Craig Floate on the rise of the private chef and how he swapped cooking at the Olympic Games for people’s homes
I discovered Craig on Instagram, where our shared appreciation for local produce and in particular the beautiful romanesco caught my attention. I was intrigued to find that he was among the growing number of chefs who have gone private and offer professionally cooked meals within the comfort of your own home, all for roughly the same as what you might have spent at a restaurant. His dinners looked spectacular, so I got in touch to find out more. It turns out Craig is a finalist in the Great Food Club Awards this year, so watch this space!
SD: What made you become a private chef?
CF: It was my wife’s idea. I was working with British Sailing Team at the time and was spending a lot of time away from home, but with a new wife and kids, I needed (and wanted!) to be more around for them. I didn’t want to go back into a Monday-Friday conference catering job. I just didn’t find it very stimulating, so my wife suggested going solo. The irony now is that, because I typically work on the weekends and she works as a teacher during the week, childcare is very easy, but I don’t see very much of her.
SD: You must have felt pretty brave quitting your job and starting up on your own. How did you build up your business from scratch?
CF: Yes, at the time I didn’t know whether people inviting chefs into their own homes was even a thing. My job with the sailing team was fantastic and was also very well paid, so it was a bit of a leap into the unknown. It wasn’t so bad, though, because I was already doing freelance work at a cookery school and freelance events at race courses and other sporting events so there was always that work coming in.
I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I gave it a go and it grew organically. The initial outlay to build the website, buy the equipment and the aprons was quite a lot when I was still only getting one or two enquiries a month, but after I had my website built professionally, things improved and I was receiving three or four enquiries per week. Now we have some great reviews on Yell and we get a lot of repeat bookings through word of mouth. Whenever you do a party, you never know who will be among the guests and they often become customers themselves. It’s a fantastic self-generation business model.
It’s interesting, though, I’ve been going eight years now and I still cook for people who have never done private dining before. It’s still a relatively novel thing to do, but increasingly people are realising the benefits of doing it. For one there are no taxi fares or childcare to worry about. We also cook for a lot of holiday rentals of families who are dispersed around the UK and get together somewhere central, like the Peak District, to celebrate special occasions.
SD: How has your business been affected by COVID this year?
CF: Well I was busy every weekend before lockdown, but people aren’t having parties as much at the moment. To start with, of course, everything got cancelled and postponed. I didn’t do anything for a couple of months and then I set up deliveries. It was nice fine dining food, a four course offering and I threw in a bottle of wine too at the competitive price of £80 for two people. I sold out every week until I was allowed back into people’s homes. Now we’re limited to six and I’m planning to start deliveries again this weekend on the basis that we might be going back into lockdown. This time round I am adding Youtube videos to my instructions. I’ve even got a few orders already for my Christmas delivery menu!
One of the things I missed the most over lockdown was being in people’s homes and talking to them about the food, which is funny because it didn’t come naturally to me at the start. When I was at catering college, I hated doing the front-of-house jobs. When I started as a private chef, it took me some time to get used to the fact that I was no longer locked away in the kitchen, able to swear at the kitchen equipment. I had to learn to talk to customers and explain the food, but now I love that aspect of it.
SD: Do you think the entertainment aspect of a chef’s role is increasing and is this something you think catering colleges will start to offer specific training on?
CF: I’ve certainly noticed more chefs serving finished plates now. People have often done their research on the chef and the menu when they come in, so it’s naturally nice for them to see the chef. Chefs are going to be better at explaining the food than the waiter or waitress too.
People see chefs as a glamorous lifestyle. The reality is anything but. Dining is becoming less formal and more experience-led, however, and I hope catering colleges will provide training in how to tell the story of the food. Some colleges have started doing tasting menus, which are much better explained by the chef who created them.
SD: How do you develop your menus?
CF: I typically develop three main menus in line with the seasons. These will include ten mains, starters and desserts that we do all the time. People can then choose what they’d like from this menu. We can also factor in any allergens and dislikes and can develop bespoke dishes that reflect the particular celebration, for example, food from the wedding day for wedding anniversary celebrations. Some of my regulars might just say to me cook whatever’s in season. It’s much easier to change and adjust the menu than it is in a restaurant, so sometimes I might see something on TV that I like and I’ll add that in.
SD: What did you learn from the very different places you worked in prior to becoming a private chef?
CF: My craft comes from my first job at 18 in a hotel. I still go back to that background knowledge and I still urge youngsters to do their training in those traditional places to learn how to do things properly. After that the freelancing for events, taught me organisation and how to cook for massive numbers. If you forget something at an event, the chances are you’ve got to run across to the other side of race course to get what you’re missing, so you need to be highly organised. The business aspect, I learnt predominantly on the job. The same with how to manage allergens and diets that have become much more prevalent in the last decade. I also keep up with the food trends through TV and social. Food presentation has become much more relaxed these days. Things are no longer assiduously placed at particular points around the clockface – I call it crumble food.
SD: You’re clearly passionate about using local produce. What would you say Nottinghamshire is particularly good at producing?
CF: Absolutely. If we don’t support our local producers, they won’t be there. The produce is much fresher and the suppliers can respond quickly if you need something urgently. Cheese is fantastic in Nottinghamshire, Cropwell Bishop in particular is wonderful. For fish we’re a bit landlocked, but I use a supplier 10 mins down the road, who gets his fish from Shetland and Cornwall and knows exactly where it’s coming from.
SD: Tell us about your experience cooking for the Olympic Sailing Team.
CF: When you’re with an Olympic team everything goes in cycles. I started cooking for the sailing team just after the 2008 Olympics and there’s always this big build up to the next Olympics. You could be cooking for 30-40 sailors plus 30-40 support staff, but they only select 12 sailors to compete in the Olympic Games. They are on the water all day, so you have to give them a packed lunch, but they have a big breakfast and a big dinner. Our job was to keep sailors focused on sailing and not worrying about their next meal. The amount of calories they were burning per day was ridiculous, so we served lots of carbs to help them refuel. We also had to cater for a wide range of different diets. Some sailors had to be heavy and others light depending on the type of dinghy they were sailing.
For the Olympic Games the Sailing Team opted to bring their own caterers and medical team. It’s well known that with so many people travelling from all over the place, people get ill, so they wanted to insulate their team as much as possible from that. It was an experience I will never forget. When the race started it was eerily quiet. Then one of the sailors won a gold and the whole mood lifted. All the sailors were fantastic. There were no egos and they would treat you as an essential part of the team, but after four years I asked myself whether I wanted to do it all again and that was when my wife suggested becoming a private chef.
SD: It seems like you have always known you wanted to be a chef? Was there anything or anyone that inspired or encouraged you?
CF: Yes, it was all I ever wanted to do while I was at school and as soon as I left school I went to work in a small French restaurant. It’s a profession you need to be passionate about. I blame my mum. I used to help her with Sunday lunch, but my favourite meal was sausage roll, beans, and mash potato. It’s still a great favourite.