When Murjani Greene and John Del Alcazar decided to plan a belated Valentine's Day celebration, the Pikesville residents weren't interested in dining out at a restaurant; they wanted to relax inside the comfort of their own home.
So Greene turned to PlateDate — an online platform designed to streamline the process of hiring a personal chef. Launched in 2012, the service allows customers to build a menu online, book and pay for their reservations — whether they want a private dinner party or an intimate meal prepared by trained chefs.
"We had a romantic dinner for two," said Greene, 33, a salon stylist, who said that chef Kristin Weyant — an expert in French cuisine — shopped for groceries, prepared the food, then served a four-course custom meal.
"It began with an appetizer of steamed mussels in white wine, and ended with Crepes Suzette for dessert," says Weyant.
The cost was about $300, which included the chef tidying up the kitchen afterward.
"The food was so good," Greene said. "I have used this service several times, and I have to say it's worth every penny."
PlateDate, which has offices in Baltimore and Washington D.C., is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Myranda Stephens, 36 — a former WBFF-TV (Fox 45) reporter who lives in Laurel — and Spencer Holmes, 31, a UMBC alum from Southern Maryland who has a background in banking.
The friends-turned-business-partners say the idea for the company germinated after Holmes tried, with little success, to plan a special meal for a former girlfriend. Thinking that a personal chef might have solved that problem, he and Stephens combined their savings and sought funding.
In May 2013, PlateDate won third place in a national elevator pitch contest sponsored by Black Enterprise Magazine at its BE Entrepreneurs Conference in Columbus, Ohio. A few months later, the company was accepted as a member of 1776, a D.C.-based incubator for tech start-ups.
Today, PlateDate serves customers in Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. In addition to at-home dining experiences, it hosts corporate events and cooking classes at Stratford University in Baltimore. And they'll soon expand their services to cater to families in need of weekly chef-prepared meals.
"We're very excited about our growth since we launched the website in 2013," said Stephens.
Holmes agreed. "We've doubled the number of cities we serve and the chefs on our team — we have about 40 chefs."
Personal chefs provide cooking services in the homes of a variety of clients, from time-strapped singles, to couples and families, to those with special dietary needs, the elderly, and so on.
Thanks to the popularity of the Food Network and the rise of "celebrity chef" culture, personal chefs are cropping up nationwide. Companies such as Big City Chefs and Kitchensurfing are among those that serve this region, complete with teams of chefs. There are countless personal chefs who have hung out their own shingles in the rapidly growing industry.
"Personal chefs have become huge," said Candy Wallace, founder and executive director of the American Personal & Private Chef Association, based in San Diego. Founded in 1996, the group provides personal-chef training, support services and a certification program that meets the accreditation standards of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), the nation's oldest and largest culinary accrediting agency.
"Mom and grandma may not want to cook, but personal chefs allow families to dine together," said Wallace, a veteran chef raised in Bethesda who has some 50 years of experience. "A personal chef brings attentive service, safety and fresh food to your home. We're buying from farmers, fish mongers. You know where your food is coming from, and at a time when there's not enough food labeling, when many ingredients are genetically modified, that's very important."
PlateDate offers brunch, dinner and custom meals ranging from $39-$95/person. All dinners include an appetizer, entree and dessert. Additional courses cost more.
Appetizers range from mixed field greens to spicy sweet glazed shrimp, while entree choices run the gamut: think lobster mac and cheese paired with orecchiette and fresh corn succotash; porcini crusted filet mignon, red wine pan sauce, and seasonal vegetables.
Vegetarian options include ricotta spinach gnocchi with Parmesan peppercorn cream sauce, tomatoes, chiffonade basil, and haricot verts. And that's just a sampling. Dessert choices include warm apple tart, lime and coconut panna cotta, and fresh strawberry shortcake.
The choices are "delicious" says Debi Turner, a Severna Park resident who planned a celebration last February to mark her father's retirement.
"We did a dinner party for six," said Turner, a school speech therapist. "We had scallops, steak and a parsnip puree. It was delicious. They cleaned up afterward, and my kitchen was spotless. We all had a good time."
PlateDate's website lists the bios of chefs along with their photos. The men and women range from classically trained chefs who've graduated from top schools such as the Culinary Institute of America, to pros who have plied their crafts at restaurants, hotels, and country clubs across the country and world.
Some sites have users sift through profiles to choose a chef. PlateDate says it's unique in matching its chefs to clients; they've dubbed it `chef-pairing' and playfully liken it to wine pairing.
"We know the culinary backgrounds of our chefs, the type of cuisine they specialize in, and their interests," says Stephens, who notes that their vetting process includes background checks. The chefs are independent contractors, she adds.
The profiles tout whether a chef specializes in, say, Asian, Caribbean, Latin or Italian cuisine, as well as their ability to prepare vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, and gluten-free meals.
Among the PlateDate chefs is Brian Boots, a Reisterstown resident who was named "Florida's Iron Chef" in 2001, and is a recipient of the American Tasting Institute Gold Medal for Culinary Excellence. He has worked at restaurants in New York, Florida, Ohio and Tennessee, and been published in several cookbooks.
After collaborating with the company for less than a year, the veteran chef is impressed.
"I like their business model," said Boots, 44, who said he's been running kitchens since he was in his 20s but was looking to do different things. "It's been great working with them. They take care of all the details. And I've cooked for some cool people."
Back in the fall, Boots was paired with a client who'd requested a Kosher meal. He whipped up several courses, including steak and vegetarian options.
"I'm familiar with specific dietary laws and I worked to ensure the meal adhered to them," he said. "They really seemed to enjoy it."
Chef Scott Ryan, a culinary instructor at Stratford University who recently joined the PlateDate fold, believes personal chef services raise the bar for chefs and consumers alike.
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"One great thing is that having real chefs who work in the industry can give people a true taste of professional cooking," says Ryan, a Hampden resident who trained at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts. "Many people are fascinated by how much preparation and skill it takes to get a high quality meal on the table."
He recently made dinner for a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary.
"The wife was surprising her husband," he said. "I did a goat cheese, bruschetta appetizer, an herb and nut encrusted rack of lamb, risotto and a nice dessert."
The clients were thrilled, Ryan said, and he was, too.