NEW YORK -- As lives get busier with careers, kids and commutes, more people are turning to personal chefs to guarantee there's a hot meal on the table at the end of a long day.
Hiring a professional to cook for you isn't a whole lot different than hiring someone to clean your house or walk the dog, and it's not just for the wealthy, said John Moore, executive director of the United States Personal Chef Association.
"People don't have personal chefs because they have tons of money. They have them because it solves a problem: It puts dinner on the table."
Personal chefs typically prepare several days' worth of customized meals in advance, potentially for several clients. The meals are prepared and packaged, ready to be popped in an oven or microwave whenever a client wants to eat.
Some chefs charge a flat rate, while others are paid by the hour. The chef does the grocery shopping and the cleanup, which are added to a client's bill. Total costs usually range from $15 to $20 per person per meal, depending on the kind of food prepared and other related costs. That's not much different from a meal at a restaurant, "except that people don't have to go out, pay for parking or leave a tip," Moore said. "And they get to eat a meal … made just for them."
The association estimates that there are just over 5,000 personal-chef businesses operating in the USA and Canada, up from about 1,500 a decade ago. The industry generates about $300 million in revenue a year, and that number is expected to double in the next five years, the association said.
Getting to know you
Mark Tafoya, who owns the New York-based Remarkable Palate personal-chef service, cooks for regular weekly clients and also offers one-time meal services, such as romantic dinners for two.
For regular clients, the week's meals are discussed in advance and are created in accordance with dietary needs and personal tastes. Organic, vegetarian and kosher options are available, and nothing is repeated for six months unless requested, he said.
Tafoya said that by cooking for the same clients over a long time, he's able to develop a kind of intimacy and customization that restaurant chefs aren't able to. "I can suggest new dishes that they might not have tried before but I think might be right for them."
He was drawn to the profession after careers in acting and teaching and saw it as a way to turn his love of food and cooking into a viable business. Tafoya also is the co-owner and executive chef of The Gilded Fork, an online media company featuring recipes and podcasts, articles and blogs about food.
Tafoya has cooked for Beth Dominguez's family of five — including three children ages 9 to 15 — for about a year. Dominguez, a New York homemaker, said that having a personal chef frees up time that she would have otherwise spent at the grocery store or at the stove.
"He suggests new ingredients and helps us pick dishes that we haven't had before," she said. "He'll also make suggestions about what's fresh and in season at the market, which I would never have time to do."
Dominguez said that she and her husband, a banker, and the children all help pick the meals each week. That ensures that everyone gets a favorite dish at some point.
Though first popular in major metropolitan areas, the personal-chef industry has spread across the country over the 16 years that Moore's Rio Rancho, N.M.-based association has existed.
Now, personal chefs can be found in places as far-flung as Farmington, N.M., and Iowa City, Moore said. "We've found that wherever there's a working professional, there's a need for a personal chef," Moore said.
From nursing to cooking
Gail Kenagy, a personal chef in the San Francisco Bay Area, started her business in June 2000. A former surgical nurse, Kenagy now has about 35 regular clients and cooks for 10 to 15 of them each week. She also cooks for one-time events and teaches cooking classes.
The meals are prepared at a commercial kitchen in a veteran's hall near her home, frozen in oven-safe, recyclable containers and personally delivered by Kenagy.
Kenagy emphasized that personal chefs aren't for the elite, and they help people eat healthier, as well as save them time and money.
"I have court reporters, school teachers, some lawyers and doctors and surgeons, but for the most part, I have regular working people," she said.
"They're not high-maintenance. They're kick-back, middle-of-the-road people."