NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Sharon Worster doesn't like to leave even a trace of evidence that she spent the entire afternoon in a client's kitchen cooking up a storm. By the time her clients get home, the trash is taken out, the pots have been cleaned and the stovetops, oven and counters are sparkling.|
Worster is one of a growing number of professional personal chefs who provide home-cooked meals for harried people who no longer have time to shop for and prepare delicious, nutritious meals for themselves or their families.
"I'm kind of like a food fairy," said Worster, a personal chef in Woodlands, Texas. "They come home and have food for a week and it was like I was never there."
There's one thing, however, that always clues her clients into the fact that Worster has been there: the smell. The scents of fresh herbs and spices, reduction sauces and a variety of home-cooked entrees linger long after Worster has cleaned off her knives and packed up her pan and headed home.
"People are too busy to cook and don't want to eat out all the time," Worster said. "And they're also sick of going for takeout all the time."
A family chef, but more affordable
Personal chefs are something akin to family chefs who once devoted their entire professional day to serving meals to one family. Unlike family cooks, personal chefs usually cook once a week, only twice monthly or once a month, depending on the needs of their customers. They leave behind frozen or refrigerated packages of food, with elaborate instructions on how to reheat them.
Also, unlike an old-style family cook who only the wealthy could hire, personal chefs are much more affordable. Partly because people are finding they are busy and partly because they can finally afford a little help in the kitchen, the personal chef business is a growing industry.
The United States Personal Chef Association estimates that its ranks grow by about 100 chefs each month. The association has 3,200 members and expects that will swell to 5,000 within the next two years. Likewise, the number of households that use personal chef services has grown from about 1,000 ten years ago to nearly 100,000, according to the USPCA.
Having a personal chef is something of a luxury, admits Star Soltan, who hired her personal chef, Ina Kuller, more than five years ago. Like many busy moms, Soltan often resorted to serving pizza for dinner on those nights when she returned home too late to cook. Kuller visits Soltan's San Diego, Calif., home about once a month and prepares and leaves enough food in the freezer for about 10 meals. Instead of the unhealthy take-out burgers of years past, serving Kuller's food on those nights when she's short on time makes her feel like she's taking care of her family.
"It makes me feel like I'm still a good mom," Soltan said.
Personalized meals worth a little more
Certainly, its still not a service that everyone can take advantage of. It's definitely more expensive than fast food and can be more expensive than eating in a restaurant. Even so, Jennifer Van Hoof, said it's not out of reach for many people.
Van Hoof is a personal chef in New York City. Her clients get a very healthy meal of an entrée, side dish and a vegetable for about $13 per meal. At that price, Van Hoof acknowledges that people can find cheaper ways to keep themselves fed. But they rarely find food made quite to their liking and that takes their dietary needs into consideration.
Most personal chefs not only allow their clients to choose from an extensive menu, but also let them customize the food to suit their tastes. Don't like cayenne pepper? Your personal chef won't use it in the meals he or she prepares for you. Allergic to cilantro? It will be tossed out every time they cook for you. Dieting? They can take care of those needs as well.
Benefits for chefs as well as for clients
About half the personal chefs working in the United States have professional culinary training, said David MacKay, president of the USPCA. Working as personal chefs provides them an alternative to toiling in hot restaurant kitchens for long hours and little pay. Most personal chefs, he said, take home between $200 and $300 a day after expenses, which works out to be more than many head restaurant chefs earn.
Kuller is one of those personal chefs whose background is in cooking. She worked in both restaurants and as a family cook before starting her own personal chef business seven years ago in San Diego. She noted the lure of more money and fewer hours is attractive to many restaurant chefs, but cautioned that on top of having a nose for cooking, successful personal chefs also need a head for business.
"Unless you fall into a clientele, you have to learn to market yourself," Kuller said, noting that many people are still unfamiliar with the industry. "A lot of chefs are not used to promoting themselves, but you have to do it."
Today, Kuller says she is as busy as she wants to be. She has many regular clients who found her through a combination of newspaper advertising, word of mouth and the good fortune to have had her business profiled in the local newspaper.
The other group of personal chefs are mostly people who, at one point, were themselves in need of a chef's services. MacKay said the average age of the personal chefs in his organization is 44 and is a second career for most of them.
Worster wanted more free time after 17 very busy years in nursing that included late night phone calls from work, double shifts and pages from the hospital on the weekend.
"I know how important this is for the people I cook for," she said. "There is something about helping people get together around the table for a meal. I know some of my clients didn't used to do that. I don't know what they would do without me."