"Being good at my job means figuring out exactly what THEY like and being creative within that." —Anonymous Richmond personal chef
I love to cook and yet I still dream of a personal chef. Frequently. How luxurious would it be to approve a weekly menu instead of looking blankly into the refrigerator every night and wondering what takeout menus you have in the drawer?
Lots of us work long hours, and although we may have high expectations when we go to the grocery store on the weekend, those hopes and dreams of an interesting, well-balanced series of meals are usually left to rot, like the green onions you never get around to using in the bottom of the produce drawer.
It's difficult to track how many folks in the Richmond area use personal chefs, but two local chefs who provide this service say demand is growing.
Matthew Bedwell of Free Range Personal Chef Service knows our pain. He started his business in May to provide "time-starved professionals and busy families with restaurant-quality meals that are delicious and nutritious."
That kind of sounds like a line to me, but I'm pretty easy. Feed me and you'll hear few complaints. Fortunately, Bedwell can back up his culinary pick-up line with real experience. He graduated from Johnson & Wales University, and afterward, he moved to Richmond and became the executive chef at The Hill Café, owned by Richmond Restaurant Group. Five years later, he took over at The Hard Shell, and after a brief stint at deLux Diner & Lounge, he decided to open his own business.
Sally Schmidt of Sallyfood provides services with a culinary rock-star background — she's a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education and did stints in the kitchens of Daniel Bouloud's db Bistro Moderne and Eric Ripert's Le Bernadin in New York. "People are asking for daily meals more than whether or not I can do a party. I focus more on preferences or dietary needs and creating menus around those."
Bedwell, even in culinary school, was more interested in becoming a personal chef than in the restaurant business. "Cooking to me is about love and the respect of food — I don't think you always find that in a restaurant setting. I get to have a working relationship with my clients, and I love meeting new people and cooking a wide variety of foods. I think cooking in someone's home is a romantic idea."
I think it's a seductive idea. After a client contacts Bedwell, he'll set up a free in-home consultation. If all goes well, he gives his new client a 35-page questionnaire with questions like, "Do you eat cheese?" and "What foods do you never want to see?"
When the date is set for cooking, Bedwell goes shopping, with a focus on local meats and produce.
That's when things start to happen fast. Everything is loaded into coolers and taken to his client's house, along with any equipment he might need. "I cook all the meals — which might be as much as 20 meals in one day. I individually package and label each meal with contents and reheating instructions," says Bedwell. Some of those meals go in the freezer for later, and some will be eaten in the following few days.
And then it gets even better.
"Once the meals are cooked and stored in the fridge, I thoroughly clean the kitchen, including the floors," Bedwell says (italics mine). "I take out the trash and settle up with the client." At this point, with 20 meals stashed away and a gleaming kitchen floor, I'd probably hand him whatever the nearest ATM would give me.
It's not outrageously expensive, however. Bedwell charges $50 an hour, plus the cost of groceries. Menu-planning, shopping, packaging — all that's thrown in. "I only charge the client for the time I'm at their home cooking."
On average, this works out to be about $10 to $25 a plate. For folks who eat out a lot, this isn't a bad deal — they get food they know they like and can avoid most of the nutritional pitfalls every restaurant is riddled with.
Schmidt says that in the past few years, "there's considerably more interest in my services but unfortunately, less money to go around. People want that extra time [that cooking occupies in their day]."
Bedwell says that "having a personal chef is definitely gaining popularity, and people are realizing that it is an affordable way to have home-cooked meals without having to do the shopping and cooking themselves."
Your average grocery bill will, of course, never be that high, but c'mon — aren't your cooking skills and your labor worth $50 an hour? Or, more accurately, isn't you not cooking worth that or even more? I thought so.
Chicken and Vegetable Couscous
Matthew Bedwell's Easy and Quick Chicken and Vegetable Couscous with Feta for those poor, desperate, struggling people with no time to cook
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 package of couscous
- 1 pound of fresh chicken breasts or tenderloins, trimmed of fat and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 1/4 cups of chicken stock
- 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and finely diced
- 4 scallions, sliced thinly (green parts only)
- 1 1/2 cups of fresh broccoli florets, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1 medium yellow squash, diced
- 4 ounces of feta cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan on medium-high heat. Add the chicken and sauté for 6 to 7 minutes until golden brown. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add the broccoli and yellow squash, and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and sliced scallions, and stir. Evenly spread the couscous throughout the pan, and add the chicken stock. Bring it to a boil. After it reaches the boiling point, cover and remove it from heat.
Let it stand for 5 minutes (still covered). Remove the lid and transfer the mixture to plates. Crumble feta cheese over the couscous and serve.