Personal Chefs

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It's 6 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio, and the Bacha family is famished. Sarah, 41, a marketing consultant, has been firing on all cylinders since 7 a.m., getting the kids off to school and then juggling phones, e-mail, paperwork and a lengthy strategy meeting. Her husband Jim, 47, has lumbered home after another taxing day as an attorney with American Electric Power Co. Will, 6, and Henry, 4, are antsy for parental attention. As usual, no one has had time to cook. What's a time-crunched family to do?

Sit down to a freshly made, aromatic Burgundy beef stew, of course--unless they're in the mood for chicken Tetrazzini or black-bean soup with ham. "Mmmm. It smells great," announces Sarah to no one in particular, as she savors the steaming stew. The sumptuous dinner was the creation of the family's personal chef, Anne Hayward, 55, who left hours ago. The only evidence of her efforts is the tantalizing aromas lingering in the kitchen and the three weeks' worth of meals freshly stocked in the refrigerator and freezer.

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When the Bachas first used Hayward last October, they were ambivalent about hiring someone to cook for them. Would it be worth the expense? (Hayward charges $225, on top of the grocery bill, for about 15 family meals.) How tasty would the food be? Would friends in their neighborhood--affluent but hardly overrun by servants--view the Bachas with disdain? "It sounded pretentious," says Sarah. But she seldom has time to indulge her own passion for cooking, and Hayward's services give her more time with her family. "We're not rushing around every night to pull something together to eat."

Even in a slumping economy, more and more two-earner families like the Bachas have been hiring personal chefs who do the shopping, cook in clients' kitchens and clean up after themselves. Five years ago, there were just a few hundred such workers; today an estimated 7,000 personal chefs are finding that demand for their services around the country is robust. Last year the American Personal Chef Association trained about 1,000 new chefs, twice as many as in 2000.

Since Sept. 11, personal chefs have been inundated with requests for simple comfort foods like chicken pot pie and noodle soup. "People are still reluctant to go out to eat," says Candy Wallace, who heads the American Personal Chef Association. "They'd rather be home." Michael Zytowski, 33, a Long Beach, Calif., chef, agrees that current appetites run more toward pot roast than foie gras. "I haven't run into a client yet who wants Chateaubriand or lobster," he says.

Personal chefs are different from private cooks, who usually work full time preparing gourmet meals for the wealthy. Instead, personal chefs are tempting two-earner households with customized menus at reasonable rates, typically $15 per person at each meal. The chefs are masters of efficiency, whipping up three or four weeks of meals in a marathon six-hour session and juggling a dozen or more clients. Hayward's business, Premier Concierge of Columbus, primarily consists of a Volvo station wagon brimming with knives, spice tins and cling wrap.

Before the first cooking date, chefs and their clients address everything from calorie content to seasoning levels in devising menus that suit the household. When client families get home, they find a meal ready for the evening, as well as a refrigerator and freezer stocked with future dinners, each of which includes instructions for reheating. The process can save clients as much as 15 hours a week in shopping, preparation, cooking and cleanup time. But customers are not completely off the hook. Says Debra Ruder, 43, a communications specialist who lives in suburban Boston with her husband and two sons: "You do have to remember to take something out of the freezer the night before."

Personal chefs hope to shed the perception that they are only for the wealthy. If you can afford a lawn service and housecleaning, they say, a personal chef is likely to be within your budget. "This has made a real difference in our family life. It's a relief not to have to worry about dinner anymore," says Cindy Abbott, 39, an attorney for Motorola who is the mother of two. The Abbotts spend about $300 for 10 meals that they eat over the course of each month, supplemented by takeout meals and Cindy's cooking. Like many clients, she finds that household spending on food has declined since the chef started work a year ago, because the family is eating fewer restaurant and takeout meals. One downside: diminished food quality from thawing and reheating. "We've found some things, like asparagus and pasta, don't work out so well with this process."

Hallie Vanderhider, 44, a single mother of 15-year-old twin boys in Houston, hired a chef in January to prepare three family meals a week for $200, including the cost of the food. "Before this, sometimes all I had time to make was peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches," she says. Evenings with her kids are much happier, she adds. The three of them have reached a consensus on ingredients: no mushrooms, onions or artichokes. Says their chef, Jackie Alejo: "No problem." Vanderhider, chief financial officer for a money-management firm, has just one regret: "I wish I had thought of this sooner."

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