Personal chefs are no longer just for the rich

By Jerry Shriver, USA TODAY

A power shift is astir in America's kitchens, and it has nothing to do with those little buttons on your blender.

In the not-too-distant future, the country's most sought-after chefs may no longer be the celebs overseeing trendy urban restaurants and starring in TV cooking shows. Takeout food from restaurants and grocery stores may no longer be the automatic in-a-pinch choices for the harried, hungry masses. There may not even be a pinch.

The emerging pacesetters are chefs who cook in customers' homes and empower them to specify the cuisine, menus, calorie content, spicing levels and dinner hour. These pros more closely resemble your grandmother than Escoffier: They also do your shopping, wash the dishes, even take out the garbage.

They're graduating from cooking schools by the hundreds, and they are beginning to reshape the chef-diner relationship.

"This is the kitchen equivalent of day care," says Clark Wolf, a New York-based food and restaurant consultant. "Just as we have accepted other people taking care of our kids with our instructions, we have accepted other people cooking for us with our instructions."

What people want the most isn't found in any restaurant or grocery store. "What I'm selling people is time, not so much food, or I'm selling them health," says Jan Sims, who runs the 7-month-old personal chef service And What's for Dinner in Topeka, Kan. The mouth-filling slogan for her business: "Meals Like Mom Made, Made in Your Place to Your Taste."

When in-home chef services came to national attention in the mid-1990s, the prime customer base was affluent couples, usually with families. But the number of personal chefs has mushroomed since then, and today they're increasingly filtering into mainstream markets such as Sunbelt retirement communities and middle-class homes in the heartland.

The United States Professional Chef Association, one of the industry's largest training and certifying organizations, places the number of full-time in-home chefs at 6,000, and the customers using them at 100,000 or more.

Five years ago, "there were maybe just a few hundred personal chefs," says the association's president, David MacKay. "Today they're in every state and in every city above 50,000 (population)."

A cottage industry

As the number of in-home chefs has grown, the profession has taken on some of the trappings of a cottage industry. Most services are solo operations, sometimes advertised in free supermarket-shopper newspapers or by note cards pinned to bulletin boards. The chefs usually have at least an associate's degree (or the equivalent) from a culinary school. A service with 20 clients can bring in $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

Typically, personal chefs visit a home once or twice a month. They prepare a dozen or more meals at a time and store them in the refrigerator or freezer for the client to reheat later. Clients pay about $14 to $20 per person per meal (usually a meat, starch and vegetable), with extras negotiable.

Wherever they go, in-home chefs are bonding with diners in a way that Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse might envy.

Says Daniel Caplin, an emergency room physician from Farmington, N.M., who hired personal chef Donna Sperry to cook for his family of four last year: "Donna has become a friend to my wife. Our children love her. Our dog loves her. She leaves the kitchen cleaner than when she comes."

"For us, it's like having a house cleaner - it's a service we value very highly," says Barbara Haney of Topeka. She hired Jan Sims last fall after her husband, Tom, who did the cooking, broke his ankle. He's nearly healed and could resume his duties, but Sims still comes once a month. "We're spoiled," Haney says.

The feeling often is mutual. Many of today's in-house chefs are veterans of restaurants who sought relief from the long, stressful hours - and have found freedom and respect.

"People are intrigued with us right now," says Jennifer Buck of Atlanta, who became a personal chef after several years of working in restaurants and bakeries. "Clients seem more worried about treating me well than I am with doing a good job for them. As a lowly line cook in a restaurant, you're not getting that."

Schools train personal chefs

The profession is so appealing that some culinary schools are adding personal chef instruction to their curriculums.

"Personal chef services have grown to a point where they are now recognized by the culinary industry and by schools as a viable career path, not just a 'how-to' business," says MacKay, who also heads the United States Personal Chef Institute. The Rio Rancho, N.M.-based school, with satellite locations in 22 cities, has seen its alumni grow to 5,000 - 10 times what it was in 1995, MacKay says.

Another major player is the Art Institutes system of schools, which offers two- and four-year culinary arts degree programs in 12 cities. Enrollment in those programs has grown from a handful nine years ago to 4,000 today, "and many of them are training to be personal and private chefs," says Jeffrey Durosko of the Art Institutes.

The esteemed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., the nation's largest chef school, doesn't specifically train students to be personal chefs. But an increasing number of its graduates are switching to that profession after starting out in restaurants, says Wendy Higgins, assistant director of career services. She says the school's job databank fields about 10 to 15 requests for private and personal chefs each month.

Those requests used to come mainly from nearby Long Island and New York City, but now "we get requests from all over the United States."

As the profession evolves, so have the definitions of "personal" and "private" chefs.

Traditionally, a private chef is a classically trained member of the staff of a wealthy household who cooks the daily meals for one client. They're also in demand these days, and their salaries can range from $60,000 to the low six figures.

Over the past decade, the "personal chef" has emerged as more middle-class families gained more disposable income.

Those definitions still hold, but today there's a blending of the two. Some personal chefs limit their clientele to just a few customers, charge more, visit more often and specialize in a fancier style of cooking.

"I'm very personal and flexible," says chef Belinda Poe of Atlanta, who has three clients and charges about $150 for a five-hour day, plus the cost of ingredients. "They can call me anytime. If you're just coming in once a week, that's not being a personal chef."

Three levels of meals

Liz Tarditi of Seattle, whose Today's Gourmet service caters mostly to upscale high-tech clients, offers "comfort," "gourmet" and "epicurean" levels of meals, at prices ranging from $17.50 to $65 per person per meal. Most clients choose the $22.50 "gourmet" plan.

"If you eat out five or six nights a week, it's actually a lot cheaper having me make your lobster risotto for you," Tarditi says.

Some in-home chefs even specialize in certain types of clients. Beth Simek of Busy B's Personal Chef Service in Phoenix draws most of her business from the elderly residents of nearby Sun City.

"The elderly are keen on fast food, so if they can get someone to come in and make balanced meals for them, for a reasonable price (in her case, about $12.50 per person per meal), they're happy."

Most industry analysts agree that in-home dining will never replace going out to a nice restaurant because that experience offers unique entertainment value. But it will become a vastly more important part of the mealtime mix.

"If someone can afford a personal chef, they can also afford to go out to eat, and they aren't going to stop doing that," Wolf says. "What these services are replacing is takeout food and processed food. There, they have the potential to have quite an impact."

Perhaps the most telling sign that personal chefs are exerting influence upon the masses: The Food Network, which is a prime forum for celebrity chefs, will air a special called Personal Chefs on March 18 (9 p.m. ET/6 PT). To promote it, the cable channel will run a contest that gives viewers a chance to win a personal chef's services for a year.

"I tried for five years to get them interested," says MacKay, who appears on the show. "Now they're doing an hour on it. They're having to recognize us as a force."

Finding a personal chef

American Personal Chef Institute and Association, 800-644-8389;

United States Personal Chef Association, 800-747-2433;

The Art Institutes, 888-328-7900;