When Shirlé Hale-Koslowski tells people what she does for a living, she is often greeted with a blank stare.
She is the owner and sole employee of Four Corners Cuisine, a Baltimore-based private chef service Hale-Koslowski operates out of the kitchens of her 10 clients. People have heard of personal chefs for the rich and famous, she says, but she caters to the middle class, not the multimillionaire. Each meal — groceries and labor included — averages $10 to $12 and includes an entree and a side.
The going has been slow since she sold a similar business in North Carolina and came to Baltimore in 2011. Clients are mostly gained by word of mouth, and it's been a challenge for Hale-Koslowski to make ends meet, but her passion for cooking hasn't faded.
When she's lamenting the state of the American diet or sharing tips and tricks she's picked up over more than three decades in and out of kitchens, Hale-Koslowski's pace quickens as she slices and dices. She insists fresh, organic food prepared with care holds the key to health and happiness.
Away from the stove, Hale-Koslowski can be found jamming with her latest band, Small Apartments. The chef and musician, who's been in 14 bands throughout her life, plays bass and sings alongside her husband, David. The project is her latest musical ambition, a few bands removed from her 1990s stint with "Baltimore's first riot-girl band," Women of Destruction.
Inside the kitchen of a client, Hale-Koslowski recently shared her thoughts on all that is food-related, in between putting the finishing touches on a menu that included gourmet bison burgers and blackened tilapia.
How did you get your start in the cooking world?
I have cooked ever since I was a kid with my mom. My mom was a pretty avid Southern cook, and she just always had me in the kitchen helping and was really, really into it. I just loved it. I loved the stories my mom would tell me about how she learned to cook and her hard childhood. It just really made me love it. Then I started working when I was 13 at a pizza parlor, totally under the table. … Later, I worked in a dinner theater. That was the best culinary experience in that I was very young, and I worked there through all four years in high school. I worked my way up from prep cook and having to shell 500 eggs in a night. We cooked roast beef to brisket to roasted chicken to fish. I worked my way up to sous chef under this tough Russian woman who was very tough on everybody. She taught me a lot.
When I was working in the dinner theater, I was finding out things I had never heard about from new friends. I had friends and a boyfriend from other countries, and I would go to their house for dinners. So I got to experience smoked paprika and things like that. Back in the '80s nobody knew what that was, but my Spanish friends were all using that. Their parents were cooking with it, so I got to experience a lot of stuff. I would buy cookbooks left and right; I was constantly buying cookbooks, constantly trying things out.
You left what could have been a steady career in brick-and-mortar restaurants because you said chefs are reluctant to accommodate special requests like you do. Why?
Chefs do not like to be told what to do or how to do something. They really don't like that aspect. Instead of looking at it as a challenge — which I look at it like that — I think there's just like no way because then you get that person saying, "Can I get that like this?" and then the next table's like, "Can I not have this?" so it slows down the line. But I also think they're telling the chef, "That should not be on that item because I'm allergic to that or can't have that" but to the chef it sounds like, "You're telling me how to cook? You're telling me this doesn't work with this? This does work with this." That kind of attitude is very prevalent in the chef industry.
What tips do you have for people cooking at home trying to save time and money and eat healthy, too?
If people took one day out of the week, like a Sunday — let's say they work Monday through Friday; kids are crazy, all sorts of schedules going on. One person — or if they made it into a family event — it would be so much faster than the three to four hours it takes me to do all of this. If they just picked one day to set aside a couple hours and before that day sit down and go through some recipes and magazines — whatever looks good, whatever looks healthy — and then come up with those five recipes for the week, life would be a lot easier. Make a grocery list of those five recipes you need. Go to the store and get exactly those things. Your grocery bill will be extremely cheap because you're buying exactly what you need for these recipes. … Spend the day organizing and cooking everything. Then divvy them up. Package them and stick them in the freezer, and you will have a week's worth of meals ready to go, and it will make your life easier in the long run. And you're only taking out maybe four hours to do a week's or two weeks' worth of meals.
How do you specialize each meal to each client, and what's challenging about it?
Every single person is completely, utterly different. There's no two alike, which makes it fun because every day for me is cooking differently. I take each person and meet with them and interview them and find out what they like, what they don't like, any dietary restrictions, that kind of thing. If somebody says, "I can't have these things" or "I'm allergic to those things," then I look at the things that they can have, and I create menus just like that.
There's days when I cook for two families on one day, and in those days I try to get people who are similar to be on the same day so I can go through and do one person and go to the next house and do something similar, instead of completely changing wheels and having to do something else.
The money is challenging. [My husband and I] could survive if we had to, but it would be difficult from what I'm used to getting paid. I thought that Baltimore — after moving here I'm going to be so busy. It's like a city, but honestly what I hear every single time I talk to people about what I do is that they've never heard of a service like this. They've never heard of it. It's bizarre.
You've been playing music all your life and went to Berklee College of Music. Why do you love it?
I've played piano since I was 4. I have wanted to be in a band since I saw Aerosmith as a kid. ... I told my husband I will play music until I cannot play music. I will be an old lady on my front porch playing electric guitar. I don't care. I will play music till I die because I am a creative person. That's probably what it comes down to. I'm a very creative person that needs an outlet to let that out. … Music, that's my outlet. … It's just creativity, really. And food is creative, too.
Chef Shirlé Hale-Koslowski
Title: Owner of Four Corners Cuisine
Hometown: Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Education: Berklee College of Music
Family: Husband, David.
Hobbies. Music — piano, electric guitar, bass, vocals.