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A taste of luxury at home

January 16, 2008 | Sarasota, FL
By MARSHA FOTTLER

In days gone by, the European aristocracy and rich Americans almost always had a private chef or cook attached to the household staff. This servant set the menus with the lady of the house, prepared meals and kept a budget. Today that luxury is not just an entitlement of, well, the entitled. Anyone with disposable income to dedicate to cuisine convenience can hire a professional. We live in an age of the personal chef.

Options are plentiful, customization is guaranteed and the cost depends on how often you want to eat and how elaborate you want your meal plan to be. In general, the cost of a personal chef's dish is about what you would pay for an entre in a nice restaurant, $30 or so.

Blake Ellis opted for the life of a personal chef when he left the restaurant world. The young chef began cooking and baking at age 5 when he helped his mother fix muffins at her day care center. While at Sarasota High School, he took culinary arts courses at Sarasota County Technical Institute and later was accepted at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He graduated with honors in 2005 and was hired by the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, in the pastry kitchen. With what seemed like a brilliant career ahead of him, the 20-something chef made a bold career decision. He walked away from the haute restaurant kitchen to form his own personal-chef company called Eloquent Entrees, which serves the Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch areas as well as the barrier islands.

"For me it was a matter of culinary diversity," said the chef. "I trained as a pastry chef, but I love cooking, too. In the restaurant world I would have to specialize, and I don't want to do that. I want to cook and bake all kinds of food, use all of my knowledge. Also, I like having my own food business, controlling my own career."

Ellis took a personal-chef course and is now accredited by the American Personal & Private Chef Association. From that institution, he learned how to finance, market and run a personal-chef business. One of the smartest things he did, he said, was develop a user-friendly Web site.

"About 50 percent of my business is from the Internet, and a lot of those clients are tourists," he revealed. "For instance, a family of five from New Hampshire came to Siesta Key for Christmas. They saw my Web site and from the Northeast hired me to cook their Florida meals, including a big Christmas Eve dinner. They wanted to eat well and not have to take three little kids to a restaurant every night. ... I also did a big Thanksgiving dinner for a family of 11 that was celebrating a reunion in Sarasota."

Ellis' regular local clients tend to be young professionals or families who do not want the hassle of food shopping or meal planning. He also works with people who have specific dietary restrictions or food allergies. And his $125 gift certificate for "a romantic dinner for two" prepared and served in the recipients' home has been a consistent favorite. "It's an easy gift to give someone for a birthday or anniversary, and you know it will be appreciated," he said.

Small dinner and cocktail parties round out his business. Ellis can handle up to seven regular clients at a time, not counting gift certificates or parties. He always cooks in the client's home. He does the menu planning, shopping, preparation and presentation, and also packages meals for storage if he is cooking for several days at a time in the client's kitchen. His meals average $35 per dish (extra if you want disposable packaging), but he prefers to offer a plan of 10 meals for $375. This personal chef will even suggest wine pairings for his dishes and buy the wine if the client wishes.

There is a difference between a private chef and a personal chef. A private chef cooks for one household only and is often a live-in staff member. A personal chef offers culinary services to several clients and can cook either in their homes or in a central kitchen for home delivery.

Gordon Lippe and Brent Williams, partners in Gordon's Gourmet, offer a personal chef/catering service. They prepare meals for clients in a central kitchen in Sarasota and then deliver the goods on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A Gordon's Gourmet meal averages $30. Everything is fresh, and clients may request organic ingredients.

The company, which debuted in 2006, has positioned itself as a purveyor of high-end, health-conscious food prepared by experts. The chefs actually have three businesses in one kitchen. They do customized prepared meals for home delivery; they cater on site for events ranging from a dinner for two up to weddings for 500; and they supply aviation and yacht meals. "About 25 percent of our business is with planes and boats," said Lippe, "and while it's a hard market to break into, it can be lucrative. But preparing healthy customized meals for time-challenged people or those with health or special dietary needs is the core of our business. A lot of people up north order our service for their parents here in Florida." The chefs said they can accommodate about 100 clients for the home delivery part of Gordon's Gourmet.


Lippe noted that about 20 percent of their business comes from their Web site and the rest from private referrals. The chefs met at Bird Key Yacht Club, where Williams had been the executive chef for seven years and Lippe was the food and beverage manager. The partners spent a year putting together a business plan for Gordon's Gourmet before opening the kitchen. "When you work in a restaurant, you cook for an unknown audience," said Lippe. "But when you're a personal chef you have direct and immediate contact with the person eating your food. It's gratifying, and it's the part of the business we like best, being able to cook exactly what that client wants. Client satisfaction is everything to a personal chef."

Judy Krohngold was a personal chef for seven years, until she opened a retail store. She now operates a card and gift shop on Pineapple Avenue in Sarasota called Shop du Jour. The name is a riff on soup du jour, which tells you Judy still thinks a lot about food.

Krohngold cooked only in the kitchens of her clients, who ranged from people recently released from a hospital stay to those intent on eating healthier, including some who were obese. She cooked for a physician with a gluten allergy, for a family with four young children and for professionals too busy to be bothered with meal preparation. Krohngold said her meals generally came out to be $35 per person.

"At my busiest period, I was cooking for six different households," she said. "All of them quite different in what they needed, but all the same in that I cooked multiple meals in their kitchens, wrapped and stored the meals for eating the following few days. I don't like to freeze food; everything was for that week. My niche was always healthy cooking, and I came to the job through Weight Watchers, where I was a facilitator."

Krohngold said she has fought a weight problem for years and has learned tricks and strategies for eating well while still maintaining her goal weight. "When I took on a new client, I always started with a lengthy interview so I was thoroughly prepared and they knew too what they were getting into. Some people thought eating healthy was meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and it probably was when what they were routinely eating for dinner was popcorn or ice cream." Some of Krohngold's clients needed her services for only a few months; others became part of her life for years.

"I also helped with dinner parties and usually even stuck around to pass the hors d'oeuvres in a chef's coat," she said. "Actually, I loved the aesthetic part of the parties and I often did the event dcor."

Although she found being a personal chef was fairly lucrative and satisfied her creative side, she eventually gave it up. "It was just too solitary for me," Krohngold said. "I'm single and I live alone and I never saw most of my clients. We'd usually communicate by note or phone. Many chefs go into this kind of work to escape people and bustle, but for me it became a lonely way of life. I needed more interaction with people." Krohngold has that connection with a wider public now with her boutique, and she continues at Weight Watchers.

Many personal chefs specialize food for those with weight problems or dietary limitations, catering to vegetarians, vegans, macrobiotic eaters, or people who suffer from allergies or health ailments that demand the elimination of certain food groups. Other chefs are hired by folks who want supreme convenience and the sort of lifestyle that comes with being rich and famous.

Larry Barrett, who runs Simply Gourmet catering company in Sarasota, was a personal chef in Los Angeles, where he cooked for Danny DeVito and Michael Douglas, among other Hollywood stars and producers. He tried being a personal chef when he moved to Sarasota but abandoned it in favor of a catering service.

"Money was not an object in California," he said. "Clients wanted specific culinary services, and they didn't ask about the price of ingredients or costs involved with preparation time. They just wanted the best to impress. I found clients in this Sarasota community more cost-conscious and in general not so interested in out-of-the-box menu planning when ordering meals just for themselves or their families. Being a personal chef just wasn't something I could make work for me here, although the demand for catering for both small and large parties is very strong, and I'm both busy and happy with catering."



This article originally appeared in and is copyright to the Sarasota Herald Tribune. To view this article in its original source please click here: www.heraldtribune.com.



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