Chefs At Your Service

Professional cooks are preparing more meals in home kitchens these days

June 23, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Here's the scene: It's late. You spent an hour longer at the office than you planned. You get home, the dog needs to go out, the kids are whining, you're hungry. What do you do?

How about this: Go to the refrigerator, take out a complete meal, heat it up and serve.

That's what dinner is like for people who employ a personal chef. There's always something in the fridge for dinner.

"My husband and I are very busy, very rarely home, and when we do get home, we want something to eat, something nutritious," says Grenetta Bartee, a financial adviser who has personal chef Vic Baffa prepare two weeks' worth of meals at a time at the couple's Mitch- ellville home. Among their favorite entrees: stuffed salmon, seafood stuffed shells, Salisbury steak and barbecued chicken.

"He brings everything he needs, and when he's done, you can't tell he's been there," Bartee says. "It's great."

Years ago, the concept of a personal chef would have meant an employee, someone hired to work for an individual or family who could afford such services -- someone like Oprah Winfrey or the president of the United States. These days, it more often means a chef who comes in one day to prepare reheatable meals for a busy family who like to eat well but don't have time to cook, or don't want to eat out all the time.

"You go into a customer's home and cook for them," says Juli Anderson, 30, of Abingdon, who's just starting her personal-chef business called Cooked to Perfection. "You make nine to 10 dinner entrees. You go to the grocery, buy the food, customize the recipes, leave a menu for two weeks. Then two weeks later, you come back and do it again."

Anderson studied hospitality at Essex Community College and has taken a variety of cooking classes, including several at Baltimore International College. Being a personal chef appealed to her, she said, "because I wanted to work for myself and not be dependent on other people for my career."

For Baffa, 52, being a personal chef is a career change from years at big corporations such as Pepsico and McDonald's, where one of his jobs was forecasting trends. "I saw the need for something like this," he says. "It's for baby boomers who have more money but not a lot of time."

Baffa isn't a stranger to the food world. He grew up in the restaurant business. His family owned Baffa's near Philadelphia.

David MacKay, founder of the United States Personal Chef Association, says he reinvented the personal-chef concept a dozen years ago when he was helping his wife, Susan Titcomb, find a new career. She had been in the restaurant business, so he thought cooking in people's homes would be ideal for her.

"It's modeled after maid services," MacKay said. "We're the only ones who'd taken personal chef-ing and made a service business out if it."

Soon people all over the country were calling MacKay to ask how they could start their own personal-chef business. MacKay formed the chef association and began offering advice and training. In 1992, the first personal chef trained by USPCA graduated from the program.

In 1994, the association trained 400 personal chefs a year. Today, membership has grown to more than 2,600 and 400 in other countries. (But there are personal chefs who aren't members of the organization.)

USPCA offers training (a basic course is $500) at 20 sites around the country, and also offers videos and manuals. You don't need to be a member to order the materials, but members get discounts. Among the things USPCA supplies are recipes that have been developed to freeze well.

MacKay said it costs about $2,000 to $3,000 to set up a business, a nominal sum for people who want to be self-employed. Personal chefs can make as much as $40,000 to $50,000 a year, he said. "There are no millionaires, but it's a real, live, support-yourself-and-your-family kind of job."

The organization says the average client is between 30 and 50 years old, a professional, married, a homeowner and has a combined family income of $80,000. Many develop long-term relationships with their chef. MacKay said his wife's newest client has been with her for three years.

Hiring a personal chef is like hiring anyone else to work in your home -- you want someone who is dependable, trustworthy and self-reliant. Check references and set up interviews. Ask for sample menus, and if you have special dietary needs, spell them out clearly. One of the best ways to find a personal chef is to ask someone who already has one: Many chefs report getting all their new clients from referrals by current clients.

"It's not hard to get started -- not like opening a restaurant," says Terry Sielert, 36, who was a personal chef in Dallas before moving to Annapolis recently. Before that, she was a schoolteacher. But her grandfather had owned a restaurant, and she loved to cook. When she was looking for a home-based business, being a personal chef seemed perfect.

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