Madeline Dee is a personal chef who runs a business called No Place Like Home personal chef services in Louisville, Ky. / photo illustration by The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
Like many busy parents, Carroll and Jennifer Mackin were looking for a way to spend more time with their children - especially around the dinner table.
But with both of them running businesses and their three boys' afternoons filled with activities, finding time to cook healthy meals was difficult.
That's when the Mackins turned to a personal chef, who prepared meals in their home, allowing them the time to eat together.
"Primarily I am a time saver for busy families," said Kelly Lehman, who prepares three to four dinners a week in the Mackins' Louisville, Ky., home.
Lehman and several other personal chefs said they usually are hired by families who are too pressed to plan meals, shop, cook and clean up the kitchen. But they also work for adults who have aging parents who no longer can easily prepare meals themselves, or for individuals with specific dietary needs who require a specific nutritional balance in their meals.
Hiring a personal chef can be pricey, costing upwards of $200 a week for preparing several meals, plus grocery costs. But for busy professionals who want more healthful meals than they can find by frequent dining out, such service can make sense.
Some personal chefs also can cook for dinner parties or give cooking lessons. Lehman also sometimes shops for her clients, allowing them to cook better for themselves by helping them find unfamiliar ingredients.
Leaving restaurants behind
Lehman had a substantial career in the restaurant world. For 15 years she cooked at and later managed Blue Dog Bakery and Cafe in Louisville, served as a sous chef at the city's Z's Oyster Bar and Steakhouse, and worked in several positions at Proof. She also did stints at several Chicago restaurants. "For me, the personal chef business is a transition out of restaurants," Lehman said.
Another personal chef, Madeleine Dee, wanted to be an actress, but she knew that she had to have a day job to support herself while she tried to break into the theater. She started to study culinary arts at Sullivan University just as a new program in personal and private chef management began.
After getting her diploma in that field, she worked briefly at the English Grill, a stint that was enjoyable, but not, she discovered, the right fit for her. In October 2010, she decided to set herself up as a personal chef, and now, two years later, she feels she made the right choice.
"I liked working in the English Grill, but I soon saw that for me it was limiting; I was doing the same thing every day," Dee said. "What is wonderful about being a personal chef is that I can do whatever the client wants. I cook all sorts of cuisines, for people of all different backgrounds and careers. It is enjoyable to work for myself. I do everything on my own terms, and learn something new every day."
Personal side of cooking
The personal element of the job also appeals to most of the chefs. Jessica Grace, who started her business late last summer after working in the tourism and marketing industries, said she enjoys the connection she has with the people eating her food.
"I like working with families who want to spend more time together eating a meal," she said. "In restaurant work, once food goes out, you never hear about it - unless someone complains. I like the connectivity with my clients."
Grace said she talks with her clients about what they'd like her to prepare, how well they enjoyed a meal and how she can adjust her cooking.
"I like my clients to be really up front," Grace said. "If they really don't like something, I like to get that out at the start of the relationship. Some don't like food too spicy, others might not like shredded chicken. I am happy to tweak or change something. I ask how things were, and try to have an open and honest dialogue."
Cooking meals that appeal to both adults and children can be one of the biggest challenges for a personal chef. "Kids have their particular tastes, and limited tastes," Grace said, "so I try things, see if they like it, and will look for other things if they don't. I remember my own trials at the table. But some kids are more adventurous. Kids are seeing a lot of food coverage on TV, and some want to try out new things."
Dee agreed that children pose challenges. "If kids have to eat what the adults eat, they will develop a wider range of eating tastes. But if kids are only given chicken fingers and pizza and mac and cheese, they never have to try anything new."
Steve Coomes, who has extensive restaurant experience and is now a food writer, once had a personal chef business and recommends the field for energetic young chefs. "I found it a great career break and career turn," he said. "It's a great opportunity for a young person who wants a break from restaurant work. The income can be good, and the independence is fantastic."
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