At its raw essence, we need food to live, but there are different definitions for this: for some, food means to provide, to nurture, to survive, to create, but for one promising private chef, it means to bring people together at the table who love to eat.
The Story Behind this Promising Chef
Michelle Ciance is a rising private chef and one of the most promising young chefs in the State of New Jersey. A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, Chef Michelle first worked at a food catering company before slowly making her way to some of the top kitchens in the state alongside New Jersey’s best chefs. Although she loved the intensive experience of restaurant kitchens, she desired to have a closer connection with her customers in person and with food. After eight years working in restaurants, she decided it was time to part from the restaurant business and branch out her services as a private chef.
In a recent interview, VUE NJ Magazine had an opportunity to sit with the private chef on her culinary journey.
“I always knew I wanted to cook, but I felt the restaurant kitchen environment was intense and daunting back then,” Michelle said. “I already knew before culinary school that being a private chef was a better career path for me. However, to get to where I am now, I realized I had to dedicate my time to working in a restaurant kitchen and gain the necessary experience. After eight years working alongside some of the best chefs in the state, I had a decision to either stay working in a restaurant or commit to my original plan.” For Michelle, working as a private chef created a closer relationship with her clients and a flexible schedule that allowed her to continue nurturing her craft outside of her work.
Chef Michelle had a long-time passion for cooking. Throughout her childhood, she and her father would solely watch cooking shows on the Food Network. Her idols included culinary pioneers like Ina Garten (an author’s favorite too), Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay. At a young age, she would find herself experimenting in her kitchen, perfecting her interpretations of classic dishes, whether it was scrambled eggs or a grilled cheese sandwich. She credits the influence of culinary figures like Ina and Giada for her appreciation for different cuisines, styles, and flavors while slowly shaping her own signature style.
“I always enjoyed cooking for friends and family,” Michelle told VUE NJ. “For some aspiring chefs, they strive for recognition, awards, and fame to make a name for themselves in the culinary world. I am content with seeing people who love food enjoy my cooking and making food for people I care about is what pushed me to keep doing what I do. Knowing that my culinary skills could make someone happy drives me to keep exploring and experimenting with different flavors and techniques.”
A Chef’s Signature
Michelle’s culinary style is about building and balancing flavors on the palette. She dedicates herself to creating dishes that are low waste, local, seasonal, and of high quality. As a lover of herbs and acids, every one of her dishes is a complex series of flavor testimonies activating all aspects of the tongue, from sweet and spicy to creamy, salty, and crunchy, a truly stimulating experience.
The flavors are accompanied by a variety of textures for the tongue to explore. For example, a tomato salad can be easily elevated by finishing with high quality extra virgin olive oil, aged sherry vinegar, fresh chives, parsley, and the delicate anise flavor of tarragon. For this summer, vegetables were a staple in her dishes, incorporating seasonal favorites like corn, tomatoes, and garlic scapes.
“One dish I’ve frequently made for my clients is a grilled corn salad with tomato vinaigrette, green beans, and herbs. During summer, garlic scapes are one of my favorites because they are an underutilized vegetable not too many home cooks are familiar with. At the beginning of spring during ramp season I like to harvest and preserve the ramps to be utilized in different ways through the summer and colder seasons.
“Summer is obviously my favorite season because you have so many lovely vegetables to choose from. I like to make a crispy skinned piece of fish with corn sauce, spring onions, and herbs,” she said. Depending on her client, Michelle is tasked to prepare a menu each week for her clients to review. For newer clients, she tries to spend time getting to know them and their dietary profiles. In a typical week, meal prepping, cooking, cleaning, and serving are expected with her regular clients. For dinner parties, she plans the menu based on likes and dislikes of her clients, with some elements prepped the day before and others at the event.
However, she notes that being a private chef won’t always be easy, even for her.
What Goes On in The Kitchen
“Cooking for a living is very different than as a hobby. There are a lot of other aspects required outside of cooking,” Michelle told VUE NJ. “It’s time management, money management, cleaning— anyone thinking of pursuing cooking as a full-time career should know that it requires a lot of painstaking labor and dedication. The culinary field has changed over the years as restaurant kitchen environments improve for a better learning-work experience. I hear it is less toxic now than when I was working, but you’re still on your feet, all day long for 10 to 16 hours, sometimes longer, and for at least 5 days of the week.
“During the mid-summer, I would be standing next to a pizza oven, a French flat top, a broiler, heat lamps, and an 8 top burner stove while cooking under high pressure—it’s physically and mentally demanding, but there is a thrill factor to the kitchen. Even though I am out of the restaurant setting, I’m still running around to multiple stores in one day, carrying bags of groceries and equipment around as well as washing tons of dishes. In some sense, I AM functioning as a restaurant. Even with my spirited approach to cooking, it is far from glamorous. For those who are seriously considering working as a private chef, they should be aware of the nature of the work required.”
Other demands to the private chef business include stricter observance of the client’s needs, managing a grocery budget, and creating new menus frequently.
“One of the biggest hurdles I experience on the job is being consistently creative on a 24-hour schedule,” said Michelle. “Having to innovate new dishes can be draining, and it becomes tempting to reuse old recipes for the sake of time management. Sometimes the clients may not know what they want, and it becomes difficult to plan out a menu which is not uncommon. Like with any career, the nature of the job can become tiresome, but I truly find what I do to be fulfilling.”
The close connection with her clients through her food outweighs the negatives for Chef Michelle, who loves to bring happiness to those who love to eat. When asked about her future endeavors, she jokingly stated that she would never set foot in a restaurant kitchen again.
The Future of This Culinary Journey
“Right now, I’m just enjoying where I’m at and the growth of my small business,” she said. “I like to enjoy the different stages of my life as they come. I’ve considered opening a takeaway storefront with some retail items at some point, just things I feel like cooking that week or things I want to jar or can so people can take them home to enjoy. Owning a restaurant has never interested me and to be honest, it seems the juice is never worth the squeeze.”
Like her approach to life, Chef Michelle finds joy in being a sustaining chef that can bring tasty delights to others. Although we will not see a restaurant under her name, it is clear that this promising young chef will no doubt make headlines sometime in New Jersey. We can only expect great things coming from her kitchen.
To see her work: https://www.michelleciance.com/about-michelle