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Kitchen crusader - Local entrepreneur helps personal chefs carve a career path

Kitchen crusader - Local entrepreneur helps personal chefs carve a career path

By Kris Grant
May 7, 2003

Kitchen crusader - Local entrepreneur helps personal chefs carve a career path

You might say Candy Wallace is on a personal crusade.

The San Diego entrepreneur has played a major role in making the personal chef a valid career path among culinary professionals throughout America.

For years, personal chefs have operated in the shadows of restaurants and caterers. But now the profession is becoming a household word and, for many harried working couples and even busy singles, a household necessity.

The founder of the American Personal Chef Association, Wallace estimates there are 7,000 personal chefs in the United States; her association represents more than 3,000 of them. Typically, a personal chef comes to a client's home to prepare and freeze a couple of weeks' meals.

Kitchen crusader - Local entrepreneur helps personal chefs carve a career path"I don't teach them how to cook," says Wallace. "I train them in the business of doing business and help them market their services."

In five years, Wallace predicts, there will be 25,000 personal chefs. The growth makes sense, she says, given the need for nutritious meals for an overworked and overweight nation.

Last month Wallace was named Entrepreneur/Business Professional of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) at the group's annual conference in Montreal.

"We started out as a fad," Wallace said in accepting the award. "Then we became a trend, and now, personal chefs are perceived as the hot new personal service with staying power."

A year ago, Wallace made another stride in advancing the industry by signing a partnership agreement between her association and the venerable American Culinary Federation that formally adopted a personal-chef certification developed by the two organizations. Now Wallace is working with the IACP to develop a similar personal-chef certification.

Wallace says the certifications are embraced by professional chefs, many of whom have expressed interest in pursuing the career path themselves one day.

"For chefs who are tired of cooking on the line, a career as a personal chef means they can own their own business and set their own hours," she says.

Jacques Pepin, the noted cookbook author and host of several television series, pointed out to Wallace at the IACP convention that he himself had been a personal chef when he cooked for Charles de Gaulle.

But these days, you don't have to be a head of state to afford a personal chef, Wallace notes. "If you can afford a housekeeper or a gardener, you can afford a personal chef."

Personal preferences

I caught up with Wallace at the home of Sharon Esche and Alex Irving of Oceanside, where two members of Wallace's association, sisters Liz Spiegl and Rocky Lipham, were preparing Sesame-crusted Salmon, asparagus wrapped in proscuitto and wild rice pilaf for the couple.

The sisters were standing in while the personal chef Irving and Esche have been employing for a couple of years Jessica Leibovich of Entree Nous ( was out of town.

Irving and Esche have found using a personal chef to be more economical than cooking for themselves.

"It's not a luxury; it's a service you can afford," said Irving.

He noted that the couple had been spending between $1,100 and $1,300 a month on groceries.

"By comparison, our personal chef would charge us $350 plus the cost of the groceries every two weeks. The total came out about $300 under what we were spending," he said, adding that that doesn't include the time it took the couple to shop, prepare meals and clean up.

"And we were eating a lot of fast-food type meals not exactly healthy eating," Esche added.

"Now we're traveling around the world every two weeks," said Irving. "We'll have a French meal, a lobster Newburg, a vegetable or meat lasagna."

Irving and Esche work out of their house, operating a public relations firm specializing in beauty-product promotion.

"It's a beautiful day when we have our chef downstairs cooking and all these aromas waft up to us," said Esche.

In four hours, Leibovich prepares meals designed to last two weeks 12 entrees and side dishes, plus desserts.

The meals are labeled and frozen in attractive, reusable ceramic dishes. A menu list attached to the refrigerator provides heating instructions and an easy road map so the couple knows which entrees and side dishes go together.

Among the most recent rotation were chicken marsala and angel-hair pasta; halibut with rosemary and garlic in a vermouth crme frache sauce accompanied by skillet zucchini; pot roast with mashed potatoes; and chili-roasted chicken with roasted garlic gravy and mashed potatoes.

Irving and Esche usually supplement the prepared meals with a tossed green salad. They eat out one night a week, theoretically allowing the meals to last the entire two weeks.

But with a bit of guilty laughter, they admitted they have been known to go through the dishes at a more rapid clip.

"The problem is, they're so good, and we'll get hungry at lunchtime and say, 'Just this once . . . ' " Irving confessed.

Two years ago, when the couple first met with Leibovich, Esche said she expected a Julia Child-type person to walk through the door.

girl," she said. "But come to find out, she is a graduate of Johnson & Wales and studied at La Varenne in Paris.

"Alex told her he liked spicy foods, and I told her I preferred mild. But she found dishes that appealed to both of us, like her seafood linguine."

With Leibovich out of town, the couple sat down to a meal prepared by Spiegl and Lipham's Fallbrook-based Cook's Nite Off.

Like all members of the personal chefs association, the two supply their own pots, pans and utensils as well as the groceries. Wearing spiffy chef's pants and clogs, they began washing produce, chopping and sauteing. Soon the room was filled with tantalizing aromas.

Wallace brought along a couple of her favorite appetizers: pizzas, one topped with crme frache, salmon and dill; the other with caramelized onions. As we talked, she put the finishing touches on an angel cake with Grand Marnier whipped cream.

Spiegl had been a stay-at-home mom whose husband and three daughters suffered from allergies. "I cooked everything and I mean everything from scratch because food preservatives would kick off allergic reactions," she said.

Five years ago, when her daughters were grown, Spiegl enrolled at the culinary school at Orange Coast College, specifically planning to become a personal chef. Lipham joined the business upon returning from several years in Papua, New Guinea, and Belize.

While both women had the cooking end of the business down pat, they needed help in business development and began researching personal chef associations.

"There are a handful of personal chef associations across the nation," Spiegl said. "But we couldn't believe it when we found that the largest and, in our opinion, the best, was based right here in San Diego."

Membership in a personal chef association "gives you legitimacy," Spiegl said. "Our Web site ( is connected to the

APCA Web site, and that's where a lot of new customers find us."

Fourteen other personal-chef companies in San Diego County are listed on the American Personal Chef Association site (

Wallace, who spends a good deal of her time traveling the country and speaking at conferences and regional gatherings of association members, sees a bright future for the industry.

"Our segment of the chef industry is already developing its own niche markets," she says. "I recently attended a meeting of 38 of our members in the Chicago area. One of our chefs cooks only for clients in her own building . . . Another handles only medically specified diets."

One of the fastest growing segments of the market, Wallace notes, is seniors particularly those who no longer drive or don't want to hassle with supermarket lines and the hoisting of heavy pans in the kitchen.

Another trend is giving personal-chef services as a gift.

"It's a fabulous gift for a new mother, or someone in their final month of pregnancy," Wallace said. "Last Valentine's Day, we had several husbands present their wives with a personal-chef certificate, and they got to enjoy the gift as well."

The sixth annual Personal Chef Summit, a gathering of Wallace's association, is scheduled for Aug. 14 through 16 at the Town & Country Hotel in Mission Valley. The event is open to established as well as aspiring personal chefs. Visit the group's Web site or call (619) 294-2436 for information.

Kris Grant is a Coronado-based writer.

Sesame-crusted Salmon

4 servings
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
4 (6 to 8 ounces each) salmon fillets
1-1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat broiler, and coat broiler pan lightly with olive oil.

On a plate, mix the zests and sesame seeds. Brush sesame oil on the salmon fillets. Season the fillets with salt and pepper.

Dredge salmon in the sesame seed mixture. Place salmon, skin side down, on broiler pan. Broil salmon for 12 minutes, or until it flakes

easily with a fork. You may need to cover the salmon with aluminum foil the last six minutes so the sesame seeds do not burn.

(From Cook's Nite Off.)

Prosciutto-wrapped Asparagus

8 servings
16 asparagus spears
1 lemon (halved)
8 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced

Wash asparagus spears and trim off tough ends. Steam asparagus until crisp-tender. Squeeze lemon juice over the asparagus and let it cool.

Heat broiler. Wrap a piece of prosciutto around each asparagus spear. Place on a lightly oiled broiler pan and broil just until prosciutto crisps up a bit, about 2 minutes.

(From Cook's Nite Off.)

Caramelized Onion Pizza

8 appetizer servings
1 tablespoon butter
2 to 3 yellow onions, sliced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Basic Pizza Crust (see accompanying recipe)
1 cup grated fontina cheese
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives

In a saute pan, heat the butter over medium-low heat. Saute the onion slices for about 15 minutes, or until soft and golden. Add balsamic vinegar and saute for an additional minute. (Caramelized onions can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated for up to five days.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cook pizza crust until light brown and crisp, about 12 minutes. When crust is browned, remove it from the oven and sprinkle it with the grated fontina and parmesan cheeses; return to the oven just until the cheese melts. Remove the crust from the oven and top with onions and olives.

Slice pizza into four or five strips, then turn and slice into crosshatch diamond pattern. Serve as an appetizer or as an entree with soup or a field green salad.

(From Candy Wallace.)

Basic Pizza Dough

Makes 2 pizza crusts
2 to 2-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (divided use)
1/4-ounce package fast-acting yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cornmeal, for sprinkling pans

In a large bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup of flour, yeast, sugar, and 2/3 cup hot water (130 degrees). Stir in the oil, 1-1/4 cups of the remaining flour and the salt; blend mixture until it forms a dough.

Knead the dough on a floured surface, incorporating as much of the remaining 1/4 cup flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until it is smooth and elastic. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

To make dough in a food processor: In processor bowl, combine 3/4 cup of the flour and the yeast and sugar. With the motor running, add 2/3 cup hot water (130 degrees), and turn the motor off. Add the oil, 1-1/4 cups of the remaining flour and the salt. Process until mixture forms a ball, adding more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, if dough is too dry, or more flour, 1 tablespoon at time, if it is too wet. Knead the dough by processing it for 15 seconds.

The dough may be used immediately, but for better flavor it is best to let it rise once. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn it to coat it with the oil. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place for 30 minutes, or until doubled in bulk. Punch it down.

Divide dough in half. Roll and stretch each half to a 12-inch circle. Place circles of dough onto two 12-inch round pizza pans (or 2 baking sheets) that have been greased and sprinkled with cornmeal.

(From Candy Wallace.)

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