Photo: Jill Dodenfeld
Jill Donenfeld began writing the business plan for her private chef service The Culinistas — formerly The Dish’s Dish — just three days after graduating from Columbia University.Six years later, the 27-year-old’s company has attracted high-profile clients such as Neil Patrick Harris, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Kardashians.
The weekly home catering business is now available in New York City, the Hamptons, Los Angeles, Malibu, and recently, Chicago.
For just $300 plus the cost of groceries, the Culinistas will do the work for you. After the client completes a checklist online, which details the items available in the kitchen and the customer’s needs and wants, the chefs create a tailor-made menu for them. They’ll do the grocery-shopping for you, come to your home, prepare meals for the week, properly store and label food in plastic containers, and clean up the kitchen.
As an undergraduate, Donenfeld worked as a private chef for the family she babysat for.
“One thing kind of led to another, and all of a sudden, there were maybe four families I was cooking for,” she told Gothamist. She went on to complete an apprenticeship with pastry chef Karen DeMasco, author of “The Craft of Baking: Cakes, Cookies, and Other Sweets with Ideas for Inventing Your Own
” and wrote restaurant reviews for Time Out New York.
Donenfeld said that a mixture of her rural upbringing and city life inspired her to start the business.
“It was the perfect storm of growing up in Ohio and eating dinner with my family every night, moving to New York City for college and falling in love with the myriad cuisines available in the city, topped off with a healthy lack of understanding for how difficult it is to run a successful business.”
Donenfeld started the business with just $5,000 of her personal money and had a make-shift office in the back of a hardware store. Because she funded the startup on her own, a business plan wasn’t necessary to acquire additional funding, but she still felt it was an essential tool.
“I created the business plan as a road map for myself,” she said. “My main goal was to help people eat more consciously.”
“There’s a lot you can do without money. If, as an entrepreneur, you depend on money to grow your business, then you’re probably going to run into big issues. Starting your own business is about being creative and making it work however you can because you so strongly believe in your idea that it powers everything.”
Donenfeld promoted her business through word-of-mouth referrals and emailing media professionals. She also had a handful of connections through her apprenticeship and stint as a restaurant reviewer.
The young entrepreneur spends a significant amount of time focusing on interviewing the right people to join her team.
“The interview process is the single most important part of my job,” Donenfeld said. “First I sit down with each chef to gauge their interpersonal skills and to get a sense of their backgrounds and their goals. If that goes well, we go through a cooking interview that sort of mirrors the service.”
“Everything is judged from the minute they walk in the door—from how they present themselves to their prep work to the skill and creativity that goes into each dish. I also look at the intangibles like comfort in a new environment. It all matters when you are cooking in someone else’s home.”
There are currently six chefs in NYC, four in Chicago and three in Los Angeles.
The majority of clients employing Culinistas’ services are families and busy, working professionals. Molly Schoneveld, who works in celebrity and lifestyle public relations, is a happy client:
“Jill’s service makes something that’s really luxurious—having a personal chef—affordable,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “You have to pick a week when you’re really going to be home to enjoy it.”
Donenfeld is currently focusing strictly on spearheading catered events and dinner parties, an area she hopes to expand on in the future. Regardless of how famous the client is, Donenfeld no longer makes house visits to cook. “The only person I would break this rule for is Steve Martin,” she says.
She co-authored a book with longtime Culinista chef Josetth Gordon, “Party Like a Culinista: Fresh Recipes, Bold flavours, and Good Friends
,” which gives people advice on how to throw dinner parties for a variety of different occasions. During a five-month trip to Madagascar, she also wrote the book “Mankafy Sakafo: Delicious Meals From Madagascar
,” which documents Donenfeld’s food journey and the recipes she collected throughout different regions of the island.
Donenfeld plans to improve the business by maintaining a steady stream of clients and expanding to other demographic areas. Her track record proves that she isn’t afraid to try new things.
“When clients ask us to cook things we haven’t done before, we learn how,” she said. “Sometimes we get some crazy requests—but we don’t cook and tell.”
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