Door-To-Door Gourmet

Personal chefs make meals ahead for busy families and singles.

You come home from work frazzled, fatigued, and above all, famished.

And what's for supper? Two-day old pepperoni pizza or leftover takeout Chinese?

Not tonight. Instead, there's a choice of Grilled Salmon in Caper-Dijon Sauce, Middle Eastern Lamb Ragout With Apricots, or Wild Mushroom Risotto With Grilled Chicken, all prepared by professional chefs

Too good to be true? Dennis Nosko and Christine Robinson, co-owners of A Fresh Endeavor - a Boston-based business that's part of the growing personal chef industry - are willing to stock your fridge with these and other such delicacies.

"Personal chef" might call to mind palatial homes, liveried butlers, and a live-in cook.

For Mr. Nosko and Ms. Robinson, this is just the image they want to avoid. Unlike "private chefs" (who more closely fit the previous description), personal chefs are far more affordable, flexible, and convenient.

Typically, these chefs cook in their client's home once or twice a month - they shop, bring their own equipment, and cook nine or 10 meals, which are packaged, labeled, and stored in the freezer or refrigerator. Ten two-portion meals can cost from $240 to $340, depending on the region and special considerations (organic is slightly pricier).

The industry is rapidly growing. According to David MacKay, president and founder of the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA), there are now more than 4,100 chefs in the United States cooking for 60,000 to 70,000 customers - a sharp increase from several hundred only five years ago.

Curious about the buzz, my two roommates and I decided to test out Nosko and Robinson's service.

The pair (who cook together about half the time) first came to our house to conduct an interview. It was a thorough assessment, and my knowledge of my housemates' tastes grew substantially: Delphine doesn't like corn or rice; Sarah isn't partial to potatoes. Our preferences on spiciness ranged from mild to hot. Sarah likes low-fat cooking; Delphine would prefer no Chinese or Mexican.

With so many tastes, how do chefs manage to cook for families? It's partly the individualized menus that draw their customers. Robinson mentions one man who was lactose-intolerant; his wife loved cheese. He really wanted lasagna, so Robinson created one using silken tofu, agar agar (a Japanese gelatin derived from seaweed), lemon juice, stevia (a South American herb used as a sweetener), and soy cheese. He loved it. His wife got the traditional meat and cheese dish.

While they can't make separate meals for each individual every time, Robinson feels that the extra effort "is worth it for the satisfaction the customer feels."

"I have to do a lot of probing," says Rachel Stewart, who owns The Kitchen Magician in Marin County, California. "I ask [my clients] what restaurants they go to. I ask if they'd eat a raw jalapeo."

Ms. Stewart mentions one client who requested pink tea sandwiches for a party. "We're talking magenta," she says with a laugh. Undaunted, she found a bakery that makes bread any color of the rainbow.

In a market where the demand for individualized service has escalated, combined with a healthy economy, it's no wonder the personal chef business is booming.

Most chefs attribute the popularity in part to the growing desire to eat wisely. "People want to eat better, but they don't really know how to cook that way. It's comforting to have home-cooked food that's healthy, and it saves them a huge amount of time," says Stewart.

It's not just the personalized menu that's fueling the demand for personal chefs. More people are putting a premium on their time. Boston resident Simon Shapiro started using A Fresh Endeavor several months ago. While he and his wife love to cook, they found that time constraints were forcing them to eat out every night.

"It's become a lifestyle of running, so this seems to be a good option. It's very cost-efficient - we're spending about what we spent eating out and the groceries," says Mr. Shapiro. As a side benefit, his tastes have expanded into dishes like soba noodles.

Many chefs fight the common misperception that their service is a luxury. "People still are not aware of how reasonable it is," says Georganne Jurata, president of the Colorado USPCA chapter. "They need someone who takes the time to explain it."

According to Mr. MacKay, typical clients are working professionals, 30 to 35 years old, homeowners, with a combined income of between $70,000 and $80,000. Many people also use the service as a one-time option when a baby is born or someone is ill - often, in these cases, it's a gift from a friend.

Another large market is seniors. Ms. Jurata mentions one client who "said his wife had been cooking for him for over 60 years, and it was time to give her a break."

Watching Robinson and Nosko shop and cook (I accompanied them solely for research purposes) provides a window into their world - and a lot of cooking tips. When the day arrives to test their cooking, I meet them at 8 a.m. at a store just blocks from my home. Their shopping list is ready, carefully sorted by product.

"I always get three lemons and three limes," says Robinson, as she chooses several from the produce rack. "It solves any flavoring problems." Later she appears with a bottle of "nayonaise" in her hand - a soy-based alternative to mayonnaise that they use as a binding agent. They're going to put it in the garlic and shallot sauce for the vegan Lentil Loaf.

Nosko asks how I like beets. When I respond uncertainly, he tells me a trick he learned at Lucky's restaurant in Providence, R.I. "We used to roast beets in a wood-burning oven - the smokiness contrasts with the sweetness."

Apparently, roast beets are on the menu as well.

It's easy to understand the allure of the personal chef industry for seasoned chefs like Nosko. A graduate of Johnson and Wales School of the Culinary Arts, he has a long history working for top restaurants in Providence, New York, and Boston. The long, late hours and menu limitations, however, became wearing.

"Ask any chef who works in the same restaurant," says MacKay. "You can only make so many servings of Beef Stroganoff. Working in a restaurant is great when you're younger, but once you start getting into your 30s, working a Wednesday-to-Sunday, 4 p.m.-to-2 a.m. schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for family."

Nosko's menu now includes Greek, Mexican, and African dishes, and he is currently exploring Indian cuisine.

Other personal chefs have made complete career changes. Robinson has worked in financial aid, retail, and credit collection; recently she acted with a small Cambridge theater group. Jurata got fed up with the downsizing mentality in her utility company. Stewart no longer enjoyed her corporate travel

The common thread is their love for cooking.

Many chefs also enjoy the variety that a constantly changing workplace brings - though they can expect their share of mistakes and unplanned incidents as well. Robinson laughs about the feisty kitten that once got into her broccoli. "All those breakable things everywhere, and I'm diving under the table, chasing the cat. Broccoli was everywhere! At that point, I realized I was not in an office job."

Other on-the-job hazards for the cooking pair have included triggered alarms, a large Rottweiler that insisted on stationing himself in the kitchen, and, of course, recipes that went awry. Sometimes they're able to salvage the mistake - "like the thyme-garlic rustic flat bread I developed from a calzone dough that wouldn't rise!" Robinson says with a laugh.

Back at the market, we stock up on produce, with some exceptions - the ginger is too soft; there's no cilantro. We'll get both those items at the next store.

When we pull up to my house, their Jeep is filled with shopping bags and cooking equipment.

Within minutes the kitchen is a flurry of activity. Robinson is wiping down the counters, and Nosko is already chopping the lamb with a large Chinese cleaver.

"The key is working on several things at the same time," says Nosko. Twenty minutes after they've arrived, chicken is frying, lamb ragout is simmering, and okra and quinoa take up the final burners on the stove. The smells are tantalizing.

It wasn't always this easy for them - on their first cook date they were so nervous that they "went completely overboard," according to Robinson. "We sat down that night and we couldn't even look at food - we ordered a plain cheese pizza!"

Their day at my house goes smoothly, however; I arrive home after work to a spotless kitchen and a fridge and freezer stocked with carefully labeled, portioned selections.

Delphine and I heat up the Mediterranean Lamb Ragout With Lime Couscous and Seared Mixed Greens, and sit down to a delicious meal.

As the week progresses, we sample Southwestern Tomatillo Chicken (served with Quinoa Corn Cakes), Spanikopita, and African Peanut Stew, as well as several side dishes. All are tasty; each day a different culinary adventure waits in my refrigerator.

I can't wait to try the Lentil Loaf tonight.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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