Your Chef Is Baking Sole in Your Oven
PLANO, Texas -- Frazzled by two full-time jobs and the demands of two growing girls, Karen and Bill Holub recently found a new key to household happiness: They hired a personal chef.
For $260 for two weeks' worth of dinners, Diane Barrett comes to the Holubs' modest home in this Dallas suburb to whip up such entrees as peach-flavored pork chops, chicken-and-pineapple salsa and spaghetti. "It's wonderful," says Ms. Holub, a nurse whose after-work hours are consumed with housework and her daughters' dance lessons, Girl Scout meetings and soccer practice. Gazing into a freezer packed with prepared foods, she adds, "I might actually get to watch some TV tonight."
Once a luxury available only to the rich, personal chefs are moving into the mainstream, pampering harried moms and dads, busy professionals and other common folk. Cheryl Gorton, who runs a home-based desktop-publishing business in Waubeka, Wis ., sometimes pads into the kitchen for a taste of jalapeno cheese soup or lamb with fruit chutney cooked by her chef, Susan Szudajski. "It makes me feel like queen for the day," says Ms. Gorton, who does her own housecleaning and laundry.
Chefs juggle as many as 10 households and charge either a per-service fee like Ms. Barrett's or an hourly rate, typically $20 to $25. Many are corporate refugees who love to cook but have little culinary training, or burned-out restaurant cooks who want to work for themselves and control their own schedules. Ms. Barrett, for example, is a former insurance adjuster.
The job is getting more popular: Membership in the U.S. Personal Chef Association, based in Albuquerque, N.M., has swelled to 1,500 members, up tenfold from 1993. Annual income can run more than $50,000 a year.
Some families have a handy rationale for splurging on a chef: They say it actually saves on grocery bills. "I'm not a thrifty shopper when I shop myself," says Susan Katz, a book-publishing executive in Fort Lee, N.J., who has a habit of slipping pricey frozen items and unusual health foods into her shopping cart. She figures she saves about $100 a month using a chef.
She still has to shop for burgers for her kids and breakfast basics, but she sometimes takes leftovers from the chef's meals to the office for lunch. And she pref ers having her own chef to eating restaurant food. "The problem with eating out is the food isn't cooked the way you want," she says. "What appeals to me is having someone cooking for me the way I want."
Life isn't always simple in the trenches of the personal-chef business. Cheryl Mochau , a Salem, Mass., chef who charges $25 an hour plus ingredients, knows how to prepare fancy ethnic and vegetarian dishes. But for the suburban Campbell family, she makes mundane pasta and seafood.
"We're not fussy and like all-American cooking," explains Joanne Campbell, who h as two young children and operates a family-owned funeral home with her husband. T he Campbells also request chicken wings for their seven-year-old son and plenty of cut-up fruits and vegetables.
Vickie Kirlick, a chef in River Vale, N.J., recalls working for one bachelor who left his kitchen so grimy that she had to clean up before starting to cook. "He'd left the breakfast dishes in the sink, and his oven was disgusting," says Ms. Kir lick, though she adds that she doesn't cook for him since he got a girlfriend. She also refused to take on a heavyset client who demanded nothing but beef dishes. M s. Kirlick says she feared a lawsuit if the man had a heart attack.
One big challenge is preparing food that still tastes good when it is reheated d ays later. One solution: slightly undercooking some food and supplying a schedule emphasizing that, for instance, the fish dish has a short shelf life but the chili can sit for a few days.
Most chefs shop for all the ingredients and bring their own cooking equipment, but navigating an ordinary kitchen can be tricky. At the Holubs' house in Plano, counter space is sparse, forcing Ms. Barrett to stash her pots on the floor and delicately balance casserole dishes on top of the toaster. One corner of the cutting board sticks off the countertop as she chops.
Preparing the food takes about five hours, but by the time she is done she will have prepared five entrees and a series of side dishes in enough quantity to feed the Holubs for two weeks. Once Ms. Barrett is done, she labels the food with heating instructions and wedges it into the family's already-crowded freezer. The effort is solitary, since Ms. Barrett's clients are at work.
But after 6:30 p.m., when mom, dad and the two girls, ages three and six, get home, the din is notable. Rummaging through the freezer, Mr. Holub picks out one foil-covered dish. "Peach pork? I've never heard of peach pork," he says. "You've sure got me on that one." Later, he tastes a spoonful of Ms. Barrett's pasta salad with dill and, after plucking out the cucumber and tomatoes, pronounces it very good.
The kids aren't as impressed. Ms. Holub carefully picks a single piece of the pa sta salad and feeds it to her three-year-old, Jill, who chews, frowns and shakes h er curly hair. Her older sister, Amanda, refuses to try the dish altogether. For them, "we'll just make some corny dogs or fish sticks," says her mother.
Eating Out at Home
For $260, Diane Barrett shopped for and prepared two weeks of meals for the Holubs, a family of four in Plano, Texas. Here's a sampling of what she cooked up in five hours:
Curry-peach pork chops -- pork chops are flour coated and flavored with peaches and yellow curry
Cucumber-and-dill pasta salad -- served with Gouda cheese
Spaghetti and meat sauce -- prepared with extra-lean ground beef
Chicken with pineapple salsa -- made with fresh pineapple
Arroz con pollo -- chicken and rice casserole
Orange-glazed carrots -- cooked with freshly-squeezed orange juice
Source: WSJ reports
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