Your Personal Chef Is On Call
HOT BUSINESS CATERS TO PEOPLE WHO ARE TOO BUSY, NOT TOO RICH
Imagine arriving home after a hectic day at work, opening the door and smelling saffron linguine with spicy shrimp and vegetables cooking in your kitchen. Fresh flowers, a bowl of fruit and home-baked cookies sit on the counter.
The kitchen is spotless and there are four additional meals labeled and stored in your refrigerator for later consumption.
Your personal chef has visited today.
``It's a gift I give to myself,'' said Donna Caramello of Salem, a real estate broker who has Cheryl Mochau of Cheryl Really Cooks! prepare her meals. ``It's healthy and nutritious and saves me money.''
Lori Fairbrother, a business consultant from Newburyport who hires Gloria Dunbar and Erin Silvia of Season to Taste to cook for her, agreed: ``I have a very busy lifestyle. I don't get home until 7:30 p.m. and just don't feel like cooking. Now, I'm getting organic, gourmet cuisine that is exactly what I want to eat. It's convenient. And it's all for what I was spending on takeout junk before.''
For Barbara Ryan of Beverly, hiring a personal chef was not only a timesaver, it was a lifesaver. Due to an autoimmune disorder, Ryan can't eat gluten, a substance that is found in wheat and many foods. She lost 30 pounds and was sick for six months.
``I was eating bananas and baked potatoes all the time, just the safe things,'' said Ryan, a specialist in learning disabilities. Now, she said, Mochau cooks meals for her that are gluten-free. ``She's made eating an enjoyment for me again,'' Ryan said. ``Some people [with the disorder] quit their jobs because they have to spend so much time thinking about what to eat. I can go on fully with my life.''
Caramello, Fairbrother and Ryan are among a growing number of people -- including busy professionals, new and time-strapped parents, senior citizens, and people on restrictive diets -- who are hiring personal chefs.
And Mochau, Dunbar and Silvia are part of a business that has been named one of the 10 hottest for 1998 by several magazines, including Entrepreneur, Your Money, and U.S. News and World Report.
``It's one of those service businesses whose time has come. It's growing at a phenomenal rate,'' said David MacKay, executive director of the United States Personal Chef Association, based in New Mexico. ``Somebody starts a chef service every day.''
The membership of the association has grown from 15 personal chef businesses operating in six states in 1991 to more than 1,500 in 50 states, Canada and Australia last December, MacKay said.
``The perception now is that if you have a personal chef you must be busy, not wealthy,'' MacKay said. ``They are available for middle America.''
Some reasons for the growth, MacKay said, are that people are increasingly health conscious and following restrictive diets. And, he said, baby boomers, a large block of consumers, are comfortable with hiring people to do everyday tasks for them, from cleaning the house to walking the dog to grocery shopping.
For the chefs, Mackay said, ``personal cheffing'' provides an opportunity to do something they love, cooking, without the confines and terrible hours of working in a restaurant or catering.
Mochau, 40, of Salem began cooking when she was 7 and bought her first cookbook at a school book fair. Each Saturday, she'd make breakfast for her five older brothers and younger sister. ``They would eat anything so it was very encouraging,'' she said.
Still, it was not until she burned out in a career working with handicapped children in 1985 that she pursued cooking professionally. She started at a Holiday Inn in Connecticut, went on to an upscale restaurant in West Hartford, then managed a small breakfast and lunch cafe in downtown Hartford. ``I grew a lot there cooking and managing,'' Mochau said, adding the cafe is where she started doing low-fat cooking.
When the building was slated for demolition and the cafe closed, Mochau got a job managing a cafeteria at the University of Hartford. ``I went from one of the better jobs in my life to the worst,'' she said.
She saw an article in New Woman magazine about the personal chef business and decided to give it a try. That was seven years ago. ``When I started people thought I was nuts, that it would never work,'' Mochau said. But she soon had six full-time customers.
When Mochau's husband, Geoff, got a job in Massachusetts and the couple moved to Salem 1 1/2 years ago, she started up her business again and got a good response.
Caramello and Ryan are just two of her customers who are very pleased. ``Cheryl prepares exquisite meals, an extensive menu,'' said Caramello, who eats mainly vegetarian meals. ``There's a wide variety that would appeal to many palates.''
Mochau prepares low-fat meals for about 90 percent of her clients. They love pasta, chicken and fish, she said. And while an occasional gourmet meal is appreciated, they like ``regular meals'' such as vegetable lasagne.
``She can do wonderful things with carrots and beans that make you want to eat them,'' Ryan said. ``She makes everything from lasagne to beef stroganoff to chicken soup and fancy vegetables. It's all healthy and wonderful.''
And for Ryan, it's all gluten-free. ``Cheryl researched the disease on the computer and came up with her own ideas. She took a lot of initiatives,'' Ryan said. ``People do a great job at what they love.''
In addition to loving to cook, Mochau said, a personal chef has to be organized and fast. ``If you are going in and doing four or five dinners for somebody and you're not fast, you'll be there all day,'' she said. ``I plan the entire session in advance.''
Mochau said she's also an efficient shopper. ``I have the grocery store plans laid out in my mind. I can zoom in and out in 25 minutes,'' she said. And clients seem to appreciate not having to shop themselves. ``It saves them an incredible amount of time and, in the long run, money,'' Mochau said. ``They're not buying trashy food, and they don't have to deal with the cookie aisle.''
She said she spends about 32 hours a week on the physical part of the job -- shopping, cooking and cleaning up -- and many more hours planning menus and her business.
Mochau charges clients for the groceries, and then $25 an hour. She generally cooks five dinners in four to five hours. Her average bill is about $175.
Her clients include a husband, wife and two small children, whom she cooks for every week, single people and an elderly woman.
Mochau also teaches low-fat cooking at the Women's Health Center of the North Shore in Danvers, has written a book on personal cheffing and is considering becoming a consultant to other personal chefs.
``I get a lot of pleasure from this,'' Mochau said. ``It's almost a spiritual thing.''
Dunbar, 46, of Salisbury and Silvia, 27, of Newburyport started Season to Taste in Newburyport about a month ago and have quickly gotten several customers.
``It's like a dream,'' Silvia said. ``You get to make food for people. Food is my obsession. It's all I ever wanted to do in my life.''
Silvia majored in culinary arts at Bunker Hill Community College, worked for four years as head baker at Governor Dummer Academy, a private school in Byfield, for four years, cooked at Middle Street Foods in Newburyport for several years and baked in San Francisco for Whole Foods, the parent company of Bread and Circus. She most recently cooked for The Natural Grocer in Newburyport, which sells healthy meals and baked goods.
Dunbar worked in the dental field for 20 years -- 12 years as a dental assistant and eight years as an office manager. But, she said, ``I had always wanted to get into cooking. It has always been my passion.''
She dreamed of attending culinary school in Cambridge but, she said, the dental job ``just wasn't going to let me go.'' Then, about a year ago, the dentist she worked for died and the practice closed. ``A path opened up and I knew it was time to start'' cooking as a career, she said. ``It was `OK, you're 45, and this is the last time you are going to get this opportunity. It's right in front of you.' ''
Dunbar went to the Natural Grocer and offered to help the cook they had already hired. That cook was Silvia. ``We hit it off really well,'' Dunbar said. ``It was like, here's a woman who is as crazy as I am about food.''
In addition to cooking, the women like to seek out the freshest ingredients, from hormone-free meat at Tendercrop Farm in Newbury to just-off-the-boat fish at David's in Salisbury.
Season to Taste's menus run the gamut from stuffed manicotti to braised fish with fennell, tomatoes and olives on white bean salad. There also are seasonal variations.
The cost is $289, which includes the groceries and 10 meals for two people, or 20 meals for a single person.
``I jumped on it as soon as I heard about it,'' said Fairbrother, who commutes to a job in Framingham and often travels. ``I was grabbing takeout on the way home, eating fried food or opening a can of soup. And by the time I'd eat it was 8:30 or 9 p.m.''
And, she said, the service costs her no more than she was spending on dining out.
``This just takes the stress out of my day completely. I come home and it's done,'' she said. ``Now, I'm looking for the next step. Someone cleans my house, someone cooks for me, I need someone to do my errands.''
How the service works
What is a personal chef?
In general, personal chef services work like this: The chef and client meet to discuss food preferences, desires and restrictions. The chef then creates a menu of several meals for the client's approval.
On a specified day, the chef shops for the necessary ingredients. Then, with a satchel of pots and pans, mixers, blenders, dish soap and other equipment, as well as a case of spices, the chef goes into the client's kitchen and spends several hours creating a variety of meals.
One dinner is usually eaten that night and the rest are stored in the client's refrigerator or freezer for consumption later in the week or the month. Everything is labeled and includes instructions for reheating.
The meals include a balanced entree, salads, side dishes and sometimes baked goods. They can be for one person or a family. Menus range from things like meatloaf and lasagna to gourmet offerings.
When the cooking is done, the chef cleans the kitchen and leaves.
MacKay said costs generally range from about $7 to $16 a meal.
While some clients hire chefs to cook weekly, many have them come once every two weeks or once a month. Often the service is given as a gift, to a new mother for instance.
For more information on the United States Personal Chef Association, call 800-995-2138 or check its website at http://www.uspca.com.
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