It was bound to happen. First, personal trainers made trips to the gym obsolete. Then personal shoppers eliminated the need to visit the mall or the supermarket. Now, the latest trend in personal services means never having to set foot in your kitchen.
Personal chefs, a job category some say is growing by leaps and bounds, plan the meals, buy the food, cook it in the client's kitchen, fill the freezer with tasty, nutritious dinners and clean up the mess afterward. (Clients, however, must be willing to reheat on their own.)
It sounds like a luxury reserved for the wealthy, but David MacKay, who founded and heads the United States Personal Chef Association, insists it isn't.
"Our chefs," he says, "provide top-shelf food and service at middle-of-the-road prices." That, of course, would depend on your definition of middle-of-the-road: In the Boston area, the per-person cost of meals prepared by personal chefs ranges from around $12 to $20.
MacKay says the demand for personal chefs is growing rapidly; since 1993, his association has helped establish more than 1,500 such businesses. Who are the clients who hunger for this service?
"We have three distinct segments," says MacKay. "Working men and women who face the nightly `What's for dinner?' dilemma. Affluent seniors who don't have the inclination or time to cook, and people who are undergoing at-home medical recovery - heart patients, renal patients, pregnant moms."
Personal chef Cheryl Mochau of Cheryl Really Cooks! in Salem says her service is not just for the wealthy. "It used to be a very exclusive thing. Now it's just regular working people who need good food and are tired of takeout. They come to me when they can take takeout no more."
Everyone's heard about the boom in what's called home-meal replacement: Takeout places are seemingly on every corner, and supermarkets stock prepared meals ranging from sushi to enchiladas. All are ready and eager to meet the needs of those who are too busy to cook, so what's the advantage of going with the pricier services of the personal chef?
Individual service, say both chefs and clients. Typically, a personal chef has prospective clients fill out a lengthy questionnaire on food likes and dislikes, allergies, requirements and so on. "It's a three-page survey on how they like things," says Peggy Dixon, who, along with her husband, Ray, runs the personal chef service Dinner's Ready in Methuen. "It's all the way down to, `Do you like your vegetables cut small or big?'"
Linda Goldberg, whose personal chef business, Creative Cuisine, is based in Somerville, says: "When I come up with their menus, it's all their favorite foods. I'm not cooking in batches of 100. It's done specifically for them."
Goldberg's client Jo Seidler says she appreciates the way her tastes are accommodated, right down to the fact that she doesn't care for skins on her tomatoes.
Once the chef has learned about the client's preferences and discussed menus, he or she will get to work.
The chef arrives at the client's house first thing in the morning, armed with all the necessary groceries and kitchen equipment.
Typically, in a four- or five-hour session, the chef will create five entrees with side dishes, each in sufficient quantities to serve four adults generously. The chef packs the food into the fridge or freezer, as needed, leaves detailed instructions for reheating and cleans the kitchen. Visits may be weekly or every few weeks, whatever the client's needs.
It's a far cry from the live-in cooks who prepare meals for the wealthy, but it's an equally far cry from doing all the planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning yourself. Seidler says that the day she found Goldberg's ad posted at a local Bread & Circus market was "one of the happiest days of my life."
"Linda's been a fabulous find," says Seidler. Though she and her partner, Bette Skandalis, were initially concerned that they might not like the food, they were convinced when Goldberg showed up at their first meeting toting "this delicious plate of potato and dill pastries, with star fruit around it. Just based on hat, we were sold."
Dixon says clients are sometimes resistant initially because they have negative connotations of frozen food. "They remember the frozen dinners they had as kids, that didn't have any taste or hold any romance. This isn't like that; these are good meals that just happen to be frozen."
If clients feel at all guilty about turning over one of life's basic functions to someone else, they generally get over it quickly. Nancy Lovejoy of the Home Bistro in Westborough says one client does express a bit of guilt. But, she says, "she also feels relief that there's something in the refrigerator for her family."
"This is a great way to come home after a busy day; families can just sit together and talk about life. I know this is what happens, because customers tell me. ... I'm often told that they think of me as a member of the family. I'm like the aunt that comes in and does the cooking."
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