For many people, convenience is the name of the game when it comes to dinner. And frozen, pre-packaged or fast foods are perceived as the most convenient ways to eat. But more Americans–of all income levels–are bypassing takeout aisles and drive-through windows and heading home to natural, health-conscious fare made by personal chefs.
“Personal chef is a term that people are digesting more easily,” says Joanne Saltzman, director of the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado. “Just like massage therapy, people are beginning to see food as a healing modality.”
David MacKay, director of the U.S. Personal Chef Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started hearing requests for natural foods about five years ago from clients with medically imposed diets. Today, about 1,000 out of 5,000 association members specialize in natural foods for clients with self-imposed diets. “There’s a lot of appeal to having a personalized meal that’s healthy, convenient, and economical,” he says.
About 72,000 people currently use personal chefs, and that number is expected to triple by 2006, according to the American Personal Chef Institute (APCI). Average fees are $15 per meal, per person–for a personal chef to shop for foods that appeal to your family, cook, clean up, and label meals with heating instructions.
Some personal chefs have culinary training, but many are self-taught. For example, Christine Carr, owner of The Natural Chef in Northridge, California, is an architect who worked in a few restaurants before starting her personal chef company last year. Carr has had a steady list of clients with requests that span the food gamut. “Some have allergies, some want comfort food, some are vegetarians, and some have more serious dietary restrictions such as diabetes,” she says. “I try to provide a balanced diet that is as natural and chemically free as possible… and it gives me great satisfaction when a three-year-old tells me how much she liked the glazed carrots I prepared when before she wouldn’t go near a vegetable.”
In addition to reinforcing healthy eating habits, personal chefs help families handle diet restrictions. “Many children have wheat and dairy allergies, and parents don’t know what to cook for them,” Saltzman explains. “Personal chefs make foods to support the family so that convenience isn’t sacrificed for health.”
As Candy Wallace, APCI founder, proudly exclaims, “The beauty of our industry is that it allows parents to take their finger off the giant guilt button for serving processed food with little or no nutrients to their kids. I’m really worried about this generation of children,” she adds. “With all of the Chef Boyardee and McDonald’s they eat, they’re going to glow in the dark!”