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Personal Chefs Becoming A Staple In The Kitchen

BENTONVILLE A childhood memory Jeanna Hamilton shares with some chagrin is when she and her sister made macaroni and cheese from a box one day. They missed the instruction that said to drain the macaroni before adding the cheese and ended up with macaroni soup, Hamilton said.

"My sister would probably kill me for telling this," she added with a grin.

Hamilton got better with age. Now 39 and a single mother of two, she is a graduate of the Texas Culinary Institute in Austin and started her own personal chef business this year in Bentonville. As such, Hamilton became part of a burgeoning field, not only in Northwest Arkansas but across the country.

"It's interesting to look at the people who are starting in this business," said Brent Evans, a chef and president of Personal Chefs Network in North Carolina. "Quite a few are second career folks. My partner, Sharon (Worster, CEO of Personal Chefs Network) is a former nurse. (Personal chefs) decide to do what they love and usually have been good in the kitchen. Most of them are great home cooks and want to share that."


Evans said his organization has no exact way of measuring how fast the personal chef industry is growing, although he noted his group's membership is expanding around 5 percent a month. It started in 2000 and now has 600 members worldwide, he said.

The American Personal and Private Chef Association commissioned a study in 2005 that showed there were approximately 9,000 operating personal chefs in the United States.

Personal chefs are either professionally trained or self-taught cooks who offer their services to people who are often "time starved" or are on special diets, according to Evans. The chefs usually grocery shop for their clients, and then come into their homes and prepare a week's worth of meals for fees starting at around $200 and up.

Hamilton said she charges $250 for a five-day, two entrees each plan, and her prices vary according to what her clients want. Right now, she is personal chef to a professional couple on a low-carb diet and a single professional woman pressed for time, Hamilton said.

"This is a great alternative for them," she said about preparing meals for her clients.


Personal chef Emily Massey runs a business called Simply Scrumptious in Fayetteville. She described 60 percent of her clients as needing help in the kitchen, while the other 40 percent are on specialty diets.

"If they have dietary restrictions, they can't go out to restaurants and eat very readily. But having a personal chef is a luxury item for some," Massey said.

She started her business about six years ago in Florida. Massey, who is originally from south Arkansas, has a degree in human nutrition/dietetics from the University of Arkansas. Instead of pursuing a typical dietitian's career path in a hospital, she said, Massey went to the Florida Culinary Institute and obtained a double degree in international baking and pastry arts and culinary arts.

"While I was in college I noticed that dietitians did a good job in educating clients, but very few dietitians knew how to create interesting and delicious meals that were also healthy," she said.

Her prices range from $350 for 20 frozen meals or $450 for her to come to a client's home biweekly and prepare fresh entrees that are then refrigerated. Like Hamilton, she has enjoyed cooking since she was a child, Massey said.

"In the South, hospitality is very important in daily life. My mother and grandmother would always say the quickest way to your heart is through your stomach. Good food brings families together and creates lifelong memories," she said.


Evans said one reason why the personal chef industry may be growing is that it doesn't require a hefty financial investment. Membership in his organization is $750, which also covers training materials. The only other expenses involved are insurance and some cooking utensils, Evans said.

"There's a strong temptation to buy all new cooking utensils, but we tell them the best investment for that money is marketing. Wait until you have some clients before you buy new utensils," he said.

Wendy Perry, co-founder of Personal Chefs Network, told CNN in a 2004 interview that personal chefs can earn about $250 a day, plus food costs. For that, they will usually cook a total of 20 dinners or a week's worth for a family of four, she said. In some markets, clients pay as much as $500 for a personal chef, Perry said.

Entrepreneur magazine ranked personal chefs as sixth among home-based businesses in 2004.


John Moore, executive director of the U.S. Personal Chef Association, in a recent article by The Associated Press, said personal chefs have the potential to make more money than their restaurant counterparts, about $25 per hour on average, compared with about $14.75 for a head cook or chef in a restaurant.

As a result, the personal chef industry has gained numerous "restaurant refugees," who see the profession as a way to both get away from hectic restaurant schedules and make more money, Moore said in the article.

Evans is one of those Moore described. A former restaurant chef, he said the reason he became a personal chef was so he could be home every night.

"We also have mothers with kids in school. This is something mothers can do and be home before the school bus arrives," Evans said.

Around 75 percent of personal chefs are men, he said.

Massey, who belongs to the APPCA, said it cost her around $800 to set up her business and she pays around $700 a year in liability insurance. Her cooking equipment was another $500, she said.

While working as a personal chef in Florida, she made about $60,000 a year, Massey said.

"The more often personal chefs come to the home, the more their expenses go up. I usually come into a client's home more than twice a week. It's a great direction to go in the culinary industry if you want to make your own hours. You're running your own business, and I really like that aspect of it," she said.


Denise Domonkos runs her personal chef business, Chef4You, out of Eureka Springs, and has only one client at present, she said. But she and her husband also own a bed and breakfast, so being a personal chef is not her main livelihood, Domonkos said.

"I've been doing more of catering parties in people's homes, but I do hope to expand my personal chef business. I learned from other personal chefs that it takes a good year for people to understand what you do and build up clients," she said.

Domonkos began Chef4You in December after obtaining a culinary arts degree in Las Vegas, Nev., where she worked for 15 years in the special events industry.

"It hit me one day to put something I'm good at with something I enjoy," she said about her new career. "What I like about being a personal chef is people can pick out the food they want and never have the same entree twice. It's a lot healthier and a lot cheaper in the long run than eating out."

Her total business investment came to about $1,000, Domonkos said.


Hamilton, on the other hand, shelled out $40,000 to take the 15-month culinary course at Texas Culinary Institute. She graduated magna cum laude and earned the title of le cordon bleu chef, she said.

"I knew it was an investment, but I have no regrets," Hamilton said.

Since then, she has spent less than $1,000 getting her business started, she said. Hamilton grocery shops for her clients, mainly at natural food stores. She then cooks the meals at her clients' homes, and prices vary according to what they want, she said. Clients also pay for groceries, and Hamilton can handle any cuisine, from French to American, she said.

It took her eight hours to prepare the first meals for her professional couple clients, and that was going "nonstop," Hamilton said. But she noted that most restaurant chefs spend at least 10 to 12 hours cooking in the kitchen every day.

Hamilton said the chance to personalize her creations is what drove her to becoming a personal chef instead of working in a restaurant. The satisfaction comes from seeing her clients enjoy what she cooks, she said.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Hamilton said.

* 72,000: The number of clients being served by personal chefs in 2005.

* $300 million annually: The amount of money generated by the personal chef industry in 2005.

* 25,000: The number of personal chefs estimated to be working in the United States by 2010 and serving 300,000 clients.

* $1.2 billion: The amount estimated to be generated by the personal chef industry in 2010.

Source: The American Personal and Private Chef Association

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