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MSU Professor Researches How Personal and Private Chefs Find Their Identity as Professionals

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We continue a new series of reports called Racer Scholar Profiles, highlighting Murray State Faculty research, scholarly and creative activities across colleges and schools. Our sixth guest is Assistant Professor of Sociology Dr. Alexandra Hendley, whose studies about how personal and private chefs see themselves as professionals and may even suggest other research into how students are advised to "follow their passions." Dr. Henley speaks with Kate Lochte on Sounds Good.

Dr. Alexandra Hendley has been studying the professions of personal and private chefs from a sociological perspective, seeking to learn how they deal with their identity as professionals and the struggle for many to call themselves "chef." Where being a chef in a restaurant tends to be glamorized on television, the work of a chef in a home is often considered devalued, traditional domestic work. Dr. Hendley's research has personal and private chefs consider where they stand in relation to their clients and other chefs and what made them decide to move into this field of work.

She found that personal chefs are a female dominated field, unlike the demographic make-up of the culinary profession. They consider themselves business owners, usually with multiple clients. Their work generally involves preparing food in their clients homes, a number of meals that they package up to last a few days before returning. In Dr. Hendley's surveys, she found that many were career changers, sometimes with little or no previous experience in restaurants or catering. Many were aged in their 40s, 50s or 60s and held a variety of past occupations, like office administration, hair dresser, petroleum engineer, marketing executive, etc. Some went to culinary school for training, but a majority hadn't. Their decision to go into this career was driven largely by their interest in cooking, following their passion and a greater sense of fulfillment.

The technical difference between personal and private chefs is that while personal chefs consider themselves business owners with multiple clients, private chefs work full-time for one household as an employee of the household. These positions are usually hired by wealthy homes and are paid very well. The demographic make-up in this job tends to mirror that of the traditional culinary profession, Dr. Hendley says.

The common strategy for personal and private chefs is to distance themselves from household labor with an emphasis on their professionalism. She says, we don't typically think of household work as being skilled, which is debatable, but chefs point to things like being college educated or having certain licenses and certifications to show a level of training, which elevates them from domestic workers. Personal chefs talk about themselves as being friends of the clients or social equals, de-emphasizing the market nature of the client-professional relationship. Her research also found that chefs will make a distinction amongst themselves, by describing others as "home cooks" or making an effort to point their own degrees from culinary school or similar training. Despite this, however, many feel they are looked down upon by traditional chefs in the restaurant field.

What's next in Dr. Henley's research? She says many of these chefs mentioned their desire to follow their passion. This is a common narrative we hear today, she says. She plans on spending some time thinking critically about this phenomenon in our culture and what particular resources these people had that are necessary in prioritizing self-fulfillment over money. While many of these career changers were satisfied with their new career path, the biggest source of dissatisfaction was with their relatively low and unstable pay. Many took a loss from a previous career and had financial help from a spouse or savings that helped them facilitate the change. So her question becomes, is this feasible for everyone? In advising university students, the suggestion of "following your passion" may or may not be the best advice to give. She says while she wants her students to follow their passions, it's important to think through the potential implications of that advice and how it might be limited.

Dr. Alexandra Hendley is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Murray State and her story is the sixth in our new series: Racer Scholar Profiles. We appreciate the assistance of MSU Jesse D. Jones Endowed Professor of Geosciences Dr. Kit Wesler for this series. We're highlighting faculty pursuing interesting and productive ideas that advance knowledge or create novel works of art and literature, informing their teaching and exciting students.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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