Her Mind — Winter 2011
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Martha Thomas

After interviewing a handful of personal chefs I couldn’t decide if I wanted to hire a personal chef or become one.

The women I encountered are passionate about cooking and have found a way to do what they love – preparing food for appreciative eaters – while making a pretty good living. They do it on their own time, as their own bosses.

Up until about 10 years ago, Beth Andresini worked as a paralegal at a large law firm. “Every time someone had a baby, I’d give them a week’s worth of food,” she says. Until one January day when, stranded at home watching the Food Channel during a blizzard, she saw a segment about personal chefs. “That was it,” she said.

Andresini, who lives in Towson, soon incorporated her business, Thyme for You, “and never looked back,” she says. She now serves six clients, and employs three additional chefs, each with three clients of their own. Andresini works about 4 days a week, cooking in her clients’ kitchens, leaving containers of food packed in the refrigerator or freezer, complete with side dishes and instructions for re-heating.

Andresini starts her workday with a trip to the grocery store, where she purchases all the supplies she will need and then goes directly to her client’s home. This procedure, which most personal chefs follow, saves the need to work in a professional, Board of Health-approved kitchen.

“Food can’t travel from one client to another,” says Noreen Marsh, a Columbia resident who owns Thyme to Savor. Nor can anything perishable travel from her home to her clients’. Personal chefs certified by both of the two national associations are required to pass a ServSafe food handling course.

Like Andresini, Marsh stumbled across the vocation: A few years ago she saw an article in Cooking Light magazine and immediately signed up for a course offered in New Mexico by the American Personal and Private Chef Association (APPCA).

Personal chefs are not private chefs, points out Candy Wallace, founder and director of the APPCA. “A private chef is the full-time employee, often live-in, of one family,” she says. “A personal chef owns and operates their own business. They find their own clients and make their own schedules.” According to another professional organization, the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA), founded in 1991, there are about 5,000 personal chefs in the United States.

Is it affordable for mere mortals to hire a personal chef? According to Vince Lukar, executive director of the USPCA, meals average around $20 per plate, depending on food costs. If someone wants all organic, has expensive tastes or requires a special diet, he points out, the price will be higher.

Says Beth Andresini, “I like to compare hiring a personal chef to having a cleaning person.” In about six hours – including shopping time – she prepares anywhere from three to six entrees and side dishes, usually four servings each, charging $275- $350, not including food. Most personal chefs choose similar “fee plus groceries” model, so their prices aren’t subject to fluctuating food costs.

Pam Gruver, who lives in Woodstock, says she saves money by hiring Noreen Marsh. A financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, Gruver, who lives alone, used to eat carry-out food almost every night. But aft er losing weight, Gruver began to worry that the hidden additives, salt and fat in restaurant foods might sabotage her health. Marsh, she says, “portions everything to keep it healthy,” and has helped her keep the weight off . Gruver adds that because Marsh does all the shopping, there is no food waste.

“I get home at 7 or 8 in the evening and all I have to do is heat up my dinner,” says Gruver. She sought out a personal chef on the suggestion of a colleague. “I thought, that is so indulgent,” she recalls. “But it’s not. For someone living alone or a dual income family, it makes a lot of sense.”

Some personal chefs specialize in designing diets for clients with special needs. That’s how April Lee, who lives in Ellicott City and owns Tastefully Yours, got into the business. Aft er more than 25 years working as a professional events planner and a trained medical massage therapist, Lee says, she began to look for a new career.

She started preparing meals for people with chronic medical conditions and those recovering from surgery. “I found myself catering to people with special needs,” she says. Soon this enterprise evolved to work as a personal chef. “The business kind of found me,” she says. The transition was easy for Lee, who came from a family of restaurateurs. She had worked at her aunt’s Chinese restaurants in Washington, D.C., as a teenager.

Along with the clients with special diets, Lee has what she calls “regular meal service” clients for whom she cooks bi-weekly or monthly. Like Andresini, she objects to the perceptions that clients have to be wealthy. “This service is for people who enjoy good food and don’t know how to cook or don’t have time to cook for themselves.”

Like many personal chefs, Lee takes on occasional smaller jobs, preparing dinner parties for clients or catering events.

Vince Likar, executive director of USPCA says that personal chefs who work full time can make a good living. “Many do a variety of work in addition to weekly and monthly services. Some do small dinner parties and in-home cooking classes, what we call entertainment cooking.” But the bulk of it is making meals for clients on a regular basis.

Constance Breeden, who owns Just a Matter of Thyme (yes, the word “Thyme” is popular in the business), has seen her regular clients decline during the recession. To compensate, she’s picked up plenty of private events, like the interactive dinner party she recently prepared for a woman’s 60th birthday party. With the help of the 12 guests, she demonstrated preparation of several internationally themed small plates, and paired them with wine. She also recently catered a post-wedding brunch for Leonard and Ann Guralnick, parents of the bride, in Columbia. “It was wonderful,” says Ann. “I was able to relax the day aft er my daughters wedding. I didn’t have to worry about a thing.”