The table is set for an eight-person dinner party at a beautiful Fox Chapel home on a recent Saturday evening. The guests will arrive in an hour and a half. At this point, you would expect the hosts to be breaking into a nervous sweat in the kitchen, frantically searching for that key ingredient they forgot to pick up at the store before deciding that there isn’t enough time to go get it now and begging Google for possible substitutions.
But instead, an aproned man calmly unpacks his bags. The ingredients he takes out are placed in tidy groups. A black carrying case is unfurled to reveal freshly sharpened knives. A gorgeous cut of beef is placed in the refrigerator. Scallops already sit showered with salt in preparation for the perfect sear. It’s easy to see that Chef Shaun Forsett has done this before—multiple times a week, actually.
Chef Shaun is a private chef who tonight’s hosts have brought in to take their dinner party up a few notches. Tonight’s menu includes seared scallops with a parsnip puree, a golden raisin relish and fried onions, followed by a lentil salad with radicchio and goat cheese, and finally, filet mignon with a blackberry basil sauce on a bed of couscous and quinoa.
A three-course, restaurant-quality meal will soon be served, not in a restaurant, but at home. And once the diners arrive, Chef Shaun will be doing a cooking demonstration, so that everyone can go home with some new tips and tricks.
Handing the evening over to a professional allows the hosts to relax and enjoy the food and quality time with their guests.
“It’s not an easy industry to break into because what you’re selling is something that the customer is already familiar with,” Chef Shaun says. “They say ‘oh we do parties here all the time,’ and I say, ‘well, you can enjoy your party and have me do it.’
Tonight is Chef Shaun’s first time working with these clients. Some of his clients will have him cook for them a few times throughout the year; some people just have him come once for a special occasion, and other clients would barely eat at all if Shaun wasn’t preparing meals for them.
Two of them are doctors that he brings a week’s worth of meals to on Sundays. Each week day Chef Shaun cooks dinner for the same family. He brings healthy meals to Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster (who apparently has a deep love of broccoli) twice a week. Other well-known clients include Steelers offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert, as well as John Wall of the Washington Wizards.
Most of them hear of Chef Shaun through word-of-mouth, but some stumble upon his Instagram, @shefshaun, where he posts mouth-watering snapshots of his creations.
Whatever the case: client lists like this aren’t built overnight.
“Once I finished culinary school I went straight to private chef. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
After spending 15 years as a social worker, Chef Shaun decided to give culinary school a try because of a close friend’s encouragement. His classes had him hooked instantly. The plan for Chef Shaun was never to go into the restaurant world, though. He knew his path even before he graduated.
“Three months before graduation, I already had my business cards printed—I was ready to go,” Chef Shaun remembers.
For a little while, he got back into social work to pay the bills as he built up his career as a private chef, doing events on nights and weekends until he finally got too busy for both and took the leap into cooking full-time. It was scary, and sometimes the phone would go a bit too long without ringing.
“There were times I wanted to give up and not do it anymore. I’d sit around and sulk about it and then—boom—I get a phone call,” he says.
Once in 2013, the call was from another chef saying they were going out of town and a client of theirs needed someone else to step in. That’s how Chef Shaun ended up serving Thanksgiving dinner for fifteen-time Grammy award winner Alicia Keys and her family.
Chef Shaun isn’t interested in chasing celebrities, but he is understandably proud of what he’s achieved in his ten 10 as a private chef. He says it just goes to show that if you’re patient and persistent, the rest will follow.
“I say everyone who’s passionate about something is going to get an opportunity to do something awesome,” he says. “When you stick with it, you never know what will happen.”