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All this and a sponge

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Mary Lynn Vickers, The Phantom Chef, thinks personal chefs are a natural step from popular services such as personal trainers. Personal chefs seem to me to fit more with trends around saving time. Many folks hire cleaning services, and supermarkets are focusing more and more on prepared foods.

            It's the convenience that appeals to Diane and Paul Cunningham. Diane is a physician, Paul a materials manager, and they have five children. Diane likes cooking, but has little time for it. Her kids are active, and eat big meals. The solution, for the last several years, has been a personal chef (they've been customers of the Phantom Chef for six months).

            Once a month, Vickers comes to the Cunningham home for a long day of cooking. She plans the menus by phone, and then shops, cooks, packages, labels, cleans, and disappears. "I've never met her," Diane admits, "though of course we've spoken." Vickers comes and goes, generally leaving the kitchen in better order than she found it.

            The evidence of a visit from a personal chef sits in your refrigerator and freezer. There will probably be one fresh dish (fish, for example), several plastic containers in the fridge, and many more in the freezer. You also get simple cooking or reheating instructions. The Cunninghams will get five entrées, which become eight to 10 meals. The Phantom Chef also provides entrées for the Cunninghams' vegetarian daughter.

            Vickers is meticulous about billing, iteming all her time and costs. The Cunninghams' service costs about $350 a month, roughly $10 per entrée per person, using Vickers' quantities. That's comparable to good takeout, but the value is even better, because the Cunninghams get far more than five meals out of it. Plus, nobody has to pick up the food.

All personal chefs mention flexibility as a major draw of the profession. Kim Ippolito, who runs Your Place Tonight Personal Chef Service, was a bench scientist at Rochester General Hospital before having a child. When she wanted to work again, she needed a job flexible enough to fit her lifestyle. She has about three clients every other week, and also does dinner parties. She also teaches cooking to kids at the Perinton Recreation Center.

            Patti Battista, the Delicious Gourmet, has other plans. A single mom, until a week ago she worked full-time in food service at SUNY Brockport. For years before that, she ran Battista's Pizza. She likes the variety and, again, the flexibility of the personal chef business. With six biweekly clients, two weekly, and dinner parties and showers on the side, she's giving it a go as a full-time gig.

            Mary Lynn Vickers is a retired engineer and project planner. For her, this is fun, a way to stay busy and vital. She loves food, and can put her planning skills to good use. Carol Fletcher runs Homespun Flavors (288-3910), but doesn't foresee giving up her hospital secretary job any time soon (benefits matter). She maintains just a couple of clients.

            Carol Dalrymple's Dinners Done is a fairly recent entry into the market. With a supportive husband, she's been able to get started without enormous pressure to make money immediately. Carol says she always learns something on the job, and finds providing a direct service very satisfying.

            You can get information about becoming a personal chef from the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA) website, www.uspca.com. Legally, the only hurdle is to secure food-handling certification from the health department. To get a full catering license, your kitchen must be certified, which can be expensive. Personal chefs have to work in your kitchen, not theirs, although they have to bring their own equipment. Experience at restaurants, degrees from culinary schools, or training programs from one of the personal chef associations can also help. Vickers, Ippolito, and Battista are all USPCA graduates. Fletcher is currently completing the USPCA's home-study program.

How about the experience? Like most personal chefs, the Phantom Chef starts by sending you an extensive food questionnaire. Filling it out, I imagined what a pain we must be (one person doesn't like one thing, another something else). But during the next step, an interview at our home, Vickers said we were easier than many clients. She brought a menu of eight possible entrées, from which we chose four. Then we agreed on a cooking day, and went back to our lives.

            The Phantom Chef arrived just before 9 a.m. on cooking day, already having shopped for groceries and meats (from Balsam Market, fish from Captain Jim's). She schlepped pans, bowls, utensils, and packaging materials, and got busy. I work in my home, and could easily have ignored her, but the whole process was fascinating. It was a big job, and Mary Lynn attacked it with precision.

            When she left around 3 p.m., I had a beautiful dish of lemon-thyme salmon ready to cook for that night. The parmesan-bread-crumb topping was delicious, and the fish came out perfectly moist. It was supposed to be four servings, but we had plenty for lunch the next day. In the refrigerator were four servings of pork chops with apples and sweet potatoes in an orange sauce. The sauce was great over rice for a couple of meals.

            After two weeks, we still have turkey soup. Each of the four, single servings is lunch for two of us (and our 3-year-old). A four-serving portion is still waiting. The fourth dish was baked chicken with tomatoes, black olives, and sautéed mushrooms that made for eight servings. We brought that to a family dinner. It ended up serving 13, with leftover lunches for six. From a quality standpoint, the salmon was exceptional, and the rest amounted to fabulous leftovers.

            That service cost $440, which is quite reasonable when you break it down. Using Vickers' 24 portions, it comes out to $18.33 each. But in reality, we got about 46, which is $9.57 per portion. My kitchen smelled fantastic and was cleaner when she left than when she arrived. Plus, the Phantom Chef left us a box of delicious cookies and a brand new sponge.

            I couldn't afford to do this often, but would definitely do it again to manage difficult times, like when people come to visit or for a special dinner party. The service would also make a fabulous gift for new parents. Imagine how much easier those first few weeks could be without any cooking. It's clearly an idea whose time has come.

The following personal chefs all operate locally: Chef Jimi (Jimi Patricola), 259-0662, chefjimi@aol.com; Delicious Gourmet (Patti Battista), 455-4906, pbattist@rochester.rr.com; Dinners Done (Carol Dalrymple), 458-6503; Homespun Flavors (Carol Fletcher), 288-3910, homespunflavors@cs.com; Phantom Chef (Mary Lynn Vickers), 671-6508, mvicker1@rochester.rr.com; Your Place Tonight (Kim Ippolito), 742-2433, YourPlaceTonight@aol.com.

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