She left the industry again briefly in 2014, becoming an insurance broker, when a chance call from a friend changed the course of her career forever. Ryan Shazier, then a rookie linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was looking for a private chef, and Jae’s friend thought she would be a perfect fit for the job.
Jae quickly learned the ins and outs of cooking for a professional athlete, and word of her skills soon spread throughout the Steelers organization, leading to work with other players. Eventually, “I just really began to take my business seriously,” she says. “I decided to form an LLC and establish my own identity as a chef outside the NFL.”
Thus Chef Jae Co. was born – a private dining and food concierge business with a focus on health and wellness offering “approachable, elevated refinement, with a sense of comfort and home.” Each curated dining event includes a multi-course meal, full tablescape, tableware, flatware, cocktails and wine. “I bring the restaurant to you,” she says.
She loves that her job – unlike one at a restaurant – gives her complete creative freedom and the ability to take an individualistic approach with every client, especially those with dietary restrictions. She also enjoys learning and evolving her craft. “My position as a chef is to forever be a student,” she says. And hearing accolades from her clients is always humbling.
Still, Jae knows that great food is only one part of running a successful private dining business. After years running things solo, she hired a team late last year to help her with logistics. Then there’s the educational side – explaining to clients the luxury and value of her services – as well as social media, networking and more.
“We don’t think of the long term of what a chef requires to get to retirement,” she says. “You need to create systems and structures to scale your business and think about your exit plan.” Now, after taking those “lumps and bumps and bruises” early in her career, she’s hoping to pass along her knowledge by creating a masterclass that gives foodservice professionals the tools to grow a business.
She’s also been taking on externs from a local college – giving students a different perspective on what it means to be a chef. When she was in culinary school, she says, “there was no point of reference for what a private chef looked like,” let alone a Black woman running her own business, working outside of the “soul food” label that so often pigeonholes Black chefs.
As she has grown her network through social media, she has seen the full range of skill sets that Black chefs have to offer – but what had been missing was a (virtual) place for those professionals to call home.
That inspired Jae to launch the Chef Junction app, which posts recipes, videos and podcasts from a variety of chefs, but more importantly, connects Black chefs and caterers with other Black-owned businesses, farms and community gardens. Users can also search for black-owned businesses by location and service. But more importantly, it is a “safe space and platform for us to grow, connect and learn as a community.”
Jae calls Chef Junction a user-friendly “one-stop shop” for Black culinary professionals and creatives, as well as consumers who are conscious about where they spend their money. “It brings awareness to how many businesses are out there,” she says. The Chef Junction community is growing organically, with users from New York to Arizona.
“Creating legacy is what is most inspiring to me and what keeps me going,” Jae says. “I don’t really worry about the money or the numbers.” She is proud of how far she has come, from struggling as a single mom to doing what she loves and sharing her wisdom with up-and-coming culinary professionals.
Her advice for the next generation? “Tap into your network of people who know your abilities and start with them as your customer base. Exercise your skill set and get out your creativity,” she says. “Be firm in knowing who you are.”