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Personal chefs prepare healthy and delicious meals in your home

You're harried. You're hungry. And you don't feel like cooking. What to do?

The vast array of convenience foods in the grocery freezer section attests to the need for a quick fix for dinner. Most of these offerings, besides being inordinately expensive, are loaded with sodium and fat. A freezer full of home-cooked meals is the obvious alternative but, remember, you're harried, you have no time to cook. Perhaps you even have no talent for cooking. Maybe it's time for a personal chef.

Personal chefs are a new branch of the professional foodservice industry. Neither caterers, nor full-time family cooks, personal chefs generally have a loyal cadre of clients for whom they regularly provide customized menus tailored to the client's gustatory whims and/or dietary needs.

I met recently with personal chef Ellie Malin, owner of Ellie's Cookery, and got a glimpse into a service that seems to be catching on among busy professional families.

For Ellie and her late husband Ted, it began with retirement. After a career in banking and a move to Colorado Springs, she read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the American Personal Chef Association, and had a culinary epiphany. She loved to cook, but with her sons grown and on their own, she had no one to cook for. Here was a way to share her passion for cooking with other people and establish herself in a second career.

Here's how it works: She shops for fresh ingredients on the morning of a client's cook date. She then spends a good part of the day in the client's kitchen preparing all meals, carefully packaging and storing them for the clients to enjoy whenever they choose.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The first step in a relationship with a personal chef is the lengthy conversation that ensues from the Client Assessment Form. Determining likes, dislikes, dietary restrictions, and nutritional needs takes time but is an integral part of being a personal chef. "If they don't like beets," Ellie told me, "a beet never crosses their path."

In addition to a repertoire that spans international borders (a small sample: Greek lamb stew, Beef Bourguignon, Veal Stroganoff, New England Boiled Dinner, German meatballs), Ellie offers a comprehensive kids' menu designed to sneak those vegetables into a squirrelly six-year-old. She can create menus that accommodate food allergies or health conditions, like diabetes or high cholesterol, which require healthful eating. She can suggest a full range of seasonal seafood or vegetarian dishes. If you've got some food eccentricities -- let's say you only want to eat chicken, or you want monochromatic meals (all yellow; always a favorite) -- she can do it, and get all the nutritional value you need into it, too.

Her office bookshelves are crammed with cookbooks, many of them with a Cooking Light slant. She shops for the freshest ingredients and frequents quality markets like Cunningham's and Par Avion. She uses lots of olive oil, skinned chicken, free-range eggs and organic vegetables. She's not averse to the occasional descent into butter and cream, but prides herself on tasteful healthy cooking.

Five different entrees and side dishes with four servings of each entre costs $300. Three entres is the minimum for a personal chef's services. This is their livelihood after all. And since the fees include shopping, cooking and packaging meals, and thorough cleanup, it has to be cost effective for all parties. When you calculate in the time and hassle factor, these fees seem awfully reasonable -- not far off from what you might pay for an entre in a restaurant.

Your dining experience will be significantly different from a restaurant, however. Think back to that initial assessment of your likes and dislikes. Now, factor in the time and effort for customization, and the attention to your food quirks. You get the final say on all menu ideas. This is like having your grandma cook all your favorite foods right in your own house. Not many restaurants can offer that element of comfort and convenience.

And to bring that point home to me, Ellie ended the interview portion of our visit together with an offer of coffee and muffins. These had been cooling on the kitchen counter when I arrived, their spicy aroma filling the air. Another hour passed as we nibbled and chatted and, although decades and decades have passed since my schooldays, it felt like nothing so much as after-school snacks with my grandmother. It's hard to put a price on that.

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