Kitchen help for the time-starved

A personal chef runs Slow Down and Eat, a shopping and cooking service

March 29, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Janet Althen, an acupuncturist at Contemporary Health for Women in Clarksville, often works past 7:30 at night. By the time she gets home, she is ravenous. "I found myself going from pizza to Chinese food, pizza to Chinese food," she said.

Then a client told her about Richard Douville and his personal chef business, Slow Down and Eat. Douville prepares meals for his clients based on their individual tastes.

"I was under the impression that only the rich and famous have chefs," Althen said. But when she factors in the time she would normally spend thinking about recipes, shopping for food and cooking it, Slow Down and Eat is a bargain, she said.

Douville, 55, said he charges $225 for a half-day of cooking, which typically yields five entrees portioned for two, plus two sides with each. The sides could include salads, soups, pasta or desserts. A full day of cooking, which costs $375, would produce five or six entrees portioned for four people and two sides with each, he said.

The cost includes shopping, food and storage containers, including vacuum-sealed bags that allow customers to easily store and reheat meals. Douville cooks in the client's home and cleans up when he is done.

Douville said he always meets with new clients for about an hour to discuss their preferences, and also to check out their kitchens.

"He takes into consideration what I like and what my daughter likes," said Althen, whose daughter, Amanda, 19, is away at college. "The two of us, we don't like spicy kinds of things, so he always keeps things pretty mellow for us."

Althen said she has been a Slow Down and Eat client for more than a year. Once every four or five weeks, Douville spends a day in her kitchen, cooking and storing meals. "I don't eat his food every single day," Althen said. "But I would say four to five days a week, either at lunch or dinner."

"He makes a great lemon angel-hair pasta with salmon that I really, really like," she said. "He does a good lasagna and a phenomenal filet mignon."

At her request, Douville buys organic meats for Althen. Food-shopping is a big part of the service that he provides.

Recently, he spent the morning at the Han Ah Reum market in Catonsville, working off a multipage shopping list. "I have seven dishes, not all for one client," he said. These included a lamb and eggplant casserole and eggplant with garlic sauce. "I got a taste for eggplant," he said.

Some of the dishes were for experimentation, because he always tests dishes before making them for clients, he said. And some would be for the Inn at Peralynna Manor, a luxury inn in Columbia, where he works.

As he made his way through the Asian grocery store, placing three kinds of eggplant in his cart (little green Thai eggplants, fat purple Italian eggplants and slim lavender Chinese eggplants), Douville discussed how he planned to use each item.

He selected tomatoes. "This is obviously not tomato season," he said. But he plans to slice them and top them with olive oil, salt and a pinch of sugar. "An hour and a half at 300, and you have a nice caramelization," he said.

He picked up a bunch of giant spring onions. "These are just mild and sweet," he said. "They don't have them very often, so I get them when I can." Lemongrass went into his cart, too. He planned to create a stock with that and shrimp shells, he said.

Douville is self-taught, he said. "I learned one dish and one ingredient at a time, one technique at a time," he said. He has been in the food business more than 20 years, he said. He owned a cafe in Bethesda called Park Avenue Provisions, and was executive chef for Max's Kosher Cafe and Marketplace in Silver Spring, he said.

"I had gotten out of the trade completely," he said. For eight years, he worked for a home-security company, and then "I was suddenly downsized," he said. "It took me all of a month to figure out what I wanted to do."

That was in 2003. He has eight clients for his personal chef business, he said, and "quite honestly I'm looking for eight more." Most of his clients are professional women, like Althen, who "just want to be relived of the responsibilities of cooking," he said. And most live in Howard County, where he has lived for 30 years, he said.

Althen said her eating habits have improved since Douville began preparing her meals. Her daughter lost 10 pounds because she stopped eating so much fatty food, she said.

And Althen feels healthier, too. "I go home and there's food, and it's incredible, it's wonderful, it keeps me out of the pizza place," she said.

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