Personal chefs are cooking up convenience
Sentinel Restaurant Critic
Too busy for the kitchen? Special diet? A pro can slice and dice for you -- at home.
The busier we become, the more we look to others to help us simplify our lives. Services that might seem a luxury become easier to justify as a necessity.
We'll hire a lawn service, maybe have someone come in to clean the house regularly, and even drop the laundry off with the dry cleaning.
Now there's a growing sector of service professionals available to help out with one of your most important daily duties: dinnertime. They're called personal chefs, and they come into your home and cook your meals.
Oh, right, you're thinking, I can have the chef bunk with the chauffeur in the rooms over the carriage house. But a personal chef is different from a private chef, and the cost is a lot less than you might imagine. And for some people it's a service that not only is cost-effective but also a provision that is even more essential than having someone mow the grass.
Eric Kunichika, a Longwood physician, and his wife, Deanne, a dentist, have used Justin J. Murphy of Justin Thyme for about 21/2 years. Kunichika admits that for two doctors the cost isn't a factor, but he says he has referred friends who are laborers to Justin Thyme.
"It isn't cost prohibitive," he says. "The cost to go out to eat is fairly substantial, and I have wines at home I can open that are more economical."
The client pays for all the food and seasonings Murphy purchases, and any items unused are left in the refrigerator. The cost of hiring a personal chef varies from one chef to another and depends on the situation -- for instance whether it involves cooking for a special occasion or with special ingredients. Dale Pyle, a part-time personal chef, says $15 to $20 per entrée per person is typical.
And as Pyle says, "If you add up all the times you go out to eat, order in or stop at the drive-through, and the food you buy and throw out" because you never got around to cooking it and it spoiled, the cost is comparable to an average restaurant meal.
"You can get the same meal at your house and eat it in front of the TV in your underwear."
A measure of independence
A personal chef differs from a private chef in that the latter is someone who is employed by one client and cooks exclusively for that individual or family. A private chef might very well live at the client's home, though it's doubtful one would agree to share accommodations with the chauffeur.
A personal chef works for several clients and is an independent contractor who owns his or her own business.
Murphy and Pyle are among the 10,000 personal chefs estimated to be working in the United States, according to the American Personal Chef Association.
Murphy has worked as a private chef and also did time working the lines in the kitchens of well-known restaurants in South Florida. But he likes the independence -- and the more reasonable hours -- of working as a personal chef. When he was working in a restaurant, he says, he never had weekends or holidays off. Now he works only weekdays, 9 to 5, and finally has time to spend with his fiancée. He's happy he made this career move.
"Quality of life factors into it," he says.
More chefs are coming to that realization, according to Candy Wallace, executive director of the San Diego-based American Personal Chef Association. She says that when she started her organization 10 years ago, she knew of about 30 personal chefs. Those numbers are blooming. Her Web site, she says, gets about 1 million hits every month.
Of course, some of those hits are from potential clients looking for someone to do the cooking. According to Wallace, consumers will hire a chef for a number of reasons. Foremost is the convenience factor, the dual-income working couple who don't have time to prepare good food after a day of work.
Some people hire personal chefs for medical reasons. If a physician recommends a special diet, a personal chef can assure that regimen is followed. And seniors will contract the services of a personal chef to maintain their independence instead of moving to a care facility.
Pyle, whose company is called At Your Service, says he often gets calls from out-of-town adult children to hire him to cook a week of meals for elderly parents. Pyle's last job in a professional kitchen was in a retirement village in Lake County, so a lot of his clients choose him because he knows about proper nutrition and the special needs of the elderly.
Have knives, will travel
That was the case with Lake Mary residents Ed and Phyllis Lower, who found Pyle after doing an Internet search for personal chefs. They wanted someone who could cook meals that fit into Ed Lower's diet for diabetes. After interviewing three chefs, they decided to hire Pyle.
The chef goes to the Lower house with everything he needs, including pots and pans. He has a large Rubbermaid bin, a smaller plastic container, his knife roll and a cooler with meat and fish on ice. Pyle even brings his own cutting boards, including a separate one for the meats.
It would be convenient for the chefs to do some of the prep work at home, slicing and dicing the vegetables for the dishes. But the licensing restrictions don't allow that unless the chef's home kitchen is approved for professional cooking. It's an odd technicality because the clients' kitchens aren't licensed for professional food production either.
Pyle, who also teaches at the Orlando Culinary Academy, says he isn't looking to build a huge client base. He says his average client will have him cook 20 meals at a time, two portions of 10 entrees plus side dishes, to be refrigerated or frozen for reheating at a later date.
Except for the occasions when they're hired to cook for a dinner party, all the personal chefs fix multiple meals that are fully or partially prepared for the client to finish later.
And here's the drill
Each meal begins with the chef doing the shopping. Before heading to a client's home, Murphy makes trips to Publix and Whole Foods, where he purchases fresh fish, poultry and produce. Just before he goes inside he changes from his "civvies" into a crisp white professional chef's tunic, even though he says it isn't unusual for him to go to a job, spend his 21/2 to three hours cooking and cleaning up after without ever seeing the client.
A personal chef will usually schedule an interview with a new client to assess likes and dislikes. There's no sense in hiring your own chef if he or she makes food you don't like. The Lowers keep a file in a bright yellow folder labeled "Chef Dale" with notes on past meals. A note next to the stuffed pork loin notes it was good, but next to the chicken cacciatore they've written "bad." Pyle says it doesn't hurt his feelings to receive the negative feedback; he'd rather be cooking the things clients like.
The Lowers have Pyle come in to cook several times a year to prepare multiple meals that he freezes. They say they eat out at restaurants often, but when they stay home, they heat up one of Pyle's frozen dishes, following the typewritten directions he leaves behind.
Phyllis Lower says she used to cook a lot, but now that it's just the two of them, it doesn't seem worth the hassle.
"I like to cook," she says, "but some of the meals that took a long time to prep . . . why bother?"
And, she says, there's one other big advantage to hiring a personal chef: "He cleans up so well."
Scott Joseph can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5514.
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