Despite a high-flying career in marketing, sports sponsorship and advertising, Kate Emery always knew her future lay in food.
Growing up in a foodie family, she would help her mum prepare dinner parties and even took on a weekend job at a London deli alongside her day job in advertising just to be around the produce she loved.
“At Manchester university, my friends would be out clubbing and I would be the one throwing a dinner party!” she recalls with a laugh. “My driving passion for as long as I can remember has been food and wine. My parents took us to amazing restaurants from a young age and we spent holidays driving through the South of France stopping off at Michelin star restaurants along the way.
“When my parents were entertaining, I’d always hang around to listen to what the guests thought of the meal I’d helped to prepare.”
Her 15 plus years at the sharp end of the London business world saw Kate make a meteoric rise to become a board director at a leading London ad agency before launching her own start-up, Next Door London, where she represented the likes of Jamie Oliver and Blackberry.
But a moment of clarity for the founder of Amandine Chef Placement came when her late father, Conservative MP The Rt Hon Sir Peter Emery, left a note in his will. “Dad had written his motto: ‘If you can live as if each day is a holiday, your life will be much more fulfilling.’ It was a turning point for me and became a subconscious mantra. It made me want to come and live in the South of France.
“I’d had the idea of setting up an agency for chefs in villas as a result of a family holiday years earlier. We’d tried a private chef at our villa and it was amazing but it was hard to find people locally.
“I saw an opportunity to make private chefs more accessible and grow the market, as many people on holiday didn’t know it was something you could do.”
So began Amandine, with Kate moving to the French Riviera in 2011 with her husband Julien to establish the Monaco-based agency, which places chefs in villas, yachts, ski chalets and private households all over the world, and now boasts an impressive roster of more than 7,000 of the world’s leading former restaurant and hotel chefs.
“My long term objective was to grow the business organically and build credibility,” says Kate, who runs the business with her partner Nicola Reed, also a qualified Wine and Spirit Education Trust alumnus and soon to be qualified nutritionist.
“I soon realised the scale of the opportunity was in permanent recruitment and seasonal placements for a wealthier clientele. We got our first yacht job within a year despite me not knowing much about yachting at the time. We were interviewing chefs and talking to captains and it was snowballing because they liked the idea of dealing with a specialist, so in 2014 we started attending yacht shows.
“We’ve built relationships and knowledge, and despite the fact that I’m not a chef, myself and my team have an unparalleled passion and knowledge when it comes to food and the restaurant industry, and this, combined with a keen business acumen makes for a winning formula.”
Appointments run the gamut from a dinner party in Cheshire or catering for Middle Eastern royalty through to permanent or seasonal placements on yachts or in villas, chalets and private homes around the world whether in St Barts, St Moritz or St Tropez. High profile yacht engagements include superstar chefs such as Phil Howard, whose tenure at The Square saw him hold two Michelin stars, Nieves Barragán, Claire Smyth, Theo Randall and Jose Pizarro.
The pandemic – which has slowed down yacht chef placements - has not been the only challenge for Kate. “Cost is coming into the equation more at this time, but people recognise that we offer a premium and specialist service and they don’t mind paying for our expertise,” she says.
“I’m always looking at how we can further improve the level of service to make sure each candidate is right for the client. We have a kitchen at the office where we can test out chefs. We’re the only agency that tries chefs out with a 30 minute skills test using a bag of seasonal groceries bought from the market that day.
“We judge them on taste, presentation and creativity as well as how clean the kitchen is and how well they worked under pressure.
Great chefs select the finest ingredients, and fine tune their dishes drawing on years of experience and detailed knowledge. At Amandine, we work the same way. We don’t throw endless CVs at our clients, hoping something sticks. Instead, you get a hand-picked shortlist of chefs, so more often than not you get the right chef first time.
We spend more time getting to know our chefs in person through in-depth interviews - this allows us to better understand the experience, skills and personality of each chef so that we can match them to the right job, not just any job.
We have a very rigorous selection process and we are discerning about the chefs we choose to work with - we would rather recommend no one than the wrong chef. We listen to exactly what our customers want, we discuss the job in detail with the candidates before considering them and of course we properly research and verify the backgrounds of our chefs.
Operating at such a high level, our conversation turns to food safety management within the superyacht industry. Level 2 Certificate in Food Safety and the Ships Cook Certificate are the only mandatory qualification for food handlers on board but last year saw the launch of the Manager in Charge for the Luxury Yacht Program developed by the MFA in collaboration with Highfield Qualifications. Superyachts can now undertake training in Level 3 Food Safety at Sea, Level 3 HACCP, Level 3 Allergen Management, Level 3 Auditing and Yacht Sanitation and Public Health.
“It’s a great initiative and I really hope that it is not just accepted but celebrated and that yacht captains, owners and chefs understand the value and importance of ensuring the highest of standards when it comes to health and safety on board,” adds Kate. “Anything that helps to improve standards and a body that recognises those boats which uphold those standards is always a good thing.”
All boats should adhere to these levels of health and safety but there are quite a few chefs that have a lot of these qualifications already and it’s important that this is recognised in certain cases to avoid the need for chefs to duplicate their training just to fit with this particular program.
In recent months, Amandine has adopted COVID compliant strategies across the board and a work from home team which Kate says is no real change as they can work anywhere and are already set up to work remotely as and when needed.
“All chef interviews are done via video call rather than in person and for now, our skills tests have been put on hold but as soon as we are able to we will recommence these. In addition to our normal services, we have been offering an at home delivery service where our chefs prepare menus or even some food for the freezer and deliver it to our clients safely and securely so they can enjoy a true restaurant experience at home.
“Naturally, we have also issued additional health and safety guidelines to all of our chefs to ensure they are adhering to all the recommended practices in light of the pandemic. Currently all our chefs are tested before commencing a job and some are also going into isolation/quarantine before starting a contract.”
Kate believes the health crisis will only elevate the demand for private chef services from discerning diners who deem safety a vital component of gastronomic restaurant style dining experiences.
“As we come out of this period, I think we will see a significant rise in people wanting to hire a private chef,” she says. “Attitudes towards eating out and socialising in large groups has undoubtedly been impacted by the pandemic and therefore the benefit of having a chef cook for you at home, in your chalet, villa or on your yacht, is even more appealing and practical than it was before.
“We deal with permanent chef positions with UHNW individuals at their residences around the world or on their yacht, seasonal positions in chalets during the winter or on the yachts in the Med or Caribbean, and the demands for these positions will likely go back to normal quite quickly.
“We also deal with weekly and daily bookings for people looking for a chef for their holidays or a special event or a yacht charter. After being confined at home for so long, I anticipate a surge in these types of weekly or daily bookings; people will be keen to travel as soon as they are able to do so safely but they will also be keen not to do their own cooking!
“With so many restaurants going out of business, the standard of chefs available for hire is higher than ever before. We have had a huge influx of incredibly talented chefs from Michelin star and world renowned restaurants register with us looking for private work – so the choice is much greater and it will be easier than ever before to hire a top chef.”
At a time when others are sitting tight, it comes as no surprise to hear that Kate, who was once named a Young Business Leader of the Year by Who’s Who, has no less than two new projects in development.
The first, Amandine Stars, will represent an elite group of the most talented chefs from around the world including Michelin starred chefs, up and coming talent and specialists leading the way in their field. Amandine will be promoting these chefs outside of their day job so that customers can hire them for unique gastronomic experiences. A series of gourmet events, each one hosted by different culinary master chef, will also be available for clients to book for a special occasion whether on land or at sea. This could be anything from a multiple course tasting menu prepared by a three Michelin star chef to an authentic Mexican evening catered by the world’s best Mexican chef or a Beach BBQ brought to you by America’s leading Pitmaster!
The second is aimed at genuine foodies wanting to experience a private chef at home for a one off dinner. The digital platform will enable members to input their requirements and find a chef local to them that they can book online.
“It’s a very simple platform,” she reveals. “With our existing network we can recommend chefs we have tried and tested which gives us credibility in terms of quality. We are building partnerships with suppliers like provisioners and wine merchants to compliment the food offering and create the ultimate dinner party. It’s a one stop shop for the entire evening.”