The Personal Chef Industry

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Chefs Dennis and Christine

PCs of the Year 2013

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Joy of Not Cooking - Personal Chefs Delivers the Goods

Personal Chefs Deliver The Goods

You're sick of eating carry-out, you're too tired to cook, you've got dishpan hands and you just can't bear to make another restaurant reservation--so what are your going to do? Assuming you don't want to start a Fritos and Diet Coke diet (trust me; you don't), you've got one choice. Hire a personal chef.

Personal chefs will cook and serve you a gourmet meal. They'll stock your fridge with a month's worth of easy-to-reheat meals. They'll teach you and your friends how to make a perfect coq-au-vin. They'll even respect your finicky no-carb, no-dairy, no-fruit, no-meat diet. And they'll do it for less than you'd normally spend on carry-out and restaurants.

Sound like a dream come true? Sure, but it's also a natural solution for today's over-stressed, over-committed work force. We're already in the habit of hiring outsiders to tidy our homes, clean our clothes and take care of our children, so why not out-source the cooking?

If you want someone to live with you and fry up grilled cheese at 3 a.m., you want a private chef. Personal chefs are different--they're freelancers with a kitchen full of clients. And it's a growing trade. Ten years ago, about 100 people called themselves personal chefs. Today, there are about 8,000 of them with 75,000 clients, cooking up a $52 million industry. In five years the numbers are expected to boil over; 25,000 personal chefs, 300,000 clients, $1 billion in annual revenues. That's a whole lot of ravioli.

Hungry for a first-hand experience of personal pampering. I called Rita Borges of Talk of the Town, a personal chef service in New York. Many of Borges' clients are folks like me; busy, kitchen-challenged professionals. Her most popular service is her 12 meal plan, which costs $365. Factor in the time you save by not shopping, chopping or cleaning up, and a personal chef becomes an economical choice. Affordable self-indulgence--who can resist?

Borges usually cooks in a commercial kitchen and delivers the food to her clients, often when they aren't home. But I wanted an up-close look at her handiwork, so she agreed to cook in my apartment. After a Q&A about my likes and dislikes, we settled on the menu: sesame-encrusted seared tuna, sea bass poached in a lemongrass and chili coconut broth, sauteed mixed mushrooms and a pear and pistacho tart.

Borges walked into my teeny Manhattan kitchen with three bags of food, wine and mixing bowls, and we went to work as a team, cleaning mushrooms, tweaking the amount of red curry in the broth until we hit the perfect degree of spicy. Everything was delicious. Oh, and did I mention that she cleaned the kitchen? Even Emeril won't do that.

Borges left the restaurant business after a decade because she prefers the intimate relationship she develops with her clients. According to Candy Wallace, founder of the American Personal Chef Association (APCA), many cooks turn to personal chef-ing when they tire of the industry grind. She agrees that the personal contact makes the work rewarding, especially when she's working with clients with health problems. "You add value to their lives," Wallace says.

Speaking of value-added, Boston-based personal chef Julia Shanks throws what she calls "interactive dinner parties" for her clients. "I get guests and hosts involved in preparation of a three-course gourmet dinner. It's not only a meal; it's an evening's entertainment." Averaging $75 per person with a $500 minimum (wine not included), an interactive dinner party costs as much as an expensive restaurant, and you don't have to worry about parking. If you want a personal chef experience minus the chef, the Impromptu Gourmet will deliver--literally. They provide meals designed by celebrity personal chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Palmer and Eric Ripert and FedEx them to you in pre-chopped, pre-seasoned, ready-to-cook servings. All for $40--about the cost of three appetizers at one of New York's swankier restaurants. What a bargain.

(Extracted from Amtrak's Arrive Onboard Magazine, January/February 2002)

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