Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
The notion of hiring a chef to cater a meal in the privacy of one’s home has become more common in recent years as individuals worry about the well-being of themselves and their loved ones while dining in a public setting since the pandemic. While we all cannot afford this kind of expense, those that can are limited to word-of-mouth chef recommendations and the kitchens consumers are familiar with. This is where Irvine-based Cheferbly enters the picture.
Cheferbly’s online platform has two sides to its business. The angle I typically think of involves an intimate setting with a dedicated chef, customized menu and factors that can be closely managed by the host. The second and more accessible side can be considered a preview to the brand. It means planning pop-up events for guests like myself to check out the cuisine of one or more chefs. These ticketed events are open to the public at a relatively lower price point, also introducing people to others of a similar dining mindset.
I spend the majority of my topics exploring modest concepts with approachable menus (see my recent coverage on Tustin). Yet upscale and finer dining is very much a part of the Orange County landscape. In any given week, I bounce between both casual and formal restaurants.
Voice of OC’s readership and donors cover a range of social and economic backgrounds, and to steer away from a topic because it’s more costly would be doing a disservice. I rarely use the term foodie, but foodies enjoy their meals at every price point.
Another reason I felt strongly about covering this particular concept has to do with the notion that many great things come out of neighboring L.A. and San Diego counties. Cheferbly is an original concept not only stemming from Orange County, but from Irvine – a city better known for its corporate brands than homegrown ideas.
Cheferbly’s Founder and Origin
Founder Kevin Kim is a former Air Force officer with an IT and finance background. After Kim served his time in the armed forces, he left to pursue a career in software. “Any technical background knowledge that I have today comes from that part of my life,” Kim said. For the last 10 years, he stepped away from software to sell residential real estate.
Pre-pandemic, Kim would entertain clients at restaurants. This was fine, except he felt there was no intimacy to the meal. “It’s special, but not that special, especially if you’re in Orange County surrounded by chain restaurants,” he said. The level of client he was hosting was on a luxury scale, and Kim sought a level of privacy to match that.
While seeking more intimate venues, he was introduced to the concept of private dining by invitation and sat in on a dinner. Kim’s experience was so positive that he wanted to apply the idea to his real estate business by featuring an available property by way of an in-home, dining experience. However his research on the concept uncovered the fact that there wasn’t an available resource for individuals seeking private dining opportunities. Kim found nothing online where he could browse chef profiles and their respective menus.
“Your circle of friends may know a chef or two, but that’s it,” Kim explained. Even if the referral was great, there wasn’t a platform to look up other chefs. During our interview, Kim would analogize the platform as “Yelp for private dining.”
According to Kim, private dining is considered underground. “You have all these amazing and talented chefs that either currently work in restaurant kitchens or are already working as private chefs, but there’s no platform to bring them above surface,” Kim said. He wanted to build out an online platform to serve those consumers seeking private dining.
Private Dining First-Hand and The Hiring Process
I was invited to participate in a private dining experience in the backyard of Kevin Kim’s home. Originally, the dinner was supposed to take place at a completely different venue, but circumstances beyond his control made it unavailable. Utilizing his own home was an option Kim was able to flex because of the control a host has over such details.
Then during the course of the meal, a chef preparing one particular course (there were different chefs assigned to specific courses) was able to plate and serve his dish to our group while being considerate of an allergy one diner had – that diner was me. I received a modified version of the dish that was slightly different from the rest of the party, but still possessed nearly all the same ingredients and intention the chef wanted to express. Ensuring the same quality of cuisine despite allergies and dietary restrictions is made possible when a curated menu is worked out between host and chef.
When I asked Kim about his vetting process, he got in depth about attributes he looks for before a chef can join Cheferbly. Three variables he looked for in particular were background, personality and processes. If a candidate excels in all three, he or she is more likely to be on-boarded into the platform.
Kim conducts reference checks prior to interviews to verify work history. “We know right away when we start engaging with these chefs wanting to join our platform that they are all qualified as far as their kitchen experience,” he said. A number of Cheferbly’s team members have come from Michelin-starred kitchens; for those individuals, prior experience in a Michelin-designated restaurant means a candidate already possesses a certain level of skills Kim finds acceptable.
The next attribute is less about cooking and involves communication. “There’s a lot more to our interview process than just knowing that someone has come from a reputable kitchen,” Kim said. Private dining extends beyond cooking, as a chef is interacting with clients. There must be a balance between behaving in a professional manner while also coming off as personable.
This may be difficult for some chefs. The environment in a normal restaurant kitchen is of a certain volume with different mannerisms and colorful language (yes, I’m referring to swearing) toward fellow chefs and staff. “These folks are paying a lot of money for you to experience not only a great meal that you provide, but also you as a chef,” Kim said. He makes sure a chef is able to properly present his or her dishes to the client.
I wholeheartedly agree that the ability of a chef to engage his guests in a dialogue only enhances the dining experience. The exception to this rule, after Kim thought about it, would be a sushi chef. “Traditionally a sushi chef is not expected to interact as much as other chefs serving cuisines,” he said. Any time I’ve sat at a chef’s counter for an omakase experience our sushi chef has always been polite, yet reserved.
A third detail he looks for ranks high on Cheferbly’s preferred list of attributes: Do they clean up after service? A candidate’s response to this can be a dealbreaker because it addresses the brand’s primary audience, many of whom own nice homes and nicer kitchens that are often professionally cleaned. When a chef enters a host’s private space and prepares a meal which could take hours to accomplish, there will ultimately be dirty dishes, pots, pans and counters.
“We need to make sure you leave that place as if no one’s been there,” Kim said. All of the platform’s chefs do that as part of their service; it’s included in the cost. He does not on-board those chefs that admit to not cleaning up after themselves.
Guest feedback includes the following from host Jen D. (The last name was omitted out of a request for privacy.) “The chef was professional and friendly, the plating was beautiful, and the food was amazing. Also, having a chef serve dinner out of my kitchen allowed us to be present and truly enjoy our time with our guests,” she said.
Cheferbly’s tagline is about an elevated culinary experience, meaning everything from start to finish has to be next level. An individual may be elevated in presentation skills as well as food, “but you can’t have subpar clean-up processes,” Kim said. Cleaning up after oneself may seem like a boring detail on a personal level, but on a professional level I believe it should not even be a concern – it should be a natural instinct.
The Reasoning Behind A Pop-up Format
When I’m asked for advice on selecting a restaurant, I immediately launch into a sort of interrogation. I ask whether there will be children present. I inquire if there’s something that’s being celebrated. Do they want a full bar, beer and wine only, or no alcohol? I pepper the person asking with questions. The point is that there are so many factors to consider. In the end, I can suggest places, but my palette can be very different from the person asking. Attending a pop-up dining event is one way curious diners can learn about and taste the cuisine of one (or more) chefs on the Cheferbly platform.
Many private chefs promote themselves through pop-ups, coming up with a tasting menu to let the world know who they are and what they have to offer. Not only is it an opportunity to sit down and sample a chef’s style of cooking, but there’s time to also interact with them. “It’s a way for us to introduce our chefs to the world for a fraction of the cost of the private dining experience,” Kim said.
The price point may be closer to $150, which is expensive for many people. But I think about the assortment of food and wine festivals held throughout the year, with VIP tickets averaging close to the same amount. Those are the tickets that sell out first because individuals are willing to save or pay for these experiences. Cheferbly’s recent launch party was an elaborate evening pop-up. Private dining may be the brand’s primary focus, but Kim witnessed strangers coming together and bonding over the pop-up dinner. Attendee Hayward C. discussed his unforgettable experience that evening: “The event was extraordinary, the chefs were tremendous, and the organizer – flawless,” he said.
Essentially food is something that needs to be tasted to be fully appreciated. When you scroll through photos on Instagram you eat with your eyes, and when food is presented to you it activates one’s sense of smell. With no prior platform to look up and read reviews about chefs, the only way to know whether one is good or not is to actually experience the cuisine.
On Dec. 9 and 10, Cheferbly will be conducting its next pop-up. Chefs Tushar Tondvalkar and Jimmy Matiz of Matiz Catering will be hosting this event with a theme of “Around the World.” The six-course meal will include cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and wine pairings. Matiz has worked alongside Michael Mina as well as Spain’s 3 Michelin-starred El Cellar de Can Roca. Tondvalkar has also worked in Michelin kitchens and most recently was a winner in the Hulu series “Chefs vs. Wild.”
When asked about the Cheferbly platform, Matiz discussed how it has given assistance with making connections and even marketing from the very beginning. “With Cheferbly we feel seen and supported, not just to get new clients but an overall opportunity to grow in the private chef business. Their publicity efforts have produced some opportunities we have strived to make happen for years,” Matiz said.
Despite averaging four hours of sleep working on the Cheferbly platform, Kim finds the business he has created rewarding. He acknowledges that the platform doesn’t exist without the chefs, and if he doesn’t do a great job selling his chefs his revenue is affected. Kim puts them at the forefront of Cheferbly’s platform and all marketing efforts, and the chefs notice.
Cheferbly Chef Ken Anderson of Kreation Event Services shares his feedback, comparing prior experience with how he’s treated nowadays. “Working with Cheferbly has been such an incredible experience in such a short time span. We have worked with many platforms where we were just talent, but with Cheferbly we are people, professionals worthy of their hire,” he said.
“At the end of the day, this private dining concept that we’re introducing to the world is for someone to celebrate a special occasion,” Kim said. Whether it’s a corporate or personal expense or a birthday or anniversary being planned, there will be a considerable amount of money involved. And the easiest way for someone to be comfortable about committing to a higher price point is to first experience it through a pop-up event.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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