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At Your Service


If you follow this column then you know how passionate I am on the subject of cooking for yourself, family, loved ones, and friends. You may have gathered that I consider cooking fundamental to not only family life, but even civilization. Columns such as “Love’s Labor” or “Teach Your Children Well” speak to that belief. So it may seem at least somewhat dissonant that I work as a personal chef — in some way the opposite of what I preach.
Click to view larger versionBut even I sometimes (usually following a long day of cooking for a client) call Papa John’s for a delivered pizza or pick up a frozen pot pie for supper. We’re all busy and we all have demands on our time and even those who love cooking, as I do, find circumstances can interfere.
And, too, this is the age of services. When I was growing up only the rich had housekeepers or used a lawn service. Many men did all of their own automobile maintenance. But prior to becoming a personal chef I had a weekly housekeeper and used a lawn service. I felt that the time I would have devoted to those tasks wasn’t justified. It’s not surprising, then, that a number of services have sprung up to provide meal services.
The oldest of these services, personal chefs, began about 15 years ago (there are disputes as to where it originated; my guess is that when the need arose, many people more-or-less simultaneously perceived the need and set out to fill it). There are two nationwide affiliations, the American Personal & Private Chef Association and the United States Personal Chef Association. Membership in these associations doesn’t tell you anything about the chef (membership is primarily a matter of paying the dues).
Personal chefs differ from private chefs in that they have multiple clients. The most common format is the chef works with a client to create a menu of five meals for between two and six people. The menu takes into account the client’s food likes and dislikes and any special dietary concerns such as low sodium diets or following Weight Watchers guidelines. The meals are all prepared and cooked at one time and then frozen. The client then thaws them and heats them in a microwave oven.
The result is the client has most of the convenience of a TV dinner, but the meal is hand-crafted to their specifications using high-quality ingredients — think of it as the equivalent of using a maid or lawn service but more appetizing. The cost is about what one would pay in a good restaurant. If you try a chef and don’t like her don’t give up on the idea, try someone else. This is an ultimately personal service. Find a person who provides the service you want.
A more recent entry is the “meal assembly service,” a business model that’s about four years old. Most of them are franchises, which almost anyone with the franchise fee can buy into — not unlike a McDonald’s or Taco Bell. There services seem to have begun with personal chefs trying to grow their business and take advantage of production and cost efficiencies. With these services you typically do the cooking yourself (although some of them will do the cooking and you can either pick-up or they’ll deliver). The business provides a cooking facility, a menu, all the needed ingredients, and assistance in preparing the meals. How much choice you have in terms of menus and ingredients and how much assistance you have depends on the particular franchise operation and the franchisor.
Menu items include things like baked cheese tortellini from Supper Thyme, raspberry chipotle pork loin from Cena to Go, and beef bourguignonne from Entrees Made Easy. As with personal chef services, prices vary by location and the particular service, but they can range from $2.50 per serving to $18 per serving. (Note: I don’t want to imagine the quality of the food you get at $2.50 per serving).
Two last service categories deserve mention: online cooking schools and mail-order meals. The latter is as effort-free as a personal chef: you order one or 20 meals on the Web and they’re shipped, frozen, to you. The venerable (if not venerated) Omaha Steaks has been doing this for some time, but new and more interesting entries such as Impromptu Gourmet or Diet to Go have recently appeared. Delivered prices tend to be high — shipping frozen food is expensive.
The other online service is on the opposite end of effort-free. Cooking help, primarily in the form of recipes, has been online since the first cook posted a recipe, but these are services that help you do your own cooking by providing more extensive online or phone assistance. This is the newest business model and is still shaking out. The services offer some combination of email, phone, instant messaging, blog, and video classes, advice, tips, and direct assistance. Examples include Cooking with Alicia, Learn Online with Jane Butel, and ChefsLine (for which I’m a chef-consultant). Of the lot, ChefsLine offers the widest range of help enabling home cooks to get first-hand, specific, personal advice on their immediate problem or need. But I’m positive more services like ChefsLine are going to appear as entrepreneurs learn to combine the myriad forms of communication more effectively.
So, need some help in the kitchen? Here are the pros and cons:
Personal chef: Upside — Complete control of the menu and some control of the ingredients (you can specify organic-only if desired or low-fat). Food is prepared by a skilled professional. Downside — Somewhat expensive. In most states the chef will have to prepare the meals in your home.
Meal-Assembly: Upside — Some control of the menu. Complete control of the preparation. Can be fun if done with friends and can be a good way to learn. Downside — No control over ingredient quality. Prices range widely depending on service and location.
Mail order: Upside — Convenient, you can order from your computer. Downside — Expensive. No control over menu or ingredients.
Online cooking help: Upside — Convenient, help available when you need. Some services are highly personalized. Relatively inexpensive. Complete control over menu and ingredients. Downside — You have to do the cooking.
Don’t feel guilty if you can’t (or don’t want to, or don’t know how to) cook every meal. But if you’re eating carry-out pizza or TV dinners every other night you might want to consider one of these services as a healthier, better-tasting option.
You can leave comments, questions, and remarks here.

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