By Lorie A. Parch
Ever dreamed about having your own chef to cook delicious meals for you in your own home? Well, you don't have to hit the lottery to make that scenario a reality. Personal chefs are no longer just a luxury for the ultra-wealthy; thousands of time-pressed couples, families and singles are signing up for their services these days.
The American Personal Chef Institute & Association (APCI/A) in San Diego, a leading professional organization in the field, estimates there are about 9,000 personal chefs in the United States, serving as many as 72,000 people. Candy Wallace, executive director of the APCA/I, believes the number of personal chefs will jump to 25,000 over the next five years.
Why the tremendous growth? Simply put, Americans are overwhelmingly busy and could use some help in the kitchen. "The largest part of our client base are two-income professional people," explains Wallace. "They like good food and are tired of eating [processed food] out of a can, a jar or a box; we prepare [everything] using fresh ingredients."
Sarah Labensky, president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and director of the culinary arts institute at the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Miss., says the type of people turning to personal chefs runs the gamut, but most have one thing in common: "They're working people who don't have time to prepare the healthy food they want to give their families," she explains. "[Having a personal chef] can be very affordable when you factor in time, effort, grocery shopping, dietary concerns it can be very practical to have someone do this for you. It's not just for the Donald Trumps of this world."
Gary Crockett, a software engineer in Plano, Texas, says he and his wife Marla hired Beth Arnold, owner of Beth's Culinary Delights Personal Chef Service in Dallas, for one simple reason: "It was strictly convenience. Evenings would be pretty harried trying to get dinner on the table. Beth comes once a week and basically prepares three dinners a week. It makes life a lot easier."
What a personal chef does
Don't confuse a personal chef with a private chef. The latter is someone who lives with you, travels with you and cooks all your meals for you. A personal chef, by comparison, comes to your house and cooks in your kitchen (using their own equipment and utensils), preparing a set number of meals that he or she then leaves behind for you usually dinners that are frozen and/or vacuum-sealed.
When you first meet with a personal chef, you'll likely fill out a questionnaire about what you like and don't like, as well as noting other dietary preferences, such as, say, low-carb, vegetarian, low-fat, Atkins or diabetic.
"The fact that clients get to pick out a menu is fun for them," says personal chef Christine Robinson, who, with her partner Dennis Nosko, founded A Fresh Endeavor in Lexington, Mass., in 1999. The pair currently has about 30 regular customers. "We provide many menus and special requests. It's pretty much anything the client wants."
The next order of business is deciding how often you want to have all those delectable dishes cooked for you weekly, biweekly, etc. That depends in part on how much you are willing to spend. Fees are usually structured on a per-meal basis, though some chefs charge by the hour. While prices vary depending on region, you can expect to spend about $300-$375 for 20 dinners, which usually includes an entrée and side dishes to feed a family of four for one week; two people for approximately two weeks; or one person for about a month.
Wallace of APCI/A puts the cost at about $12-$18 per meal per person. Not all plans include side dishes and some don't include the cost of groceries; even if groceries are included, if you want to "upgrade" to, say, filet mignon or fresh lobster, expect a surcharge.
If the service seems costly, chefs say, take a look at the money and time you're spending on eating out, groceries and related expenses. "Once you go through and calculate the costs of eating out, tips, gas to and from the restaurant and wasted food, it is very affordable," asserts Arnold.
Adds Robinson of A Fresh Endeavor: "People will be concerned about the price until they realize what they're getting no more running to the store, dealing with kids, trying to keep things interesting, fast food. I hear it all the time: 'All I had to do was open the freezer and it was there.'"
Bryan Wang, owner of Chefs on the Fly in Canyon Country, Calif., notes that some of his clients have been on a strict budget, which he's worked to accommodate. "The more you order, the less it is per meal, so it really is something everyone can afford," he explains.
For many clients, the biggest value is the time and effort saved. Sandra Hsu of Santa Monica, Calif., received a gift certificate for Bryan Wang's services as a Christmas present from her sister. "I just kept using it," says the mother of two young children. "We weren't eating well, always doing take-out and scrounging around [at dinnertime.] This is a little more than we were spending before on food, but it really wasn't that much more. The best thing is not having to make a grocery list and not having to think about it."
Bob Stock of Concord, Mass., one of A Fresh Endeavor's first clients, says he couldn't live without the service. "I was living on mac and cheese and Chinese takeout. I get these nice, home-cooked meals or restaurant meals that I can prepare in a jiffy. It's a great timesaver."
Food, glorious food
Which is not to say that the food itself isn't something special. Today's palates are much more sophisticated, say personal chefs, so clients expect first-rate meals and they get them. Wang trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in a classical French restaurant and in hotels and restaurants in Hawaii and Los Angeles for years before making the switch to personal chefing. Nosko studied at Johnson & Wales University and had been an executive chef for many years, including time spent at New York's famed Rainbow Room. Dane Mechlin of Nadine and Dane's Personal Chef Services in Santa Clara, Calif., spent 15 years in restaurants; his clients now benefit from that experience by dining on Vietnamese and Indian specialties, in addition to his very popular pot roast and meatloaf. But you'll also find personal chefs who learned their trade in their mother's and grandmother's kitchens, as Arnold did.
So how to choose a chef that's right for you? It depends primarily on what you want. Whether your palate runs to fine French cuisine or down-home Southern-style cooking, you should obviously choose someone who can cook the way you like. If you want to lose weight or just eat more healthfully, a chef with a background in or good understanding of nutrition makes sense. But bear in mind that most personal chefs are very versatile and aim to please. "Every client I have has a different service," says Arnold.
Since the field of personal chefing is quite new, certification of is still in its infancy. In 2002, the APCI/A signed a partnership with the American Culinary Federation to offer third-party accreditation for the APCI/A's certification of personal chefs, which includes the Personal Certified Chef (PCC) and Personal Certified Executive Chef (PCEC) designations. The United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA) also offers training and certification, which includes a ServSafe certification covering safety in food handling and preparation. But none of this is to say that hiring a personal chef without a certification is a bad idea.
"If I'm cooking in your home I don't need a license to operate a kitchen," says Labensky, of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. "[But] personal chef certification from any organization does show that someone has met certain criteria."
To find a personal chef, go the APCA/I's national locator database at www.personalchefsearch.com
Lorie A. Parch is a writer living in Los Angeles.