Against the backdrop of a spotless kitchen, 31-year-old Hossein Karimi is hard at work – alternately chopping, frying and plating with an energetic exuberance that never seems to waver.
At one point, he pulls out a large slab of meat and begins moulding chunks of it around a long, wide skewer.
“This is my signature dish – it’s what people seem to really like, ” he says grinning as he puts the final touches on his lamb kebabs, which are soon taken outside to be grilled over a charcoal fire.
Hossein’s fluidity and level of comfort in the kitchen is such that you may well think he is cooking in his own home.
But in reality, the passionate Hossein is a personal chef – essentially a chef who goes to people’s homes to cook and serve them curated meals.
And in this instance, he has been busy cooking in the KL residence of the former Sultanah Kalsom of Pahang.
Interestingly, while being a personal chef used to be a niche domain, Hossein’s job is increasingly gaining traction among young F&B professionals looking for job opportunities during the global pandemic.
Getting a foot in
Hossein is actually an Iranian national who came to Malaysia to study business and IT and did so well that he landed a plum job at a local university where he eventually befriended the former Sultanah Kalsom of Pahang.
Finding himself invited to many dinners with his new friends, he began cooking food for them and soon discovered an ardent following among the glitterati.
“So it actually started when Datuk Seri Farah Khan became close friends with me. She had my kebabs and loved it and she said, ‘Can you cook for my next dinner party?’
“It was only a 10-person dinner but from that table of 10, six of them actually booked me later and that’s how it grew, ” says Hossein.
Bolstered by that experience, two years ago, he started his private dining enterprise l’nop (@lnop_kl) which stands for “like no other place”.
These days, Hossein is joined by a few other young individuals who have taken up private chef roles – even as temporary gigs – to help sustain them through these tough times.
Friends Aaron Khor, 23, and Lee Wei Jian, 29, both studied culinary arts and worked at a number of restaurants, including hallowed modern Malaysian restaurant Dewakan where they worked together for a number of years. Both decided to leave for various reasons, but soon found themselves at a loose end when the movement control order (MCO) hit and they had time to spare (and no income to boot).
“Private dining came up because of the MCO. It was like, ‘We’re free now, we can cook and we need to make some money’.
“Also we had cooked at one or two events before that and were thinking, ‘What if we could curate the same experience at people’s houses?’ Because we know people are afraid to come out and eat.
“So the idea was to bring the restaurant to you, instead of you coming out, ” says Khor, who takes bookings for private chef events on his Instagram account @aarondotk.
Nurliyana Rusli, 33, also found herself in the same boat after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France, and working in Australia alongside mentor Michael Cole (who won the Australian Professional Chef of the Year award in 2019).
Returning to Malaysia late last year, Nurliyana ran into the Covid-19 storm and found her culinary dreams thwarted, albeit temporarily. Looking for a means to sustain herself, she turned to private dining.
“It was hard to find a job and then I started toying with the idea of being a private chef in Malaysia and quickly started doing fine-dining events with my friends and family – that’s how it started, ” says Nurliyana who launched her personal chef mantle Cook The Chook (cookthechook.com) just under two months ago.
How personal chefs operate
Personal chefs typically take bookings from interested parties – Nurliyana, Khor and Lee normally serve a minimum of four people while Hossein generally prefers to cook for at least 10 people.
“I normally ask people what they like to eat, then I send my menu with pictures and a selection of dishes. Once they say OK, I start planning.
“For example, for each of my orders right now, I usually go to between four and five shopping supermarkets, because each will have a different ingredient that I want – I am that picky, ” explains Hossein.
Most personal chefs also prefer to do kitchen visits before events just to suss out what sort of kitchen space homeowners have and determine if there are enough tools for them to work with.
“We do kitchen visits a few days before cooking there to see what they have, what’s missing and what we can and cannot work with.
“This is also so we will know what to bring over – plates, cutlery, pots, pans – sometimes they don’t have it and sometimes the size doesn’t fit our requirements so we need to bring it.
“That’s why kitchen visitation is compulsory for us so that we know what to expect, ” says Khor.
On the day of the event, the chefs begin preparing in earnest; Hossein, for example says he does 85% of the work at his own home so that he often just has to re-heat and plate meals like soups and stews at his client’s place on the day.
The things that need to be made fresh, like his kebabs or pasta dishes, are cooked on the day, plated and served course-by-course to diners.
The food that these chefs produce also run the gamut. Nurliyana is trained in classic French techniques and can make traditional Western meals as well as modern Malaysian fare like grilled laksa chicken wings and lemongrass quail.
Khor and Lee meanwhile are adept at using local ingredients and fusing them with Western techniques.
The duo’s Deep-fried Duck with Salted Mandarin Skin Chilli Crunch, for example, is extraordinarily good – the duck has a wafer-thin crispy skin and juicy meat inside.
Hossein, on the other hand, is an agile self-taught cook whose food terrain covers his Iranian heritage – his juicy kebabs are sensational! – to French cooking and even fusion fare.
He is also deeply committed to infusing every ounce of his passion into his meals – his flavour-intense lobster bisque, for example, takes over two days to prepare and is made from scratch using a stock he develops himself.
It is this dedication to producing a fine-dining-esque experience that truly separates private chefs from catering services, which is the service most Malaysians are familiar with.
“For me, personally, when you say personal chef, it means you bring almost a 100% restaurant experience to a home.
“So customers get the full experience when it comes to the food, service and drinks, and also it is more easily done with high-end menus because then people feel like they’re not just eating family-style dinners, ” says Khor.
“Also, for private dining, it is cooked on the spot, served to diners on the spot and explained to them on the spot, like how a restaurant would do it.
“So, in that sense, they are paying for the exclusivity of the chef cooking personally for them. And the menu is created for them and if they have any dietary restrictions, it is curated to their needs. That’s why I think personal chefs are called personal chefs, ” adds Khor.
Perks of the job
Although the challenges of being a personal chef are aplenty – from getting the word out about what they do to preparing, cooking and transporting meals to clients’ homes by themselves and ensuring they deliver what they promise – in many ways the pros far outweigh the cons.
Nurliyana says: “I love the idea of having full control of the food that I create and also I like that when I’m doing it, I can keep my personal principles intact because often when you work in a restaurant, you don’t necessarily agree with some elements of the job, like food wastage.
“Also, it’s actually very interesting to see people’s kitchens because it’s very intimate – it’s where they nourish themselves and their families, so it’s sort of like a very sacred opportunity to come into their kitchen to cook for them.”
Hossein adds that personal chefs also get to have a decent work-life balance, as they are not in a restaurant kitchen 24/7.
“You manage your own time, you don’t have to be in the restaurant six days a week and you don’t have hiccups like someone calling in sick and messing things up.
“In a restaurant, you will be busy every day but, as a personal chef, I have time to relax and socialise and then whenever I get an order, I can plan that order, ” he says.
All the personal chefs we spoke to say the market for their services typically endears itself to middle-income and high-income individuals looking for curated experiences.
Hossein’s clients range from corporate bigwigs to royalty while Khor and Lee say their clients are mostly mid-income earners and “tai-tai aunties above the age of 40”.
Which is why the money can be very lucrative for personal chefs too.
While restaurant chefs slave away for long hours and get paid very poorly, personal chefs charge more for their services and get to determine how they spread these costs.
Hossein, Lee and Khor charge a minimum of RM150 per person for their private dining fees while Nurliyana typically targets a minimum spend of RM250 per person.
“Being a personal chef has no entry barrier, so anyone with the skills can do it and you don’t need to pay rent or wages so your cost is basically food and your transportation and you can easily make money out of it.
“It is very, very lucrative but you really have to be unique and know your skills, ” says Nurliyana.
For some of the personal chefs, the MCO has also been a bit of a boon as people are more wary of dining out and have been actively looking for alternative services.
Hossein, for example, has seen demand skyrocket these past few months (he had three requests for private dinners in the two hours we spent with him!).
“Because of Covid-19, a lot of people have been calling me for private dining events.
“Interest and bookings have shot up, because everyone is very cautious about going out and their friends and family are also not happy to go out.
“And the thing is, if you want to have very good food in a restaurant, you want to spend as much time as possible enjoying it, which is easier to do in your own home, especially given the current situation, ” he says.
In the long run
Despite its many advantages, only Nurliyana remains committed to continuing to be a personal chef.
For Khor, Lee and Hossein, being a personal chef is only one stop on their path to owning their own restaurants.
“For me, it is to test the market with the kind of food that we do, because some people might think that our food is quite different, like we use sengkuang and apples in our coleslaw!
“So being a private chef is a good platform to see what people like and what they don’t like, so you get an idea of the kind of food that people find acceptable in a restaurant, ” says Khor.
Despite having a very successful career, Hossein is also saving up for his own restaurant.
To pad his existing income, the enterprising Hossein has even partnered with meat supplier My Halal Grocer to come up with a frozen line of burger patties and kebabs to deliver to his high-end clientele.
“While I love my job and my clients, I feel that if you have your own restaurant, you can really share your passion for food with more people, which for me is the goal, ” he says.