Two incompatible types emerged from the 1980s: the couch potato and the insatiable restaurantgoer. But by the dawn of the '90s, a few fortunate people were finding a way to reconcile their interests in staying at home and their desire to enjoy good food: Hire a chef.
Personal, or private, chefs have joined that arsenal of service people, from personal trainers to personal bankers, that smooth the lives of today's rich and famous and, increasingly, more down-to-earth professionals, too. Some chefs are working full time for the wealthy and the well known, even living in their houses. But others may cook dinners only a few evenings a week for professional singles or couples, or just come in for special occasions.
Carole Rydell, placement coordinator at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., said she saw a slow, steady increase in the number of requests the school received for private chefs in the last seven years.
"We get requests from wealthy people for someone to serve on their yacht," she said. "But at the lowest end, we get requests from doctors and lawyers and people in finance and advertising who entertain a lot for business or social reasons."
Amid concerns over the economy, however, others say demand has shifted to more well-rounded help. Regina Jones, owner of the Jones Career Opportunities Agency, a prestigious household-personnel agency in Manhattan, said that in the last year and a half, she has seen more demand for cooks -- a notch below trained chefs -- who will also do some housekeeping.
These positions, she said, are hard to fill because there are few takers among trained cooking professionals. Personal chefs are not cooks, those staples of domestic help. For one thing, they cost more. While a cook might earn about $300 a week to at most $500, chefs earn $600 to $1,000, averaging $800 a week, Ms. Jones said. The fee for preparing an individual meal ranges from $60 to $80 for a cook, $100 to $250 for a chef, she said. Personal chefs from the Culinary Institute of America earn $30,000 to $60,000 a year, and in some cases, free housing, Ms. Rydell said.
The breeding grounds for personal chefs are restaurants and culinary schools. Most audition for a job, preparing a meal; those with experience might present a curriulum vitae. "William Paley's chef came to see me with a resume of his menus, including the names of the senators and celebrities who came to dinner," Ms. Jones said.
Carolyn Stopak, a writer in Bethesda, Md., hires help in the kitchen because "it's a time saver," she said. "I don't like to cook, and I don't like to spend time in the kitchen."
Her chef cooks for her every Saturday, plus once during the week, usually when Ms. Stopak entertains. The chef, who Ms. Stopak said wished to remain anonymous, also prepares and freezes entrees like lasagna, chicken cacciatore and curries that her employer eats for dinner the rest of the week.
In the past, chefs who could whip up classic French cuisine were in demand. Today, requests are rising for those with the knowledge of nutrition to cook low-calorie, low-salt, low-cholesterol, vegetarian and macrobiotic meals.