San Francisco Chronicle
What’s cooking? The personal
chef business Gift certificates
appreciated by the stressed
Matt Villano, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, February 25, 2005
For Palo Alto resident Tambi Harwood, cooking help couldn’t have come at a better time. In 2002, she was pregnant with her first child and struggling to run her family construction business. Stress was ever-present. Free time was scarce. Even “nice dinners” consisted of Chinese takeout.
Then a friend gave Harwood a gift certificate to Dinner By Design, a personal chef service from San Jose cook Michael Taravella. Over the next few months, Taravella stopped by once a week to prepare a cache of home-cooked meals for Harwood and her husband, Smitty, in their kitchen. Looking back, Harwood says the gift changed the course of her pregnancy.
“It was just so nice to not have to think about cooking,” she remembers. “To get a nutritious and delicious meal without having to make time to go out or cook it ourselves was such a stress-reliever.”
As commitments mount and free time dwindles, more Peninsula residents are discovering the gift of personal chefs. For anywhere from $150 to $500, these chefs cook full, fresh meals in the privacy of your home — wherever your home might be. They shop for ingredients (some chefs include the cost of groceries in their fee; others submit receipts to their clients for food purchased). They clean when they’re done. They even package the food in containers for easy reheating during a busy week.
Perhaps most importantly, the chefs cater to customer likes and dislikes in ways that restaurants could never dream. If your family likes its grits with butter, they’ll take care of it. If you prefer your salmon blackened while your significant other likes it grilled, they’ll do that, too.
“People go out to eat out of habit,” says Taravella, who went to cooking school in the early 1990s after he was laid off from a job at Lockheed Martin Corp. “I like to show people that there’s a better way to get what you want and do it in a way that saves time.” The personal chef phenomenon is nothing new. Celebrities have used personal chefs for years, but the concept took hold on a more general scale in the late 1980s, when a wave of professionally trained chefs began leaving restaurants for the flexibility of cooking in more intimate locales. Today, according to the United States Personal Chef Association in Rio Rancho, N.M., there are more than 2,400 certified personal chefs across the country, and 62 in the Bay Area.
Like Taravella, many of the local personal chefs are cooking up second careers after stints in high-tech. Anne-Marie Abrigo, for instance, who runs a San Jose chef service called Saving You Thyme, worked for Intuit, Oracle and PointCast before a neck injury forced her to find another line of work. Mark Foy of Berkeley was a computer consultant before taking culinary training in 1996 and launching his vegan-only chef service company two years later.
“I was always into cooking,” says Foy, who says he still dabbles in computer work. “Then one day, I figured, ‘Why not try and do it for a living?’ ”
Today most personal chefs on the Peninsula handle gift situations similarly. Most gifts include a minimum of four complete meals, which includes four entrees, eight side dishes, salad and dessert. Once a purchase has been made, the chef contacts his customers and asks them questions to determine their preferences and dietary restrictions. Do they eat meat? Are they diabetic? Are they hopeless believers in the Atkins diet?
“It’s not like a restaurant where you go in, look at a menu and see maybe one or two things out of 20 that you like,” said Dane Mechlin, who runs Nadine & Dane’s Personal Chef Services out of Santa Clara. “The whole idea behind what we do is the notion of presenting customers with a variety of choices that all appeal.”
“It was just so nice to not have to think about cooking”
After a chef has determined what a gift recipient likes to eat, the chef creates a menu and hits the supermarkets — usually Whole Foods or Piazza’s in San Mateo, Lunardi’s in Burlingame or Los Gatos and other gourmet shops. Some chefs also use farmers’ markets, particularly those in Half Moon Bay, San Jose and at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. The last step in the process, of course, is the cook day.
California law prevents chefs from cooking food in their own homes and delivering it elsewhere — all food must be prepared in a commercial kitchen. To get around this, many chefs bring bags full of ingredients to customers’ homes and cook on-site. Most meals take two to five hours to prepare, and most chefs cook when their customers are out and about, or at work. When they’re done, the chefs package the meals individually and clean up.
“I try to be as unobtrusive as possible,” says Gina DeSciscio, a San Francisco chef who calls her service At the Dinner Table. “For my clients, there’s nothing like coming home to a clean kitchen and a home-cooked meal.”
The benefits of personal chefs are not lost on Linda Yates. The CEO of Burlingame consulting firm Strategos has received a variety of personal chefs as gifts on a number of occasions, and has given chefs as gifts to friends, colleagues and even the Mothers Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. On one occasion, she purchased Taravella’s Dinner by Design services for a friend who was fighting cancer and was too weak to cook for herself.
“Personal chefs make great gifts for both happy occasions and sad ones,” she says. “No matter how you look at it, having someone cook for you really is wonderful.” Bon appetit
At the Dinner Table, San Francisco
Gina DeSciscio, (415) 892-3920
Dinner By Design, San Jose
Michael Taravella, (408) 254-2327
Nadine & Dane’s Personal Chef Services
Santa Clara, Dane Mechlin, (408) 781-8249
Saving You Thyme, San Jose
Anne Marie Abrigo, (408) 398-0751
Vitalita Culinary Group, Berkeley
Mark Foy, (510) 666.8200
United States Personal Chef Association,
(800) 995-2138, www.uspca.com
American Personal Chef Association,
(800) 644-8389, www.personalchef.com
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