The internal rate of return for cooking for the rich and famous
By Thomas Heath,
As the personal chef to many of Washington’s rich and powerful, Jenn Crovato, 37, must know boundaries.
She is the help. They are the boss.
Flying across continents in personal jets, meeting big-name entertainers such as Patti Austin and Lionel Ritchie, cooking for Steve Case, Donald Rumsfeld, utility executive Mayo Shattuck and the Washington Post Board of Directors can be heady stuff for a young 20- or 30-something.
Crovato brings an unemotional, business-like approach to a chef’s life. It is work, plain and simple.
“This whole Food Network thing has people screwed up,” she said. “They think you are a celebrity and you make a lot of money. Most executive chefs might make $80,000 a year. It’s not glamorous by any stretch.”
Crovato had to keep all that in mind during her six years as a personal chef to the late financier/philanthropist Joseph E. Robert Jr., who died of brain cancer in December 2011. She was Robert’s chef when he entertained moguls, diplomats and Abu Dhabi royalty. “I’ve witnessed a number of property managers, nannies, that feel a sense of power, entitlement and control, as if it is their house and their life. It’s not.”
Robert made it easy for Crovato to remember the division between worker and boss. He was demanding and spare on compliments, but businesslike and fair. He spent two weeks a month on business, flying the globe on his Bombardier Global Express. But when he was at home in McLean, he wanted Crovato available at all hours.
When Crovato wanted a $150,000 salary, more than double what he was paying her, he compromised: $100,000, plus private school tuition for her two children.
She agreed, as long as she could keep a small client list that includes Monumental Sports & Entertainment vice chairman Raul Fernandez, former AOL mogul Jim Kimsey, George Washington University Board of Trustees chairman Russ Ramsey and Case.
She makes a living as personal chef to those and others, working out of her Silver Spring home as a sole proprietorship. She has a Web site, is starting a blog and recently hired a team to help promote her cooking on social media.
Crovato borrowed $80,000 from a bank to fund her expanding business, Healing With Fresh Foods, which has a book coming out next month called “Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Pepper.” Crovato hopes the book is a springboard to new opportunities like teaching and consulting. She already has a consulting contract to Case’s winery in Madison, Va.
The book is a road map for developing healthy cooking and eating habits through simple methods and preparations of fresh, unprocessed foods using the basic ingredients in the title. She is donating $3 of every copy sold to the Fight for Children charity that Robert championed.
Crovato is all business. She tries to keep cooking jobs to one per week. She won’t take a job for less than $1,000. “It’s not worth it,” said the mother of two, who charges $85 an hour.
The average job takes about 20 hours, including grocery shopping and preparation. She does prep work like chopping and dicing at her own home, but the meal is cooked in the client’s kitchen. Someone else usually serves. She usually makes around $1,700 to feed a group of 10 or so.
Crovato has viewed cooking as a business since she was a 5-year-old in Silver Spring, writing out her first recipe for “crunchy yummy raisin treats” on “Snoopy Paper,” then selling them to her mom’s friends for 25 cents each.
She cooked and sold pepperoni rolls and homemade pizzas (delivered on skateboard), and even baked cakes and organized birthday parties at $50 a pop. She saved enough to pay for a trip to Italy, by herself, at 13. She stayed with a family on an island off Rome.
In 1995, when she was about 18, she manned the grill station at I Matti in Adams Morgan as part of her training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hudson Valley.
She went to Italy again in 1997, and traveled the country and cooked at small hotels in return for room and board.
Italy was the formative impact on her cooking, teaching her the value of quality fresh products and keeping it simple.
“It became the hallmark of my cooking style,” she said. “Clean, fresh, simple.”
She went through a brief marriage and began working for Susan Gage Caterers out of Oxon Hill. She built a name for herself and cemented relationships with clients like then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Kimsey and the Cases. She prepared dishes for Dick Cheney from game he had killed while hunting.
She left Susan Gage in December 2005 after six years. Kimsey had referred her to Joe Robert, who was going through a divorce at the time and was in the market for a private chef.
She began cooking for Robert at his gated, six-acre McLean estate — with three separate houses — on Jan. 4, 2006, for $35 an hour. Because she was on call around the clock, her billable hours with him began to add up.
Three months after she started, she became a full-time employee at an annual salary of $70,000. As part of the deal, Robert and Crovato teamed up to design a new, state-of-the-art kitchen where she could cook at his home.
Working for Robert was stressful. He would phone from his car with 20 minutes’ notice and demand lunch for half a dozen friends, who might include musician Quincy Jones, comedian Chris Tucker and others. One New Year’s in Colorado, he decided to throw a party for 30 with less than a day’s notice.
“I felt like I was on the set of ‘Top Chef’ every single day, where somebody was throwing you a curve.”
Robert’s favorite foods included poached salmon, roast chicken, blanched snap peas and comfort meals like meatloaf and chili.
He was mindful of the size of portions, and he avoided fried food except when Cardinal Theodore McCarrick would visit and they indulged in fried oysters. He smothered his steaks, chickens and oysters with Old Bay Seasoning..
One of Crovato’s biggest takeaways from her years with Robert is the importance of creating relationships.
“To Joe, IRR, which in business means ‘internal rate of return,’ was integrity, relationships and return. If you have integrity, build relationships, you will get a return.”