No longer just for the privileged few

March 14, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

Personal chefs aren't just for the rich and famous anymore. They are not just for Jennifer Aniston or Ray Lewis. Or for the Upper West Side hostess who wants her dinner parties to be the talk of New York society.

These days, personal chefs work for busy professionals and even busier stay-at-home moms. They are for senior citizens who no longer enjoy cooking. Or for new parents who don't have the energy.

"Who needs us?" said Jim Davis, who runs Chef Bryan's Kitchen in Gaithersburg with his son, Bryan. "Everybody needs us. Convincing them they can afford it and that it will improve their lives is a different issue."

Just as the rich family's maid has traded her bedroom in the back of the house for a franchise operation that speed-cleans the homes of a couple of dozen middle-class families each week, the personal chef has morphed from a luxury to a service: doing a chore the busy client does not have time to do.

"Like having somebody cut your grass," says Candy Wallace, founder of the American Personal & Private Chef Association.

Denise Vivaldo, author of How to Start a Home-Based Personal Chef Business, writes that the title hadn't been invented when she started cooking for families 20 years ago. Now there are perhaps 9,000 personal chefs, according to a survey for Wallace's association. There are also a certification process, a pair of professional organizations, seminars, professional journals and how-to books.

The cost of the meals varies, of course, depending on the ingredients. The rule of thumb is $250 for the chef for a day in your kitchen, plus the cost of groceries. Generally, a personal chef produces four servings of five different entrees, plus side dishes. Depending on whether the client has a family of four or is a single person, the food might last a week or a month. Meals can cost between $12 and $18 a serving.

When some people total up a week's groceries and add takeout and fast food - and think about what they could be doing with the time it takes to get food on the table - hiring a personal chef can begin to look affordable.

"It saved my marriage," said Kathy Malone of Woodbine, who works long hours for First Horizon Home Loans. She and her husband of 30 years used to argue every night about what brand of takeout to buy for dinner and who was picking it up. She hired not one but two personal chefs and alternates them.

"I have someone clean my house every two weeks," Malone said. "I would give that up before I would give up the cooking. I would give up a lot of things before I gave up that."

Susan Piatt of Angel in Thyme in Bowie cooks for a pair of real estate agents who are so busy they keep her meals in their office freezer. She also cooks for a single professional woman who takes her meals to the office for lunch and has something light at home at night.

Linda Berns of Custom Kosher of Bethesda began cooking three days a week for an older couple after their daughter called her, concerned about her parents' well-being. Another woman gave her mother a gift certificate for Berns' cooking in return for baby-sitting the grandchildren.

Just as women might feel awkward about paying someone to clean their homes, some women also feel funny about outsourcing dinner. "You worry it makes you look lazy or that it sounds grand," said Carolyn Jones of Baltimore. Once a busy professional at a brokerage firm, she recently took a severance package - but kept her personal chef.

Kelly Kern was vice president of a real-estate investment firm and working hard, long hours when she realized she would need a career change if she wanted a family. So she enrolled in night and weekend classes at Baltimore International College and was ready to go with Gourmet Anyday as soon as her first child was born.

That's the other side of the personal chef story. It is a way for women - most are women - to combine work and family in the culinary industry, where long days, weekends and holidays are the norm.

"I was looking for a way to combine work and family and set my own hours," said Kern, who lives in Cedarcroft with her husband, Kevin, a self-described human test kitchen, and daughters Grace, 5, and Georgia, 2.

Kern is professionally trained, but many personal chefs are not. Some are just people who really like to cook and do it well.

"I tell people I am not a classically trained chef," said Tina Greene of Bowie, who started Southern Comfort personal chef service. "I am a home cook trained as a child in church kitchens by grandmothers."

Greene's specialties are meatloaf and mashed potatoes, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, and pot roast with vegetables. "Tina is comfort food," said neighbor and client George Wood. "But she is high-end comfort food."

Wood and his wife, Paulette, encouraged Greene to start her business. Now they hire her to help with the entertaining they do several times a month for groups of 10 to 50. "And we live on leftovers the rest of the week," said Wood.

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