Gourmet chefs, and meals, to go. Busy folks buy back some time with elegant home-delivered meals

Once a week, husband-and-wife book publishers James B. and Esthy Adler of Bethesda, Md., ``enjoy an island of peace and a sense of liberation,'' Mrs. Adler said, when their hired cook arrives. J'Amy Graham spends the next 4 to 6 hours at the Adlers' home, putting away the groceries she's bought, preparing two meals for the Adlers, and then cleaning up after herself.

``The kitchen's her domain,'' Mrs. Adler said. ``I leave and then set the table 15 minutes before she's done. But sometimes I stay around the kitchen. I did one night because I wanted to learn how to poach fish. The smells were terrific.''

The Adlers feel their many years of hard work have earned them the privilege of hiring a food shopper/chef. ``J'Amy leaves us with a lot of time to discuss our business and to read manuscripts,'' Mr. Adler commented.

``While we're eating, she's preparing our second meal. She hums and sings while cooking. We get nice sounds and smells while we're eating. They're extra bonuses,'' Mrs. Adler said.

J'Amy Graham is one of a pool of 150 chefs from which FOODTEMPS selects its workers. FOODTEMPS, a year-old company, is one of the few agencies in the country supplying trained chefs to private individuals and the food industry.

But there are many businesses supplying fully prepared meals to the home market. And their numbers are likely to grow as more and more households have two working parents with little time to fix dinner, says T.Brandon Gill, a food industry consultant. ``Virtually every survey has shown that people feel they'd utilize these services if they were available,'' he said.

The trend toward home-delivered dinners is starting at the high end of the market, with wealthy consumers. But there's no reason, says Mr. Gill, that such services can't be aimed at middle-income people as well.

``Our clients use us as a luxury. They use their discretionary income to buy back their time,'' said Penelope Pate-Greene, president of FOODTEMPS. ``We're not for everyone's pocketbook.'' FOODTEMPS charges $17.50 to $35 an hour.

Its chefs show up at people's houses after lengthy consultations with the clients about their culinary likes and any health problems. ``The clients keep their style imprinted on their meals without having to stay home and cook two days,'' Ms. Pate-Greene pointed out.

Other people coming home too late and hungry to wait patiently for a cook to prepare their dinners are opening their doors to receive deliveries of already-cooked meals. Still others are removing meals delivered earlier from the refrigerator or freezer.

Most needed these days are elegantly prepared meals ready to be popped into a microwave or oven. As Mr. Gill observed, the microwave technology ``is working in favor'' of the trend toward home-delivered meals.

Norman Williams's one-year-old Main Course in Washington, D.C., prepares meals of organically raised meats and poultry, low- or no-salt and low-fat cooking, ethnic dishes, and a variety of vegetarian meals.

``My clients develop better eating habits than before they used my service,'' said Mr. Williams. He seasons his dishes with lemon juice, herbs, and spices. Main Course delivers on Sundays.

People interested in same-day delivery call Dining In of Silver Spring, Md., for ready-to-heat, multicourse dinners. Its consumers include the elderly, who are not inclined to cook or have difficulty doing so, professional single people who don't want to eat alone in restaurants and arrive home too late to prepare food, and professional couples looking for good-quality dinners to eat at home at low cost ($8.95 to $11.95). The menu includes an appetizer, entree, and two vegetables; desserts and beverages are extra).

Helen Brunner, an art consultant and art magazine publisher in Washington, D.C., is so busy with her work, renovating her house, and caring for her 13-month-old child that she has hired Glenda Condon of Cook No More! to deliver four meals once a week to her and her husband. Cost: $99.

``Glenda's a nutritionist, so she comes up with balanced meals nutritionally,'' Ms. Brunner said. ``I'm very concerned with feeding the baby the right foods. I'd rather spend time with my child than cook.''

Ms. Condon explained that she tries to ``give people the most nutrition for the least amount of calories.'' She spends her 30-hour workweeks cooking 30 meals which feed 120 people.

``I find there's a little shakedown period learning clients' culinary language,'' Condon pointed out. A cook's creative side takes a back seat to the practical side of what a client wants, she emphasized.

Pam Wright, president of Cornucopia, her own two-year-old Virginia company, says that she has been ``consistently shocked by the number of normal folks who have taken my food baskets with recipes. My hairdresser is a customer, for example. Mine isn't a luxury service. It's for people who don't want to go to a supermarket but want quality food. Something personal and old-fashioned happens when the baskets arrive.''

Her $35 festive-looking Traditional Basket of a loaf of bread and one fresh herb, fruits, cooking vegetables, and salad material ``addresses those people who want to stock up with beautiful produce delivered to their door every week.''

Bobbe Nunes of Organically Yours in Falls Church, Va., delivers organic fruits, vegetables, and eggs in the Falls Church-McLean area. ``I always try to deliver basics,'' she said. Ms. Nunes arrives with two grocery bags full of items like carrots, citrus fruits, green peppers, parsley, potatoes, scallions, cucumbers, apples, string beans, broccoli, kale, avocados, lettuce, papaya, and a dozen eggs.

``When they open their doors, people feel as if they have a present. They try things they wouldn't necessarily buy themselves and they enjoy the foods,'' Nunes said.

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