up in Kalasin province in Thailand, but honed his cooking skills in Bangkok, where he worked in restaurants during high school and university.
“My mom owned a general store and also she cooked and she taught me how to cook,” he says. “And after I finished secondary school I moved to Bangkok, the big city. I stayed with a Chinese family for eight years and they teach me how to cook… They taught me a lot.”
He moved to Canada six years ago, and enjoys showing other expats that Thai cooking traditions are alive and well in Nova Scotia. “Some people think we move to Canada and cannot get food like in Thailand,” says Chaiyasen, who mainly shops at the Tian Phat Asian Grocery in Bedford. “I try to use local ingredients.”
Diane Collins, a former co-worker of Chaiyasen’s husband, booked him to cook for a group of friends three times in the past year. “None of them were a special occasion,” she says. “We just did it because we enjoyed his food, we enjoyed the fact that he comes in and prepares everything, washes everything. It’s like going to a restaurant, but better.”
Collins loves the level of detail that goes into each event, from the appetizers to the fruit sculptures. Chaiyasen spends two to three hours hand-carving watermelons or cantaloupes, often customizing the sculpture to the theme of the event.
“Everything is served, it’s beautiful, the decorations are wonderful, his presentation is wonderful,” she says.
What started out as a get-together among about 20 girlfriends has now evolved into a regular event. “The girls had asked that perhaps we have a couples [night] so that they could bring their husbands,” said Collins. Demand grew after the second dinner. “They truly enjoyed it, once again…and wanted to make sure that they were all invited again to the next time.”
Collins recommends Min’s Kitchen often. It’s an easy sell as clients enjoy watching Chaiyasen at work in their kitchen, and some have even requested cooking lessons.
Chaiyasen isn’t the only one to set up shop in the past year. Andrew Al-Khouri, a former contestant on cooking reality show MasterChef Canada also started offering private chef services, under the name Zatar Catering.
Al-Khouri aims to open a restaurant eventually, but the low overhead of operating a catering business allowed him to leave his day job to cook full-time in clients’ homes.
Al-Khouri creates multi-course meals for diners celebrating events of all kinds. His most popular offering is a “Girls Night In” cooking class, where he spends two hours teaching six to 20 guests to make a meal like fresh pasta, gnocchi, or a Thai dish.
“These things take a lot of time to build up a client base…I kind of bypassed that a little bit just by going on MasterChef,” he says.
Word of mouth is a strong driver for Chaiyasen too. His dinners are like networking events; he books many of his events through repeat customers, or guests from previous dinners.
Al-Khouri admits he hasn’t needed to advertise or do much in the way of self-promotion, but ultimately thinks it’s the food that keeps customers coming back. “I always hand out cards at the end of every dinner I do,” he says. “The food speaks for itself.”