Chop to It: Personal Chefs Whip Up Meals in Your Home

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Colleen Patton raided her kitchen to start her personal chef business in 2002.

A self-taught cook who reads "everything food," she had been working as a caterer for a year. Once she decided to cook for others in their homes, she quit her technology-consulting job.

"All you need is a couple of spoons and a knife, and a few extras out of my kitchen," says Patton of Leen's Cuisine, her traveling business based in Reston. She has a Web site to promote it.

She starts at about 7 a.m., reviewing a client's preferences, planning meals and printing out food labels and instructions.

By about 9:30 she's at the grocery store. She brings the food and her "mobile kitchen" -- spices, pots and a toolbox of utensils -- to the client's kitchen and turns up the heat.

"I try not to take a break while cooking -- it's a momentum thing," she says. Often, she'll prepare two weeks' worth of main and side dishes, stocking the fridge and freezer. Her clients pay $375 to $450 for 10 meals for two.

Among her clients' favorites: sour cream chicken enchiladas, chicken parmesan and a lot of salmon.

By 3 p.m., with the food cooked and the kitchen cleaned, Patton is off to the gym.

In December, she works extra days and hours, as her schedule's crammed with holiday parties.

Other than cooking skills, a personal chef thrives on business sense, discipline and organizational skills, Patton says.

The field is growing, with how-to classes offered at cooking schools. A good personal chef can earn $100,000 a year or more, according to the American Personal Chef Association, especially with a commercial kitchen, something Patton is considering.

While most kitchens she works in are top-notch, occasionally one has a sink that doesn't drain or a stove with only one element working.

"Quirky kitchens can be quite a challenge," she says.

-- Vickie Elmer

© 2007 The Washington Post Company