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Personal Chefs Offer Stress-Free Meals

CBS Market Watch

November 23, 2003

by Andrea Coombes

Media Type


CBS Market WatchSAN FRANCISCO (CBS.MW) -- Eliot Spitzer's so busy handing out subpoenas, he probably needs a personal chef.

But you don't have to be a state attorney general or a chairman of the board to outsource your kitchen obligations. Today, people who are too busy to cook or simply don't have the ability are finding professional personal chefs are a means to overcoming their culinary challenges.

"People can simply no longer take care of themselves with the way that they're working," said Candy Wallace, executive director of the American Personal Chef Association.

"They're working long hours in pressure-filled jobs, driving grueling commutes. When they get home they're eating take-out or eating out of a jar, a can or a box. They say, 'I need someone to do what my mother or grandmother did, which is meal plan. That's what personal chefs are doing," she said.

Working couples are the most common users of personal chefs, though clients may range from families of four to single executives, said Dimitri Spathis, a personal chef based in San Francisco.

And it's not only for weekday dinners: One client "orders extra entrees when he knows he'll have some friends over for the weekend," Spathis said, while another increased his order to be able to take meals to work for lunch.

And as the holidays approach, hiring a personal chef lets the host and hostess get out of the supermarket lines, out of the kitchen and out of the sink -- so they can spend more time enjoying themselves with their guests.

Not a free lunch

But, while personal chefs can offer healthy food in the comfort of your home, you'll pay for the pleasure: About $15 to $20 per person per meal, or $400 a week for dinner for a family of four Monday through Friday.

Still, it's "no more expensive than getting a meal at a restaurant, and you don't have to go out," said David MacKay, executive director and founder of the United States Personal Chef Association.

And the cost includes shopping and paying for the food. Plus, personal chefs bring their own cooking equipment, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.

Some argue the service might save money. "They're not eating out every night and they're not talking themselves into going to the grocery store on the weekends to buy food that they wind up throwing away and replacing," Wallace said.

There are about 6,000 personal chefs nationwide serving some 72,000 clients, ranging from single executives to active seniors and families with kids, who spend a total of about $300 million annually for the perk, according to an APCA survey of personal chefs.

Not your everyday frozen food

Typically, for regular customers who want several days or a week's worth of food, the dishes are homemade and fresh, but then frozen. That can make some prospective customers leery, MacKay said. However, as a personal chef in the 1990s, he offered clients free meals if they could tell the food had been frozen.

"I never had to give away a free service," he said. "If food is prepared, packaged and stored properly, freezing is not an issue."

And it's not like supermarkets' frozen food. "Manufacturers have to put in preservatives to allow for slight thawing and refreezing," he said. Personal chefs "know which spices lose their flavor when frozen. We understand the dynamics and the chemistry of the storage of food."

Be as picky as you like

An advantage over restaurant food is being able to choose exactly the kinds of meals you like. Some personal chefs specialize in specific diets aimed at those on the Atkins diet, people who are diabetic, or those battling heart disease.

Meal plans are proposed after an initial meeting to assess what the client likes to eat, Wallace said. "We design a custom program ... then we'll come in weekly, every 2 weeks, or monthly" to prepare and store the food, with customers generally prepaying for the next batch each time.

"We even interview you to determine which appliance you're going to use to heat your food, and we'll give you specific instructions on how to heat it," she said. "The promise we make is you are no longer eating anything out of a jar, can or a box."

The personalization comes in particularly handy when planning a party. If the event isn't quite big enough to be catered, but you want a personal touch, a professional chef in the kitchen can take some or all of the burden from the host's or hostess' shoulders and leave them free to get out of the kitchen and enjoy their own party.

Cooking degree not required

The rise of the personal-chef industry is partly due to chefs seeking an alternative to the late-night and holiday shifts of restaurant work. Becoming a personal chef offers the boon of regular hours, particularly appealing to female chefs who want to have children.

"We see a lot of women that decide to have children, they can work this into their life and still feel like they're in the industry and staying in the cooking field as well," said Wendy Higgins, assistant director of career services at the Culinary institute of America.

But, while some personal chefs may be exiles from the restaurant industry, others may have never stepped foot in a restaurant kitchen. That's not necessarily a problem.

"There are a lot of people who have never gone to culinary school who are really good cooks," MacKay said, who started his personal-chef service in 1988. "I started working in restaurants when I was 14 years old. I'm self-taught."

Instead, consumers should try to find a cook with a passion for the job. "Will they tell you with a sparkle in their eye about the different foods and dishes they like to cook?" MacKay said. "That passion is more important than do they have a degree."

Still, a professional certificate from one of the two trade groups, the United States Personal Chef Association or the American Personal Chef Association, means the chef is covered by liability insurance and has passed food-handling safety programs.

Both associations also offer more advanced certificates to personal chefs who've been in the business a number of years, such as the USPCA's Certified Personal Chef designation.

The following are additional tips for those seeking to hire a personal chef.

Before you hire a chef

Ask for a sample meal, Higgins said, and get candidates to cook the same meal so you can compare roast turkey to roast turkey. Still, others said that not many chefs are willing to give away a meal. In that case, consider asking for a money-back guarantee on a few days' worth of food, MacKay said. For his part, Spathis said he's never had a problem with dissatisfied customers, but he'd happily provide a replacement meal. "I don't need a mad customer. The idea is to have them enjoy what they're eating."

Ensure that the chef has experience cooking the food you like. "If you want a fine dining program, definitely ask them where they went to culinary school," Wallace said. Still, most clients want "simple, healthy, comforting meals that have been prepared from all fresh ingredients," which don't require professional experience. Also, a chef with higher-level restaurant experience will cost more.

Check for a safe-food certification. "There are a lot of people out there who don't have the safety consciousness," Spathis said. "It's really important. Today, I cooked a lot of fish, chicken and beef. You have to be careful not contaminate."

Confirm that the chef has a business license, if one is required in your municipality, and liability insurance to cover any damage to your home or property.

Get references, and call them. "Any personal chef worth their salt will be glad to have you talk to other customers and get feel for how they do business," MacKay said.