Skilled nutritionist and personal chef to the stars, Mikaela Reuben has created dishes for celebrities such as Ben Stiller, Woody Harrelson, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Prevail Project spoke with Mikaela between meals and discovered how a series of accidents rerouted her career from one in medicine to one in food.
I travel with supplements
Food on the go!
The more I smile the more it reminds me to stay happy
Creative Freedom; I get to make any food I want
Nature is my church
Connecting with humans makes me feel connected to myself
Travel - I need this to inspire all parts of me
Exercise - I need more of this
Slow breathing. I do it whenever I get stressed
We’ve heard food described as your one true love - is that accurate?
I’ve adored food since I was little; it’s the way I identified love and sharing with family. When my dad returned from travelling, he’d bring spices from around the world and we’d sit together for meals while he told me about them.
Despite that, after high school you weren’t planning on becoming a chef. How did you end up pursuing a career in medicine?
It was a path with family ties; my grandmother was supposed to be a doctor, but she was sent to a concentration camp and didn’t get to resume med school after that. Then my mom was of a time where it was very much about proving yourself as a woman; for her, the highest calibre of achievement was becoming a doctor. She wanted me to feel proud of who I was as a woman, and there was a lot of pressure to push myself in my academics and towards a traditionally prestigious career, and the doctor path basically made sense at the time.
Because I was an athlete growing up, I chose kinesiology. It was the most “jock” degree in medicine, sort of sporty and fun; but I definitely wasn’t doing it because I was passionate about it.
You finished your undergrad in kinesiology and almost completed a Masters of Physiotherapy; why did you decide to drop out of your program so close to finishing? Did you have an “aha” moment?
It was actually 10 months of little moments that escalated into one giant one.
I found out I got into the master’s program the day before it started. The school had the wrong email for me, so everyone had already moved to Vancouver and met each other, and I had been living in Hawaii. I threw my clothing into a garbage bag, flew to Victoria and crashed on a friend’s couch before starting the program the next morning. These weird things kept happening that made me feel like I was swimming the wrong way. Like we’d go to a class and my lab card had demagnetized but everyone else’s worked. One day I was driving to my exam and a tree had fallen in the middle of the road and was blocking my way, so I skipped the exam.
When I got a call from a chef I’d randomly met on Maui, asking if I’d do a three week job for him I decided it was meant to be. He knew I liked to cook and that I knew about nutrition. He was the chef for Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and also for another client who was doing a movie at the time; he couldn’t do all three jobs at the same time, so he needed someone to cover. That was it – I gave my notice to the school, and went out the night before my first cooking job to buy my first knife and my first pan. I haven’t looked back since!
That’s quite a leap; did you have any formal cooking education, or did you just learn on the job?
The mentorship and hands on exploration was the most helpful for me; I learned a lot from the chef that initially changed my career path. Every moment I was with him, even if it was for an hour, I watched how he wrote his lists, planned out his grocery route, or chopped things and marinated them. My brain was absorbing everything I could.
I supplemented my experience with accreditations: I took one-year sports nutrition and holistic nutrition programs as well as a raw chef certification. I wouldn’t say that one program in particular gave me what I needed to do the job I’m doing now, but all education is really valuable. The more I learned the better, and I was fortunate to be pursuing my passion at the same time.
How do you stay on top of food trends and stay relevant in your industry?
My nerdiness keeps me curious about what the leaders in my field are saying about food and nutrition trends. I find my science background makes me very hypercritical. My dad’s a lawyer too, so I grew up with an “ask questions, don’t just believe what you’re being told” mentality.
I’m so skeptical when it comes to new trends; I definitely do due diligence. For example, juicing became this huge phenomenon. I supplement with juice, but I don’t believe juice cleanses are exceptionally beneficial because I had learnt about fibre and the nutritional effects of juice. You can’t have six fruit juices and expect to be functioning at 200% without consequences. There’s so much sugar! Supplementing media with education with critical thinking in a sort of triage allows me to stay relevant and make good decisions.
What’s a typical day like for a private chef? Is there such a thing?
On a work day you get up, and you’re cooking all day. It isn’t uncommon for movie sets to get going early or change their schedules, so if they need the food earlier, I deliver it. If I have time I take photos of food to use on social media first, then I pack it up, label it, serve it to my client, and hit the grocery store on the way back. I buy everything I need and spend the rest of the night cooking the next meal for the following morning.
Sometimes I live and work in the client’s home. Sometimes I prepare half the meals in my kitchen, and the rest in theirs; I’ve never had a job that’s the same. The lack of reliable structure can be challenging, but it’s interesting. Today I’ll spend about 8+ hours on admin, organizing, invoicing and trying to generally catch up.
Obviously it’s not all preparing food as there’s a heavy administrative component to running a successful business - do you get help with that?
I have lots of people come work for me and I’m always surprised when they do a day of receipt sorting and say, “uh, this isn’t really what I signed up for. I’d rather be on site and cooking.” Everyone wants to jump to the finish line, but any career that you really want takes time, – there’s a path and and it’s hard work! People just want to go straight to masters, which isn’t realistic.
Your industry is very competitive and you’re in an environment that is definitely male-dominated; how do you hold your own?
The most powerful thing I ever learned was to turn up the grace and charm, and turn down the casual joking and sexual innuendo.
On many occasions there were a lot of men around and I was the young girl cooking. If someone made a condescending sexual joke, I would quickly jump on it and put them in their place if I felt uncomfortable. If you respect yourself, are polite, and know when to nip a joke in the bud, it’s a way of demanding your peers – and the world – treat you as an equal.
I get jobs because I work hard, keep my head up and don’t take things personally. I keep a pleasant attitude, but also a no bullshit one. I need to be professional enough to be literally living in clients’ homes and staying on good terms with them, their partners and their friends.
I’ve had opportunities in the past to take actions that would have made for a great story, but could potentially have interfered with my career. Back in my early 20s I’d been to cool parties and thought “wow, that could be a fun love affair” – not with any of my clients, but it’s still all somewhat related. Thankfully I could already see then how quickly that could have sabotaged my future. There’s so much room for error – you have to be really responsible in terms of your behaviour.
Can you think of a time you had a major learning or self-esteem breakthrough?
Years ago I went to a really cool high-end networking event. I was younger and at the time I felt that I didn’t measure up because I wasn’t as successful or famous as many of the people there. I didn’t know what to talk about, but then I realized everyone has something to say. You don’t have to schmooze at a networking event and list your achievements to impress people; self confidence itself is attractive, as is just being yourself. I realized that being a good person qualified me to attend events like these, and was an important factor in how I achieved the things I have in my life.
Working on your own human being and how you relate to other humans is what people don’t always talk about. Developing your career is about developing yourself first.
Further to that, your industry - especially considering the celebrity aspect of it - can sometimes be perceived as superficial. How do you stay authentic to yourself?
I’m a real human trying to inspire a balanced approach to food and wellness without pretending I’m something I’m not. In a perfect world I believe people should be 85% vegan. But if I’m in Spain, I might want a little bit of prosciutto; in Argentina I’ll want to try their famous beef with chimichurri. There are moments I indulge because of my love for food – which is what pushed me to do what I do.
I know exercise gurus in NYC that are amazing, but they have eating disorders. You think: ‘But wait – you’re the face of health, yet you don’t eat?’ That sets a very unrealistic goal for people. Occasionally you may see me eat pizza on a Friday night after drinking, but I’m honest and I own up to that.
How do you price your work to reflect the value you offer clients?
Even though I’ve had great feedback, it’s only recently I’ve felt the confidence to say, “You know what, I’m killing it!” I do a good job, and I’m allowed to call myself a chef. I’m allowed to recognize my worth, and express that through how much I charge. With so many years of experience I can offer quality that someone who just started can’t compare with.
I did so much market research when trying to set my prices; I talked to nutritionists, chefs and food consultants. There are so many factors to consider: Does the client pay for your gas and car? Do you have accommodations provided? How long is the job, what are the hours, are you on call? Are you cleaning? Do you have a grocery shopper, or a dishwasher? The day rate changes when you’re on set versus traveling versus working from your own home – all the variables matter.
I’ve had great business advice from my boyfriend, including to pick a day rate and stick with it. I knew my mentor’s day rate and the rate he’d given me on the jobs I went on, so I used that as a starting point and I’ve moved up from there over the past few years.
What does networking look like to you? Where do you find your most valuable connections?
With networking there’s an emphasis on trying to meet people just because of the connections they have and what they can offer you. However, in my experience it’s never been a particular network that’s helped me; it’s been my whole network. Everyone I’ve ever met has been a valuable contact. Someone I was in grade 10 with for example, their family happens to run worldwide resort chain; they contacted me and said “Hey, I’ve been following you on Facebook and my parents are interested in redoing their menu.” It was the weirdest long-term connection, but a welcome one. I’m always grateful that I’ve generally been a nice person, because it’s set me up for success.
Any advice for young women interested in becoming a private chef?
Focus on what you’re really interested in, find someone who’s already doing it, and ask to be a part of it. Start slowly. People jump very quickly into wanting to be their own employers and wanting the freedom and glamour of travel. Know that it’s not that glamorous and if you don’t have the skills and structure you need, it can be very overwhelming. I didn’t have the organizational skills when I started and that was very challenging.
For my first three years, I said yes to jobs that were really difficult and didn’t necessarily pay very well, because I wanted the knowledge and experience. I didn’t see my friends for two years! I was at my client’s whim and did everything they needed me to do. It’s hard and a lot of people don’t want to do that; letting go of the ego and spending a few years working for other people really helps you grow.
It seems like your culinary career is at a high point - where to next, Mikaela?
After almost a decade in this field, I have to consider what else I can do that doesn’t involve carrying and chopping. I want to have more impact but less stress on my body. I’ll probably do one or two private chef jobs a year and continue to do private nutritional dinners, pop-up concepts and workshops. I’m contemplating a cookbook as another way to express myself, and a cookbook could lead to a product line. I’ve been brainstorming!