Chefs get personal - and affordable

Posted: August 23, 2007

Nancy MacManus had so many food allergies, she didn't know what to cook.

Bill Mistler, a full-time student, wanted quick meals - but not takeout every night.

And Carol Kutteh, an over-booked wife and mother from Newtown Square, was looking for a less stressful way to get dinner on the table.

Each had a different motivation, but they all arrived at the same solution: a personal chef.

Once thought to be the exclusive purview of celebs and the uber-rich, personal chefs - hired to do all the menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking - are gradually becoming an option for the rest of us, says John Moore, director of the United States Personal Chef Association, which met at Loews Hotel last week.

About 225 of the Association's 2,000 members attended classes on cooking techniques, menu development, and running a business. And of course, they talked about what they do best: personalizing the dinner experience.

Whether they belong to this association or the American Association of Personal and Private Chefs, the nation's approximately 10,000 personal chefs operate independently, setting their own schedules and prices.

Generally, it works like this:

For anywhere from $230 to $400 - plus the cost of groceries - a chef will come to your kitchen once every 10 days or so with bags of groceries and, using their own pots, pans and tools, cook about two weeks' worth of dinners. Some dishes are designed to eat within days; others are made to be frozen.

Menus stretch from classics such as meat loaf and stews to such epicurean specialties as duck breast with cherry pepper sauce or grilled tuna with tangerines served with grilled fennel.

Vegan, gluten-free, kosher, or South Beach-oriented menus are available too - as well as dishes for people with diabetes, heart disease or blood-pressure problems.

"It's for everyone," says Karen Docimo of Northeast Philadelphia, a conference coordinator who started Karen's Chef Du Jour (www.karencooks.com) seven years ago.

"A California woman hired me for her niece who was having her first child. And a mother hired me to cook for her daughter who had Crohn's disease and was going away to college. . . . Children of elderly parents buy the service for them," Docimo says, "It's definitely not just for rich people."

In his second year of a rigorous four-year dental school program at the University of Pennsylvania, Bill Mistler, 37, was pressed for time.

His mother and sister suggested a personal chef, but he didn't think he could afford it. "But then I realized how much time I'd save - and money too, because I was constantly buying fresh food and having to throw it out before I had a chance to cook it."

Now, twice a month, Tina Jackson (www.heychefnjpa.com) arrives at his door with ten complete dinners. He estimates the cost at $250 to $275, depending on the menu. "Without Tina," Mistler says, "I'd be eating pizza and hoagies way too often."

About half the U.S. Association's members have formal training; the rest love to cook. Most have friends saying, "You should open a restaurant."

Becoming a personal chef is much less risky than embarking on a restaurant venture, said Philadelphia food icon Aliza Green, who spoke at the association's opening luncheon.

Half the culinary-school graduates in the U.S. are women, Green said, "and most of them don't stay in the field more than two or three years because it is just too demanding when they become mothers."

As personal chefs, these women can flex their hours.

The associations provide oversight as does the Food and Drug Administration, which requires, for example, that people who prepare and sell food to the public do so in commercial kitchens the agency can inspect, or in the home of their customers. And the group proctors exams required for professional certification.

To help members make ends meet while they build their businesses, the association offers training in auxiliary services such as cake decorating, food styling, recipe testing, and catering for holidays and parties.

Docimo sidelines as a food stylist with QVC, and she's done cooking demonstrations at book signings by culinary celebs Lidia Bastianich and Giada De Laurentiis.

Nancy MacManus of Ivyland, Bucks County, is among her clients.

"Last year on my birthday my husband asked what I wanted," MacManus remembers, "And I said that if I had one wish it would be for someone to cook for me."

Between osteoarthritis, and allergies, MacManus has limited menu options. She also doesn't particularly enjoy cooking. And her husband runs a commercial real estate firm in New York City so he's only home on weekends.

"My son, Kyle, and I were eating out four or five days a week - lunch and dinner," MacManus says with some chagrin. "I'm a challenge for Karen because I can't eat much, but she rises to the challenge."

Last week, Docimo arrived at the MacManus home with a rice cooker, a ravioli maker, a pasta roller, pots and pans, and all the ingredients she'd need - from a bottle of Grand Marnier to durum wheat flour, natural sea salt - even salad greens.

Docimo, who has a database of 1,800 recipes she's developed and tested, takes over the kitchen for five hours or more. She's already spent two to three hours on menu planning and shopping.

Working with the modifications set by MacManus' nutritionist, she prepares meat ravioli, chicken Marsala, meat loaf, shepherd's pie and pork tenderloin and packages them in 2- to 3-serving containers for the freezer.

Docimo charges a flat $300 a day plus groceries, which on this day add up to $126.66 - and the family has 25 to 30 servings of wholesome food.

"Once in a while, I'll share with my friends," McManus says. "They're so jealous."

When Carol Kutteh of Newtown Square was hospitalized last September, a friend suggested a personal chef to cook for Kutteh's daughter, Nicole, 14, and her husband, Bobby.

Kutteh went to www.hireachef.com, a searchable site run by United States Association of Personal Chefs and connected with Adrienne Abramson (www.theartfulchef.com), who specializes in high-end cooking.

Kutteh was so satisfied, she stayed with the service.

"It's not inexpensive to have someone do all the shopping and cooking for you," says Kutteh, who estimates she pays $700 a month for 30 gourmet meals that feed the family of four. "Still, it's cheaper than eating out in some places and, most importantly, it allows us to stay home."


Grilled Steaks With Gorgonzola Sauce

Makes 4 servings

For the grilled steaks:

1 teaspoon each: coarse black pepper and kosher or sea salt

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (see Note)

4 cloves garlic, pressed or microplaned into a paste

1½ to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 rib-eye steaks, 8 ounces each (or tenderloin filets)

For the Gorgonzola Sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large shallot, minced fine

4 cloves garlic, pressed or microplaned into a paste

1/2 cup brandy or cognac

1 cup half-and-half

1 cup whole milk

2 teaspoons herbes de Provence

½ teaspoon dried culinary grade lavender buds (see Note)

6 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (about 11/2 cups)

1. For the grilled steaks: Combine the salt, pepper, herbs, garlic and enough oil to make a paste. Rub the mixture all over the steaks; let marinate at room temperature for up to one hour or in refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

2. For the Gorgonzola Sauce: In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Sauté the shallot and garlic until translucent. Off the heat, add the brandy. Return pan to heat and reduce brandy by half. Add the half-and-half, milk, herbes de Provence and lavender. Stirring often, bring the sauce to a simmer and reduce by half, 10 to 15 minutes. Strain the sauce into a saucepan. Discard the lavender and herbs. Lower heat to moderate, add crumbled gorgonzola, and whisk until the cheese melts into the sauce. Simmer the sauce to desired consistency. Check seasoning before adding salt. Reserve sauce to serve with steaks.

3. To finish: Prepare a hot grill (gas, charcoal or electric). Bring steaks to room temperature. Warm the sauce on low heat, stirring often. On a hot grill, cook steaks until done as desired. Transfer steaks to a platter or plates. Drizzle Gorgonzola Sauce over the steaks; let sit five minutes before slicing. Pass additional sauce at the table.

- From Adrienne Abramson, The Artful Chef.

Note: Herbes de Provence and lavender buds are available in spice shops or by mail order from www.penzeys.com.

Per serving: 1,013 calories, 58 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 74 grams fat, 232 milligrams cholesterol, 1,225 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Tilapia With Thai Coconut-Curry Sauce

Makes 4 servings

1 teaspoon dark sesame oil, divided

1½ teaspoons ginger paste or 2 teaspoons fresh minced ginger

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup finely diced red bell pepper

1 cup green onions, cut thin on the bias

1 teaspoon curry powder

2½ teaspoons Thai red curry paste

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

4 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1 (14-ounce) can light coconut milk

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

4 (6-ounce) tilapia fillets

Cooking spray

3 cups hot cooked brown basmati or jasmine rice

4 lime wedges

1. Assemble ingredients. Preheat broiler.

2. Heat 1/2 teaspoon of the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Saute the ginger and garlic 1 minute. Add the pepper and onions; cook 1 minute. Stir in the curry powder, curry paste and cumin; cook 1 minute. Add the soy sauce, sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and coconut milk; bring to a simmer (do not boil). Off heat, stir in cilantro.

3. Brush the fish with remaining 1/2 teaspoon oil; sprinkle with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Put the fish on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Broil until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, about 7 minutes. Serve the fish with sauce, cooked rice, and lime wedges.

- Adapted from Cooking Light magazine by Karen Docimo, Karen's Chef de Jour.Note: If desired, substitute other mild white fish fillets, shelled shrimp, or sauteed chicken (tenders or sliced breast meat) for the tilapia.

Per serving: 593 calories, 42 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 548 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Grand Marnier Pork Loin   

Makes 4 servings

11/2 pounds pork loin (or chicken or turkey cutlets)

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning

1/8 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup Grand Marnier

1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate

1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/3 cup bias-cut scallions

1. Using a sharp knife, trim any fat and silver membrane from the loin. Cut loin into thin chops; pound to 1/4-inch.

2. In a small bowl, mix the salt, garlic, poultry seasoning, and pepper. Rub spices onto both sides of the pork cutlets.

3. In a nonstick pan, heat the oil medium-hot. Saute the cutlets for 1 minute on each side. Remove pork to a plate, covered with foil. Leave the fat and juices in the pan.

4. Increase the heat and add cranberries to the pan to absorb the oil. Remove pan from heat, add Grand Marnier. Return pan to heat and add orange juice concentrate. Boil the mixture until it reduces to a syrup, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and any drippings from the pork. Boil until liquid becomes syrupy again, about 3 minutes.

5. Reduce heat to medium and stir in scallions. Return the pork to the pan. Simmer to reheat, about 3 minutes.

- From Karen Docimo, Karen's Chef du Jour In-Home Chef Service

Per serving (with pork): 476 calories, 38 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 27 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 732 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Reach staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder

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