It’s 7pm on a Monday night and Sami Udell is prepping a five-course dinner for her brother’s wedding party. Wearing her signature “Eat Good Food” t-shirt and apron, she chops fresh sweet potatoes while reading off a handwritten menu taped to her cabinet. As usual, the dinner will be centered on fresh fruits and vegetables, paired with a lot of heart. The potatoes will ultimately accompany the main course of crispy vegetables, halibut with cashew cream sauce, and a smokey, olive and herb relish. Though Udell has just returned from San Francisco, where she was invited to cook for NBA superstar Kevin Durant, she accommodates a last minute request to add four more people to the dinner party. These are the sorts of spur of the moment pivots she’s grown accustomed to as a personal chef.
At just 27 years old, with no formal training or accolades, Udell is a full-time personal chef for some of the world’s biggest athletes and musicians. She began teaching herself how to cook in college as a means to be healthier. When she moved to Los Angeles, she spent most of her time cooking for her friends, gardening, and learning everything she could about food to hone her craft. In a serendipitous moment of preparation colliding with an extraordinary opportunity, Sami’s hearty but healthy fare caught the attention of the personal assistant to Ludacris, after she catered a party he was at. After months of persistent follow-up, Sami received a call from Ludacris himself inviting her to cook for him. Her warm, disarming demeanor and infectious curiosity for nature and food have parlayed that into a star-studded list of clientele — including NBA star DeMarcus Cousins and rap icon 2Chainz.
I recently sat down with Sami in her makeshift commercial kitchen to discuss the highs and lows of working in such a physically demanding yet rewarding profession. She was incredibly candid about the difficult moments, the breadth of personalities, and the day to day joys and struggles behind all the glamour.
So, I know your story, but can you contextualize how you started cooking and how you first become a personal chef?
I started cooking just because I thought it was fun. I cooked for one of my brother’s networking parties, where I was lucky to meet Ludacris’s personal assistant. He actually delivered and ended up connecting me to Ludacris, so I started cooking for him when he was here in LA. I was really faking it honestly — pretending I knew how to cook while literally Googling “how to cook.” But the thrill of learning to cook was so fun that I was hooked. I ended up getting a job at a restaurant to enhance my skills. It’s such a brutal industry and I didn’t feel like I fit in. I didn’t go to culinary school but here I was cooking for a very famous celebrity. People were naturally judging me a little more than the other cooks because they didn’t understand how I had that job since my skills didn’t really align.
After being in that kitchen, as a 24-year-old, I didn’t have a lot of inhibition, and I wasn’t really scared to take risks, so I didn’t know what I was getting into when I decided to start a food truck. I figured I could run a restaurant, or a food truck on my own, and I did run the truck for two years, which was so fun, and I did love it. But what I realized through the truck was that, for now, I love cooking for fewer people and keeping the quality at its highest. Meanwhile, as the truck was running, my clientele grew and I started getting a lot of calls from NBA players. It started with DeMarcus Cousins, and I cooked for DeMarcus at his home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three months straight with no days off — for him and six other guys that were all well past six feet all. As much work as it was, I loved that personal connection, being in his house, listening to him talk about, say, ramen noodles. You know silly, normal things that he talks about. Seeing someone that people put on such a pedestal versus me being their chef is almost humorous. I get to know them in such a personal way and I love building that relationship, knowing who they are and understanding their food preferences. From there it just kept growing. I started working for NBA players and then 2Chainz and the family that owns Medmen, the cannabis company.
As long as I feel like I respect the person in some way, I’m happy. There does have to be a connection we build that makes me want to cook for them, because I devote every waking hour to cooking for them.
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So thankful that one year ago @Ludacris made this testimonial for me that helped me blow up my company @wholesamfoodtruck on @kickstarter! And even MORE thankful to still be working with him while my food truck is fully up, running, and on its way to successful 💪🏻💪🏻💪🏻 it's been quite the year, with so many highs, lows, and everything in between.. not a day goes by that I don't think of all the amazing beautiful humans that have supported me and continue to support me in following my dreams #thankful #WholeSam
I know from personal experience that there’s something really special about your food, but what do you think it is that Ludacris, and ultimately all of your clients, love about you as a chef?
I think my passion for what I do has carried me really far, versus having a ton of skills. I’m not that person, but I’m very relatable and when I’m in someone’s kitchen, they can feel that I really love the food, and I care. Anyone can have skills, but not everyone has passion and care for what they do. I don’t even think I could teach it. I don’t know if it’s something that you can grow or ease into, but it only enhances as I continue. I feel so blessed to have such passion for cooking and learning about food. I have a nourishing spirit, I’m easy going, on-time, and I communicate.
You’re also really accommodating.
I do go above and beyond, even when it’s hard for me. It could have been easier to say that I can’t add four more people to the dinner tonight, but I will go above and beyond to make clients feel special, I want all my clients to feel like they’re my priority.
Tell me about how the relationship with DeMarcus Cousins came about.
I was cooking for him for two weeks and the night before my last day of meal prep, I got a call from his team saying that it would be my last day and they were going to continue with a different chef. I asked why they didn’t want me and they said they didn’t love deliveries and wanted someone who would cook in person. So I left a party in Venice and went to Erewhon to make the best homemade food I could make. It was 9:30 p.m. the night before I was supposed to drop off the food I had already made, and I decided to show up in person the next morning and do my best.
When I showed up the next day, they had already hired another guy who was on Top Chef. He had all the skills and was super extra. I looked DeMarcus straight in the eyes, he’s like 7 ft. tall, and said, “I know you hired someone else. But I will do my best, and no one is going to care more than I will.” I saw him light up, and I thought, “I think I have the job.” They called me the next day and said, “We had another chef, and we decided to go with you.” It’s so funny now because DeMarcus and I are so tight. It’s almost like we’re friends and that would never have happened if I hadn’t been so ballsy.
I love that story, and it’s such a testament to who you are as a person. So other than say, the potential rejection, what is the hardest aspect about what you do?
The hardest aspect is probably time. Imagine throwing an Easter party, or Christmas or Hanukkah dinner party for even five people. Imagine what you have to do: find the recipes, make a list, get groceries, go to multiple grocery stores, and because I like to be farm to table, I go to the Farmer’s Market. So there’s making your menu, then add LA traffic, parking, come back home, and by the time you get home, you have to make sure the kitchen is perfectly clean and then you prep and go to your client’s house. I wake up at 6 a.m. to be at the Farmer’s Market by 7 a.m. and then I go to one client’s house for breakfast, and then another for dinner, and I get home at 11 p.m. and I haven’t even looked at my email. As a personal chef, you do everything yourself. At a restaurant, they have a dishwasher or purveyor, but you’re really it — you do every aspect and having time to do all that is hard.
You cook for a number of NBA players. How do you take in their needs as top performing athletes and what do you think is unique about their diets?
Their diets are intense, especially when it comes to macronutrients. You have to take into consideration an exact amount of carbs or proteins. So as a chef, and wanting to be creative, you have to weigh things out: you’re a makeshift nutritionist and a chef. I also have to make sure they’re getting what they need to perform at their optimal level. But when you think about what they do, they have to be at peak ability, so I take it to heart and I really want that for them. To be creative with the restrictions, I go to the Farmer’s Market. Living in LA, we have access to amazing produce, maybe they can only have one cup of fruit, but I can find something interesting and make it special. I’m always finding new cool products, like a new spice or a new noodle that’s low in carbs, and because the grocery stores and Farmer’s Markets know me, they’re always giving me new products to try. Or sometimes I’ll watch an episode of Chef’s Table or eat at a Michelin starred restaurant and I think, “man, DeMarcus can’t have this…so what can I do to make it in a way that he can?” So I deconstruct my favorite dishes and I reintroduce them with things NBA players can eat.
What about rappers and hip-hop artists you cook for like Ludacris and 2Chainz? Are there similar considerations for their diets?
They’re actually quite similar. I got used to certain categories — like gluten-free is no problem. But their diets vary in calories since they’re not high performing athletes. Usually, it’s no dairy and no sugar. My brain is categorized by client — like “these two clients have the same diet,” or “this client is dairy and gluten free.” You can tell me to cook raw and I’ll figure it out.
What do you think would surprise people the most about being a personal chef?
How much work it takes or communicating. Or how physically draining it is. I’m always standing and running around. I’m always working even if I’m not at a client’s house. I’ll wake up in the middle of night, thinking about what they need for breakfast. It’s all-encompassing, in that way.
Also, the food can be pretty simple. They’re not eating foie gras every meal. Once in a while, it’s fancy but they really want tasty and healthy.
I know you’ve worked with a lot of different personalities. Are there any moments in particular where you thought, “I just can’t do this” or were really challenging? How did you keep going?
Yeah, I cooked for the founder of a major TV network and one day I brought a bottle of olive oil onto the driveway and it shattered on his driveway. They wouldn’t even let me in the house or let me clean it up, they just kicked me out. I went to my food truck after and just started crying. We’re all doing our best, so I didn’t understand why they would treat me that way. But, that stuff makes me stronger, as cliche as it sounds. After that, I cried, after DeMarcus originally told me “no,” I cried — I’m sensitive. But when I go home, I’m really good at looking at the whole picture: “What did I do wrong, and where can I go from here? Where can I grow instead of letting it stop me?”
Wow, that’s insane. But I think that goes to show why working with good clients as a chef is so important.
Yeah, I really value the people I work with, and I want all of my clients to do the best they can in life. So many people think it’s a glamorous industry, and it is… in a way. But I think people may not know that clients choosing me and me choosing a client are both important. I don’t care how much someone is willing to pay me if I’m not respected. When a client thanks me or texts me saying how much they loved a meal, I’m so grateful that they’re treating me well. Some celebrities don’t see this job as another human being, but my clients do and I respect that.
Where do you think your passion for food is headed?
I want to expand my business. I’m lucky that I’m young and that I work this hard. I know my body won’t be capable of this for a long time, but I‘m just in the present. I work as hard as I can and I work with people from all walks of life. I work 24/7 and I’m learning. When I look at my food from even a year ago, I see what I’ve done and how much I’ve grown. I’m putting in my 10,000 hours of cooking. When I watch things react in the pan, I know I have the skills and the sky’s the limit. I’ve built a strong foundation for a company and I ran a food truck for two years, so I have business knowledge which I think is only going to benefit me.
I do have goals, but I want to be present and learn so in the future I can do whatever I want. But I strongly believe I’ll be in the food industry until I die. I just really love what I do. I really love it.
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I love having a team that grows and changes with me. When I look at this photo (only 7 months ago) and I think of all the crazy experiences and memories that we have created, it feels more like years. More info to come….. it’s hard for me to put it all into words, but I am closing my food truck @wholesamfoodtruck. My food truck has been a (literal) vehicle to feed amazing people and enjoy the best memories! I’ve been able to parlay it into a company much bigger than I originally planned. I am going to be 100% honest. It’s been really hard to admit this because I don’t want to feel like I failed. But when I think of success in terms of growth I ask myself- Did I grow from it? The answer is 8 billion yes…… did I grow from it? Yes. INFINITY YES. Most people don’t get to see what goes into the back end of owning a food truck…. or the $12,000 in expenses that can feel overwhelming each month, from the truck lease, to the commissary where we park it, to the gas, propane, food, employees, insurance, etc etc etc. Most people come to the truck and eat a sandwich, but they don’t see the hours of labor that has gone into that sandwich.. And that’s okay!!! Not everyone has to understand this lifestyle. I’m so happy that I do!!! Im so thankful that my 24 year old self was brave enough to open my first company, fearless and motivated. And I’m so thankful for all the people I’ve met the last 2 years as a result of the truck. I’m WholeSam for life and I’m excited to share more about what’s next. For all of you who have been so damn supportive, AYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!! THANK YOU!!❤️🙏🏻😍 I know a few fans who are going to be super sad to hear the news, but I promise to feed you in the future ☺️😉😍
Anything else you think is important to know about being a personal chef?
People are constantly texting you at the last minute with all kinds of requests [laughs]. People always want to know what my clients eat and what their personalities are behind closed doors and, honestly, I don’t think they’re the same but never in a bad way. People are always more down to earth — nice and humble. I choose to work with really good people. Being in someone else’s home takes away society’s glorified version of celebrity. It doesn’t really matter who people are, because at the end of the day everyone has to eat.