The Personal Chef Industry

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cooking lightChris Kelso has just retuned home from her job running a small nonprofit agency in Cincinnati. As she pulls out the ingredients for a timeworn salmon recipe, she sighs and admits to having had a long day. Kelso gave up a career in finance for a less stressful job in the nonprofit sector, but she still wants more time to devote to her 14-year-old son. “I just can’t do it all anymore,” she says.

Sometimes, she doesn’t. Kelso is one of many time-pressed people seeking an alternative to ordinary dinner preparation. It’s easy to settle for delivery, takeout, or restaurant options that are high in fat and calories but lack flavor and freshness. Many frozen dinners have the same problems. Plus, there really is no substitute for a home-cooked meal.

Enter personal chefs. The appeal is obvious: one less stop on the way home and food prepared exactly as you want it. Personal chef services typically offer a way for harried families and individuals to have healthy, gourmet meals without fuss or inordinate expense. And because they’re now more numerous, personal chef services are accessible and affordable. Prices vary from about $9 a plate up to $315 for a single visit that includes 10 days’ worth of entrées for two.

Many personal chefs will come to your home to cook to your request, be it down-home chicken potpie or exotic curried lamb stew. The chef arrives at your kitchen door at a mutually agreed-upon time, cooks during the day, stores your meals in the fridge and/or freezer, cleans up, and takes off. The only thing you’ll notice when you get home is the aroma of a home-cooked meal.

Personal chefs also prepare family dinners and help with festive gatherings; they can be discreet or help entertain. They can cater to special needs, such as gluten-, dairy-, or sugar-free diets. To see how all this works, we peeked in on three personal chefs who offer distinctly different services.


While many people hire personal chefs to help with day-in, day-out meal preparation, Chris Kelso often employs a personal chef to help with one of her favorite pastimes: entertaining. Rather than give up her cherished holiday parties and festive gatherings on the back deck, she employs the help of Linder Hunt of Best Kept Secret personal chef service.

Kelso remembers a night when she couldn’t resist trying a new, daring hors d’oeuvre for a party. Midway through preparation, the dish appeared headed for disaster. That’s when Hunt was called to Kelso’s kitchen for a rescue. Minutes later, a gorgeous platter passed among the guests.

What Kelso values most about her relationship with Hunt is the flexibility. “Sometimes I’ll cook half the dishes, and Linder will cook the other half,” Kelso says. “And sometimes, she’ll save me from myself.”

Hunt who studied at the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School), found her way to the personal chef business almost by accident. She had been running a catering business out of her home. When she started having children, she sought an alternative that would better fit her busy lifestyle. The business found its way to her: Known for her catering, Hunt was often paid to cook in people’s homes and then discreetly slip out the back door so the client could take credit for the meal. Hence the name of her business, Best Kept Secret.


Specializing in preparing weeknight meals, Janet Neyrinck runs a traditional personal chef service, the Free Range Chef, in Alexandria, Kentucky. Neyrinck is a professional chef who once managed a large staff in a commercial kitchen. The move to become a personal chef was a lifestyle choice. “It used to be that if you wanted a career in food, you basically had two choices: Put up with the nights and weekends away from home, r put up the thousands to invest in a commercial-quality catering kitchen,” she explains. Cooking in her clients’ homes gave her another option.

A member of the U.S. Personal Chef Association, Neyrinck offers more than 600 recipes and asks each new client to complete a questionnaire. “First, I find out their likes and dislikes,” she says. Hate cabbage? You’ll never see a shred. Love lemon? Just watch how many ways it can go. She also personalizes meals for restricted diets.

Using the questionnaire, Neyrinck proposes a menu of 20 meals she’ll make in a single visit to the client’s home. Once her clients have determined a menu, Neyrinck schedules a date. Tugging along four bins of cooking utensils, she and her husband, Tim Rastetter, set up shop. Her customers simply remove their entrées from the freezer the night before to defrost for the next evening’s meal.


Trinket Shaw, owner of TV Dinners in Birmingham, Alabama, offers a different take on the personal chef business. She cooks meals in her own commercial kitchen and then delivers them, ready to heat and eat, to her clients’ front doors. “I’ve just always loved to cook,” says Shaw, who is self taught. Eager to be her own boss, Shaw decided to transform her interest in food into a business. “I’m making my own decisions, I have my own schedule, and I choose the people I work with,” she says. “I love what I do.”

For Shaw, becoming a personal chef served as a launching pad to full-fledged catering. “I slowly built up a clientele and my resources,” she says, and the leap was easier to make. “I found that people were really nervous about a stranger nosing around in their kitchens,” Saw says, “so I came up with the idea of delivering meals to people’s homes.”

TV Dinners is a blend of a traditional personal chef business like Janet Neyrinck’s and a full-scale catering operation. Shaw offers a set entrée each weekday, sends a monthly schedule out to clients, and then takes orders from 24 hours to weeks in advance. Say Shaw’s schedule arrivess in your mailbox, and you see she’s offering North African chicken with olives and preserved lemons over couscous the same day as your day-long departmental meeting. You can place your order and have this gourmet dinner delivered to your door.

Story by Dawn Simons
August 1, 2002

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