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No longer just for the privileged few

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Greene's business has spread - by word-of-mouth - and now includes Antawn Jamison of the Washington Wizards. That's the kind of person most think would hire a personal chef.

"I try to be affordable," said Greene. "I have middle-class clients who are concerned about what they are feeding their families. They don't want to do fast food and takeout restaurants."

That's the balancing act for the personal chef: affordable but profitable.

"This is never something you are going to get rich doing, unless you have a staff and are working many more hours than I am," said Lisa Shaughnessy of Elkridge, who started Anonymous Chef after leaving the information-technology field and having a child.

Unlike Jim and Bryan Davis, who operate out of a professional kitchen and have a staff and dozens of clients, most personal chefs can cook for only one client a day.

The not-as-glamorous-as-you-think day in the life of a personal chef actually begins the night before, when Kern sits at her computer to print the menus for the next day's client and a grocery list.

The next morning, she is up early to drop her daughters at school before heading to the grocery store. Her Ford Explorer is already loaded with the equipment and staples she needs. Health department regulations require that personal chefs cook in their clients' kitchens unless they prepare the food in an institutional kitchen.

"I have some clients who don't even own a pot," said Kern. "Others are very good cooks in their own right. They just don't have time to eat the way they would like."

After spending a little more than $100 on the fresh produce, meats and dairy products she needs to cook 20 servings of nine different dishes, she heads to the HarborView condo of Jo Ann Clay for her monthly visit. Clay hired Kern after hearing about her from a neighbor.

Kern arrives by 9:30 a.m. and will cook like mad in Clay's tiny kitchen until it is time to pick up her daughters at about 3 p.m. She will make Clay's favorites: spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, turkey burgers, chicken marsala (without the mushrooms Clay dislikes), chicken soup (with the spaghetti noodles Clay likes), Southern-style green beans, garlic mashed potatoes, braised winter greens and garlicky-parmesan broccoli.

Clay, who was an area director for Social Security in New York City, returned to Baltimore after she retired. She is battling health problems and calls Kern whenever her cupboard is just about bare.

"The freezer looks so neat when she is finished," said Clay, who saves the plastic containers so Kern can fill them again. "When she leaves, it looks like a well-organized closet."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Want a chef? Points to ponder

Thinking of hiring a personal chef? Here are some things to consider:

Are you eating out too often? Is your diet or health suffering? Are you worried about what your children are eating?

Keep track of what you spend on food - from the grocery store to the drive-through window - during a month. Compare that with what a personal chef would charge, keeping in mind that the chef might be able to provide more healthful dinners.

Contact several chefs (you can find local members of the American Personal & Private Chef Association at personalchef.com) and meet with them. Explain your budget, food preferences or restrictions and goals. Be honest with yourself. If you don't really want to eat low-fat or meatless meals, don't order them.

It is likely that your personal chef will cook in your kitchen, often during the day. Do you need new equipment or will your chef have to bring her own? Do your schedules mesh?

Decide whether you will need the chef to cook for you every week, every two weeks or every month. Or you might ask the chef to wait for your call.

If you think it's for you

Thinking of becoming a personal chef?

Do you love to cook? Do people tell you that you are very good at it? This is a good beginning, but remember you are considering starting a business, with all the headaches that implies.

A culinary degree is not a requirement, but some training helps you learn, among other things, the kinds of production skills you will need to help you work more efficiently. Remember, you might be required to prepare a week's worth of meals in a single afternoon.

Learn how to price your menu and how to charge for the service. The American Personal & Private Chef Association (personalchef.com) and the United States Personal Chef Association (uspca.com) offer this training.

A safe food handling certification is required by the professional associations. The National Restaurant Association and local health departments offer classes. A municipal business license is also required for professional certification.

Don't expect your clients to have more than a stove, a refrigerator and running water. You may have to bring knives, cutting boards, small electric appliances, pots, pans, bowls, utensils and pantry staples.

Other sources of information:

Baltimore International College (bic.edu)

L'Academie de Cuisine, Gaithersburg (lacademie.com)

The Professional Personal Chef: The Business of Doing Business as a Personal Chef , by Candy Wallace and Greg Forte

How to Start a Home-Based Personal Chef Business, by Denise Vivaldo

Chef magazine (chefmagazine.com)

[Susan Reimer]

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