From Ad Exec to San Francisco’s Private Executive Chef, an Interview with Andrea Gray Lawson

A serial entrepreneur at heart, Chef Andrea was part of the now defunct Kitchit, an on demand private chef startup. When that failed, she saw her fellow colleagues, all extremely talented chefs and suddenly without the steady stream of clients that Kitchit had provided, and had a vision for something different. A co-op of sorts, with shared costs, shared values, and shared talents. Thus Private Chefs of the SF Bay was born, an extremely high end personal chef brand that brings fine dining to you, whether it be an executive luncheon, a special treat in your home, or just a way to take your California vacation to the next level.

Chef Andrea first owned an ad agency and then discovered her love for cooking, spiraling those marketing talents into this wild ride of a career that has led her to dominate the personal chef industry—which is saying quite a lot, considering the talent in the bay area. We sat down for a scrumptious meal with Andrea to chat about everything everything from the unique funding for the business, how to work as a collective, and the importance of keeping your standards (and pricing) high.

Jenna Bostock: How long have you been a chef for – was it always a dream of yours?

Chef Andrea: I’ve been a chef for 15 years. I never envisioned myself as a chef, actually. I am what I would call a “serial entrepreneur” and started my catering company because I saw a business opportunity. Little did I know that I would fall in love with cooking! I discovered a passion and talent that frankly, I don’t know whether it was always there and just dormant, or came to me as a gift when I was 40 years old.

Jenna Bostock: Have you always been entrepreneurial then?

Chef Andrea: Yes! I owned an ad agency for several years that those skills really allowed me to brand, market and promote my businesses expertly.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me about the inception of Private Chefs of the SF Bay.

Chef Andrea: It rose from the ashes of Kitchit. When Kitchit (the on-demand private chef startup) folded, I could see how hard this hit many of the Bay Area chefs who had been dependent upon this marketplace to connect with customers and find work. Heartfelt and often almost desperate comments were appearing on the Kitchit Chef’s Table (FB group) and many of us were messaging back and forth about how we needed to do something. So I did!

I mentioned above that I’ve been an entrepreneur almost my entire life; well, during much of that time I was a marketing and branding strategist. I could see the opportunity to create something to fill the void, and do it better than Kitchit had done it, at least from a marketing perspective. From there, it was just about finding the right partner (I didn’t want to start this alone as I find starting a business with someone is just better if its the right person). I reached out to Chef Rose Johnson, and Private Chefs of the SF Bay was born.

Jenna Bostock: How did you fund Private Chefs of the SF Bay?

Chef Andrea: The chefs all chipped in a small amount to get started; we really bootstrapped it (and still do). This is why we modeled ourselves as a co-op. A small percentage of each gig booked goes back to the “fund” that keeps us afloat. This way, we can offer the very best value to both the chefs and the clients. There’s no commission, which was part of Kitchit’s model and is the model for many of the platforms that connect chefs to customers.

Jenna Bostock: What do you think differentiates a private chef experience from a fine dining experience at a restaurant?

Chef Andrea: Where do I start?! In the first place, there’s the pleasure of being in your own home, the pace of the meal is of your choosing, there’s no worrying about driving home afterward, your friends can relax before dinner in your living room or out on your gorgeous deck, and you may even get a chance to use that fine china you never break out if you want to. And it makes you cool because you’re on-trend!

Jenna Bostock: Who is your typical clientele?

Chef Andrea: We get clients celebrating special occasions (milestone birthdays, anniversaries and graduations are big), executive team off-sites and board meetings usually at the CEO’s home, fundraising events, holiday dinners and parties, and even the occasion very special dinner date.

Jenna Bostock: How do you separate yourself from other private chefs, by acting a whole collective?

Chef Andrea: Each of our chefs has been chosen because of their specialties, consequently, we are able to offer a broad range at a very high level: 31 different cuisines and between our 9 chefs, we have a combined 70+ years of experience. Every chef has been vetted, not just for their cuisine but also for their skills managing service, pre-event prep and on-site kitchen organization, plating and number of years in the industry. I wear two hats, and as the concierge, I am able to match the chef that is best suited to each client request. For larger events, we often team up, so the client gets the benefit of the talent and experience of two seasoned chefs and the service level of a boutique caterer. We also have the ability to cover each other in case of any last minute chef emergency.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me about the focus on sustainably-sourced, organic and local ingredient aspect of the business.

Chef Andrea: This was one of the requirements for chefs to become part of our co-op, but it is so much more than that. It really is, for us Bay Area chefs, a way of life and cooking philosophy. We have chefs who forage for mushrooms and hunt for seaweed. We all shop the local farmer’s markets and have personal relationships with many of the vendors.

Jenna Bostock: What is the trend these days, is there a big rise in the demand for at home private chef experiences?

Chef Andrea: There sure is! Our clients enjoy opening their beautiful homes and, in many cases, this is the best way to welcome out-of-town guests and business associates. It’s just so much more personal and memorable than just taking them to dinner. We also get many clients who are visiting Wine Country and don’t want to dine out, but prefer to stay in and enjoy the beautiful villas they have rented.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me about your staff and how you create an elevated fine dining experience with Michelin experienced servers, sommelier, etc.

Chef Andrea: It has taken us a couple of years, but we now have an amazing on-call staff, whom we share. We are at an advantage here in the SF Bay area, as there are so many great restaurants that have trained support staff over the years and we pay top dollar, way better than restaurants are able to pay, so we attract and keep great people. We have a Mixologist, as Sommelier (as you mentioned) as well as FOH staff for our clients who request this, usually for large holiday parties or business events.

Jenna Bostock: What’s been a few of the biggest barriers to overcome?

Chef Andrea: There’s is a lot of competition in the marketplace, on the promotion side, it comes from platforms that are looking to connect customers and chefs but are almost always do not have a culinary background. This creates confusion, with home-cooks-turned-chefs and newbies undercutting pricing. The word “chef” gives the impression of expertise and experience, but there is no barrier to entry, so anyone can try their hand.

On the chef side, there are so many truly talented, experienced and amazing chefs in the Bay Area. I wouldn’t call it a barrier, but it does keep us all on our toes– keeping up with the latest culinary trends and constantly advancing our education in the field.

Jenna Bostock: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?

Chef Andrea: You’ve got to have grit! If you’re not prepared to accept that nervous feeling you get when the phone doesn’t ring for a week, or there are no emails coming in as just part of the life-cycle of your business, it that is going to make you crazy, don’t become an entrepreneur. The other piece of advice that I like to share is that you never lower your prices.

Set your prices based on the value of what you have to offer and even if business is slow and you are desperate for work, don’t cut them. This only erodes your brand and people who underpay know they are underpaying and are looking to see what corners you’ve cut to give them that discounted price so they are suspicious of everything and much less likely to be impressed by what you deliver. (Of course, this only applies to service businesses, I am not suggesting a retailer should never have a sale!)

Jenna Bostock: What is your favorite aspect of the job?

Chef Andrea: COOKING! It is my happy place… no matter how stressful the situation (cooking in other people’s kitchen brings it’s own level of stress), it all melts away as prepare my sauces, perfect my soups and place the food artfully on the plate. It’s what makes everything else worthwhile. This is something all of our chefs share, this passion. For us, cooking is a way of life!