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More than 70% of Americans say a rewarding career or job is extremely important for them to live a fulfilling life — more important than family, friends or wealth. CBS News interviewed a broad array of workers who chose unique jobs, for a series we call: Unique jobs, extraordinary lives. 

Katya Ekimian, a private chef with a background in fashion design, has created custom knit gowns for high-profile guests at events including the famed Met Gala. She’s well aware of how much appearances matter – at a recent fashion world dinner party, Ekimian, in charge of the food, not the dresses, knew to make sure both looked and tasted great.

“I often work with actors, people in fashion, art and design, because I think there is a natural connection. With my background, it’s natural that my clients would be in that line of work,” she said. 

Ekimian, 25, has built a full roster of high-profile clients by word of mouth. 

Katya Ekimian

She has made five custom dresses for Sandra Jarvis Weiss, who is married to Daniel Weiss, the former CEO and President of the Met, for the museum’s annual ball, one of fashion’s most-watched events. 

While she called the experience “a very special chapter” in her design career, she now spends her time thinking about food, including its flavor and physical form. 

“I love highlighting produce as close to its natural form and flavor. I’m able to be quite playful and silly with some of my clients; decorating food with farm animals, themed dinners, writing little messages in the food. It’s always good fun when families have children as well,” she said. 

Ekimian said bright colors make for great visual contrast on a table. 

Katya Ekimian

It’s a given that her food needs to taste good for clients to keep coming back, but it’s also important that a table setting look beautiful and bountiful, she said. She adds personal touches to the way she plates food and sets tables. “Being able to have full creative control over an entire evening is really fun,” she said. “It has so much to do with appearances, and I really enjoy making food look really pretty and fun. I love a big, happy, colorful meal.”

It’s not just aesthetic — eating food of different colors looks good and also “makes for great nutritional balance,” Ekimian said. 

Russian-American Ekimian, 25, was born in Washington, D.C., and lived in Cairo, Egypt as a teenager. At age 17, she moved to New York City to study fashion at the Parsons School of Design.

Unlike many private chefs, Ekimian entered the field through an unexpected path. As a student in New York City in search of extra income, she started cooking meals for wealthy families. Later, at age 19, while working a summer job at a farm on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, she resumed private cheffing and has since built a robust client list by word of mouth.

“Right place at the right time”

“I was at the right place at the right time, but I also had the experience,” Ekimian told CBS MoneyWatch. She had worked as a private chef preparing weekly meals for a family in Harlem, New York; a gig she secured by responding to a job posting on, a site that connects families with caregivers. She had also worked at a food hall at Yosemite National Park, cooking buffet-style meals for more than 500 guests daily – her version of culinary school. 

Many of her peers attended culinary school and later entered the restaurant world. There are roughly 174,400 chefs and head cooks in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2022, the median salary for chefs was $56,520. By contrast, there are fewer private chefs, who earn an average of $45,510 annually, according to the BLS. 

Ekimian paved her path by combining her artistic sensibility with her on-the-job experience at the food hall. 

“It was the exact opposite of being a private chef,” she said, adding that it’s where she learned about food safety and picked up other skills required for the job. “I cooked pounds and pounds of bacon for a buffet. I learned a lot about food safety and handling. Because it was a big corporation, everything had to be by the book and FDA-approved. It was all standardized. To see food being produced at that large a scale was really informative.”

There was tons of demand for chefs on Martha’s Vineyard and “normally you’re stuck with whoever you can find on an island,” said Ekimian. “When I got there people were excited that I was new there, and they said, ‘Let’s use her.'”

While she didn’t disclose the names of her clients for privacy reasons, it’s home to several high-profile summer residents ranging from Hollywood actors to players in the political sphere. Former President Barack Obama has owned an island home since 2020. 

“That really launched my career. I would go over to people’s houses in my overalls and cook them food. It really was a great opportunity to be in a great place with amazing produce I would get from local farms, plus the set of clientele. My entire client list has webbed off of that summer,” Ekimian said. 

She currently juggles about seven to 10 clients at a time, which she considers a full workload. Some of her clients ask for weekly meal prep, while others hire her to cook for dinner parties. 

In New York City, it’s not uncommon for a client to reach out and ask her to cook for a party the day before the event.  

“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Are you free tomorrow night?'” she said.  

“You can’t be corporate”

Ekimian occupies a unique place in her clients’ lives. She’s cooked for a range of clients with unusual dietary needs, including professional athletes with strict regimens, actors trying to cut weight for movie roles, and people experimenting with a new crop of appetite-suppressing drugs, like Ozempic. 

She became concerned one day when a longtime client didn’t eat their meal, “I thought there must have been something wrong with it. But they said, ‘No, it’s so yummy, we’re just full.’ And that’s when I realized they’re all on Ozempic,” she told CBS MoneyWatch.

But people who only take a few bites of food and gawk at the rest make up a small sliver of her clientele – many others open up their lives and homes to her. It can be a tough balance, she said. 

“You can’t be corporate, especially in long-term gigs, but it’s a balance,” Ekimian said. “You have to be warm and friendly because you’re in someone’s home, but you also always need to maintain a level of professionalism.” 

She can spend all day in someone’s home, often alone, but isn’t their friend or a part of their family. She tries to maintain a demeanor she describes as “friendly professionalism.”

Ekimian travels with a ‘granny cart’ attached to the front of her Citibike. 

Katya Ekimian

She almost always works solo; it’s rarely cost-effective to hire help. Which means she spends most of her days alone. That includes time spent shopping for groceries and ingredients, prepping meals, labeling Tupperware containers and organizing clients’ refrigerators. She sources the bulk of her ingredients from farmers markets or directly from farms. 

“It’s lonely, and it’s the same for everyone. You’re so tired at the end of the day that all you want to do is lie down and go to bed, and you realize that you’ve been alone for 15 hours,” she said.

There are upsides to her unique arrangement that make it a satisfying career, though. She often travels with families she cooks for, with jobs taking her to Europe and the Caribbean.

“It’s an incredible perk of the job and such a special opportunity when you have a great bond with a family. It always makes the job so much more fun. And when you finish your shift, you can go for a walk and do your own exploring,” she said. 

Ekimian has worked in Europe, The Caribbean, New York and Martha’s Vineyard. 

Katya Ekimian

Full creative control

In her first job doing meal prep for a family in Harlem, she earned $15 an hour. She now has set hourly, daily and monthly rates, depending on the length of a job. According to, New York City-based private chefs earn an average of $38 an hour, and up to about $60 on the high end. 

She said she makes more money than she thinks she would in a fashion or design job, but still gets to freelance as a knitwear designer. 

She also finds ways to be creative while cooking, both with ingredients and flavors, and aesthetics – an outcome most seen when she caters to fashion events. “There is some fun crossover to it,” she said. “That’s when I can get really creative with what I am making,” Ekimian said. 

Her fantasy is for her dinner guests to wear her knitwear creations while eating her food. 

“It would feel like a dream being able to create my own little world. Designing and then producing every aspect of what goes on the body and inside of it,” she said. “For me, cooking and creating garments is also a form of love so it would be the ultimate expression of myself.”

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