The Personal Chef Industry

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As Cinderella and Dorothy discovered, a fairy godmother can be a real lifesaver.

Saviors of a similar sort remain on the job today.

The modern version doesn't wear a crown or cast spells - and is as likely to be a man as a woman - but does appear from virtually nowhere, fulfills wishes, then vanishes.

Becky Jarrell's got proof.

What the Naples resident wished for was someone to create a great meal that she and her husband, Gary, could eat at home.

"I don't have time to cook. I don't like to cook. I don't want to cook," says Becky Jarrell.

She puts her energy into her ministry work at North Naples United Methodist Church. Her husband is a risk management consultant. Their jobs keep them busy, including some evenings, but they try to eat dinner together each night.

Given Jarrell's aversion to cooking, that often means going to restaurants.

"The lines are terrible at this time of year, and it gets very expensive," she says. "I like my home. It's quiet. It's peaceful. I don't want to have to go to a noisy restaurant just because I'm hungry."

Enter wish-granter and personal chef Mark Guilbault.

He's one of a growing number of culinary professionals trading in the high pressure and long hours of the commercial kitchen for the serenity and slower pace of home-based cuisine.

The personal chef industry is booming, according to Wendy Perry, co-founder and co-owner of Personal Chefs Network, a 2-year-old venture with 300 members nationwide and growing.

Their clients are retirees, busy working couples and singles, people recovering from illness and grown children who live out of town and who buy the service for their aging parents. What they all have in common is a desire to eat well but cook less.

"It boils down to buying time," says personal chef Skip Zornow, whose Amazing Grapes company is based in North Fort Myers.

"You don't have to be really wealthy to do this. You just get stacked up on time and want to come home, kick back, pop a couple of my meals into the oven and you're done in 20 minutes."

A lot of people such as the Jarrells just want to relax at home. "People are nesting, spending more time with their families," Perry says.

Personal chefs don't just show up and cook. The process starts with a consultation during which the chef finds out what the client's food preferences are, and whether anyone in the family has dietary restrictions or food allergies. If necessary, he'll consult with a dietitian or a physician. Once the menu is tailored, the chef makes an appointment.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Guilbault arrived at the Jarrells' North Naples home carrying an insulated bag full of perishables and two covered plastic tubs filled with kitchen equipment. He'd just been to the Fresh Market in Naples to get the vegetables, meat and fish he'd be cooking. He's also brought herbs picked fresh from his home garden.

Dressed in his white chef's jacket and white apron, he promptly took over the kitchen to prepare three meals the couple would later be able to reheat for three no-fuss, at-home gourmet meals.

His years as a restaurant chef were evident as he multitasked - sliding garlic and sweet potatoes into the oven to roast while heating saute pans on the stove.

"I like to get things rolling all at the same time," he says. "The name of the game is to organize."

In a matter of minutes, all four burners were glowing as he blanched vegetables and pan-fried the salmon. As each item came off the stove, he moved it into a glass Pyrex container set out on the pass-through to the living room, where a battery-operated fan gently cooled them off.

Most of the food was slightly undercooked so that when it's reheated, it will be perfectly done.

In less than two hours, he'd prepared veal scaloppini with Marsala sauce, chicken breasts with sherry Dijon cream sauce, broiled salmon filets with mustard dill sauce, baked sweet potatoes, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, parsleyed red bliss potatoes, julienne vegetable medley, asparagus with roasted red peppers and green bean almondine.

Each entree got its own covered dish, and one type of potato was paired with each vegetable in a smaller container.

Guilbault labeled each container and left a sheet with reheating instructions. He washed the dishes, packed everything up including the garbage and took off, leaving the Jarrells with three nights' dinners and a home laden with tantalizing aromas. The bill: $225.

Becky Jarrell thinks the cost is reasonable for the convenience and quality of the food provided.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for me to not do what I don't like to do and for Mark to do what he does like to do," she says. "I don't like to go to the store, either. He brings everything with him."

Guilbault gave up a catering business in Martha's Vineyard to move to Naples and start his personal chef service, Dinners by Design, about seven months ago. His work takes him all over Southwest Florida.

Zornow, who also works throughout Southwest Florida, started Amazing Grapes about a year ago. He does all the cooking at the client's home and can produce meals for as many as 30 people, although most of his jobs are for smaller groups. Among his regulars is the Maas family of Fort Myers.

Bonnie Maas works part time and her husband works full time, plus they have two children, ages 2 and 4. For more than four months, Zornow has been cooking for them almost every week, preparing enough food for four or five days.

Instead of bolting down fast food, they get to sit down together and eat food prepared to their tastes.

"It's good for the kids," Maas says. "It allows us to have more time with them, time to do other things."

They eat healthier meals as well, which is especially good for her because she has a health condition that requires a special diet.

"There's a hot meal ready, and the house smells great when we get home," Maas says. "And he always leaves some cookies or fresh bread as an extra little touch."

  • There are about 6,000 personal chefs in the United States who serve about 72,000 clients.
  • It's estimated that within the next five years there will be 25,000 personal chefs serving nearly 300,000 clients.
  • Entrepreneur Magazine named the personal chef industry one of the 12 fastest-growing businesses in the country.
- SOURCE: American Personal Chef Association


TRAVELING GOURMET: Personal chef Mark Guilbault places some cooked vegetables in a container as Becky Jarrell watches him prepare several gourmet meals for her and her husband, Gary, in their Naples home.

FRESH GREENS: Becky Jarrell gets a kick out of watching personal chef Mark Guilbault as he cuts vegetables at Jarrell's Naples home.

SAUCE: Personal chef Mark Guilbault pours wine into a frying pan while making a wine-based dijon cream sauce for a gourmet chicken dish at Becky and Gary Jarrell's home in Naples.


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