A tasteful career
By Amy Martinez, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 12, 2002
BOCA RATON -- When you think about it, the "oldest profession" probably runs a close second to cooking for someone else, an activity that only now is receiving professional status.
After years of operating in the shadows of restaurants and even caterers, personal chefs last month got a public nod from the venerable American Culinary Federation, which finally declared their profession a real one.
"We've been a fad, a trend, those new kids on the block, anything but a legitimate career path, until now," said Candy Wallace, director of the American Personal Chef Association in San Diego, Calif., one of three national organizations dedicated to the profession. "We're now part of the mainstream."
The acceptance of personal chefs is a sign of changing times and one that is predicted to open the door for thousands of people who have a passion for food and a desire to run their own business without a lot of overhead.
In the next five years, Wallace predicts, there will be 25,000 personal chefs, about twice as many as there are today. The growth makes sense, she says, given the need for nutritious meals served in the home to an overworked, overweight nation.
"Finally, I'm doing something that I enjoy getting up and doing," said Ira Michaelson of Boynton Beach, who has spent much of his working life running sundry businesses and cultivating a talent for cooking. "Not only do you get to indulge yourself in cooking, but you also get to work with people one-on-one."
Michaelson became a personal chef in January after the economic recession hit South Florida's hospitality industry especially hard. First, he was laid off by the Marriott Hotel in Delray Beach; then global food management company Sodexho withdrew a job offer.
The 45-year-old Michaelson, a native of Long Island, N.Y., found the American Personal Chef Association on the Internet, and soon Your Personal Gourmet was born, promising "incredible meals" made to specific tastes and dietary restrictions. In June, Michaelson organized the South Florida chapter of the APCA, hoping to help others get started.
"We don't work weekends and nights and Mother's Day and Father's Day and other holidays. We get to have a life," he tells would-be colleagues.
Busy even in summer
Wallace says APCA was overwhelmed by requests for personal chefs shortly after Sept. 11, when eating at home became a priority for many, and "business," he says, "hasn't slowed since." Even the summer, typically a sluggish time of the year, has produced new opportunities.
"We've become quite popular in upscale resort areas," Wallace said. "People want to come in from an active day at the beach or wherever and find a meal waiting for them."
Michaelson, typical of most personal chefs, charges from $300 to $400 for four meals serving five people each. Although that might sound like a lot of money, APCA says that it's a cost savings for families who eat in restaurants and buy takeout at least three times a week.
Money aside, Michaelson says, it takes time to build a reputation. So far he has just one regular client, a family of five west of Boca Raton, and does the occasional in-home cooking class and supermarket demonstration. He is also part-owner of a landscaping service. "I know some personal chefs out there who are discouraged because they don't have any clients after six months," he said.
Otherwise they should register as a business with the state, acquire a safe-food handler's certificate from the National Restaurant Association, buy general liability insurance and obtain a local occupational license, if required.
A feeling of lost youth drove Nina Cioffi to enroll in cooking school after four years of managing a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Gainesville, where she received a bachelor's in public relations from the University of Florida.
"I felt I was missing out on my 20s. It was just a tremendous amount of work," says Cioffi, now 31 and the owner of Spatulas Personal Chef Service in West Palm Beach. Work hasn't slowed since she quit the restaurant business, she says, but she loves what she's doing and she's not as stressed.
Last year, despite the recession, she earned about $100,000. Her clients include affluent professionals who don't have the time or the desire to cook, retirees with diabetes or heart disease, and weight watchers on high-maintenance diets such as The Zone and Atkins. "They look at it as a necessity rather than a luxury," Cioffi says.
Joanna Davis hired Cioffi three years ago after her husband, Jack, underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery. The Davises, who live in Jupiter's Admirals Cove, thought they would keep Cioffi on for a month or two as Jack recovered.
But before long, they were hooked on Cioffi's homemade chocolate ice cream and low-fat, low-sodium dishes, such as chicken scallopini and pan-seared trout with vegetable ragout. Cioffi now cooks at their house twice a week.
"Her cooking is just wonderful," Joanna Davis said. "After a few months, my husband and I looked at each other and said, 'Do we have to let her go?' "
Pascale Deighan, a personal chef in Stuart, earns considerably less than Cioffi -- about $30,000 a year -- but, then, she also works less. She takes off two months a year for vacation and puts in about 30 hours a week, giving her time to spend with her 5-year-old daughter, Morgan.
Deighan grew up in the Brittany region of France, where she started cooking in her mom's kitchen at the age of 5, and considers food her destiny. "I'm born to do this," she says. She would like to open a French cafe, but that takes money she doesn't have yet. "This is just a great opportunity for me to be my own boss."
On the scene but not heard
On a recent Monday at about 8:45 a.m., Ira Michaelson strode in to the Albertson's supermarket at Linton Boulevard and Military Trail in Delray Beach. Carrying a shopping list, he loaded up on fresh vegetables, meats and poultry, and herbs, and left about 45 minutes later with $79.29 in groceries for the Pacconi family of suburban Boca Raton.
By 10 a.m., he was standing in an immaculate kitchen in the Mizner Country Club, a 2-year-old crawling between his legs, a pot of water boiling on the stove and a bag of potatoes waiting to be peeled.
By 3 p.m., he had left the kitchen as clean as he had found it. The refrigerator was stocked with plastic containers full of gourmet meals, including amaretto chicken, roasted pork loin stuffed with Italian sausage and French onion soup. Heating instructions were left on the counter.
Heather Pacconi hired Michaelson after giving birth to her youngest daughter, Katie Rose, eight months ago. Pacconi looked at her 6-year-old daughter, Alicia, her toddler, Ashlyn, and her husband Tom, a Palm Beach Gardens business owner, and thought, "How am I going to do this?"
"I was just overwhelmed," Pacconi says. "We came home from the hospital on a Thursday. My mom and grandma left on Monday, and by Tuesday morning, I was in tears."
Pacconi called the Florida Culinary Institute, Michaelson's alma mater, and within days Michaelson appeared at her doorstep, pots and pans in hand. She planned to use him for a month but soon found him indispensable.
The $300 a week she pays him is a bargain, she says, considering what she used to spend on takeout from Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's -- although money, she adds, never was the issue. "He saves me so much time," she says.
It's that desire for more time that guarantees personal chefs will be around even in recessions, says Wallace, of the American Personal Chef Association.
"As long as people continue to work and eat, we're going to be busy. Time has become the new currency," she says, quoting trend-spotter Faith Popcorn. "Anyone who can put time back into your life is a good investment."
American Personal Chef Association
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