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NewCityNet Now It's Personal

A look at life with a personal chef.

By Ellen Fox

JUNE 12, 2000:  Time-strapped people who want to get fit can hire personal trainers. Wealthy folks who want to get chic can hire personal shoppers. And big wigs who want to squeeze more into their schedules can hire personal assistants.

So it's no surprise to find that the modern trend toward spoon-fed lifestyle management has trickled down to the dinner table: That's right, now you can hire a personal chef--someone who will, for about $300, cook twenty dinners for you, pack them in the freezer and then disappear from your home, leaving an arsenal of nutrition in their wake. All you have to do is thaw your dish of choice the night before, and pop it in the oven for fifteen minutes. (You can use the microwave, but it's not recommended.)

"People are working almost forty-seven hours a week now, and driving grueling commutes to get to their offices," explains Candy Wallace, founder and head of the American Personal Chef Association. "The last thing that they have enough strength to do is prepare something for dinner with fresh ingredients."

The head of the 7-year-old group--which provides business training for those getting started, as well as links to personal chefs nationwide--says the industry has been booming on both coasts over the last few years, especially among single professionals, double-income couples and the elderly. Of the estimated 3,000 personal chefs out there, the APCA boasts 1,100 of them, and Wallace says she gets about sixty-to-seventy new members a month. Most other chefs either work independently or are part of United States Personal Chef Association.

For those who consider hiring a personal chef just a luxury, Wallace argues that it's a far healthier and more sensible way to feed oneself or one's family than by "eating drive-through or nasty poisonous boxes in the freezer section," which, she notes, are loaded with nitrites, preservatives, sodium and fat.

When you hire a personal chef, they come to your home for a consultation, during which you lay out your food likes and dislikes, favorite family recipes, ethnic cuisine curiosities and portioning needs, as well as allergic, diabetic or dietetic requirements. Then you set up a cook date, during which the chef will come to your house and usually whip up five meals of your choice (portioned to your needs) in roughly five hours. It's up to you how quickly you want to eat them: Some customers have a personal chef visit twice a month, others may opt for a once-a-month stint and cook their own meals in between. It's frozen, so it keeps.

But what's also fueling the rise in personal chefs--besides demand--is that it offers those in the culinary industry a welcome alternative to the grueling lifestyle of the professional kitchen. Brian Jacobsen of 3-month-old Conspicuous Consumption says he left behind fifteen years in restaurant kitchens like The Pump Room and Tru because he was driven by "the desire to have my own business and to not go into debt like I would have to if I had my own restaurant. The cheapest you can open a restaurant for is a quarter-million dollars," he explains, adding that "Any restaurant has a one in five chance of making of it." The new business allows him to work together with his wife Michelle, and cooking in-the-home gives him a satisfaction that is, well, more personal than cooking back-of-the-house. "It's really delightful to have one-on-one contact with the people who are eating your food."

But, as with most any start-up business, being a personal chef can be slow-going at first. Jacobsen, who services downtown and North Side areas, has yet to land a steady gig. Harold Murray, who began his "Harold on the Run" business four months ago in order to spend less time in corporate kitchens and more time with his family (which numbers six--soon to be seven--children), only has two steady clients so far.

The ideal number of clients, says Jacobsen, would be about twenty-five a month, perhaps one per workday. With food costs running $75-$100 per cook-date, most personal chefs try to pocket $200 of the $300 they charge, with hopes of raking in $40,000-$50,000 a year.

To do any better than that, says Wallace, one probably needs to hire an assistant to double the workload and income. DuPage County-based Mike Sodaro of Pinch of Thyme Personal Chefs says that, after just a year in the business, he's so booked he's contemplating opening a commercial kitchen and catering to homes instead. Between all the dinner parties, gift certificates and bi-monthly cooking gigs the Kendall College-trained chef has garnered, new clients have to wait three weeks for a booking. "I'm as busy as I can get," he says. "It was a little slow in the beginning, but once you've cooked for twenty or thirty clients, word of mouth starts to take over."

American Personal Chef Association, www.personalchef.com
United States Personal Chef Association, www.uspca.com
Conspicuous Consumption, www.personalchef.com/conspicuousconsumption.htm, (312)671-1781, or twochicagochefs@aol.com
Harold on the Run, www.personalchef.com/haroldontherun.htm, (773)292-1835, or haroldontherun@aol.com
Pinch of Thyme Personal Chefs, home.att.net/~PinchofThyme, (630)734-FOOD, or pinchofthyme@att.net

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