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Too busy to follow trendy diets?

Personal chef Shalla Powell, left, prepares a roast beef wrap for Debbie Basler in early March. Powell is part of a growing number of culinary professionals who are leaving restaurant and hotel kitchens to find work in America's homes.Nati Harnik / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rod and Debbie Basler wanted to follow the South Beach Diet, but their work lives made it impossible to shop and cook for it.

With his dermatology practice and their three restaurants, the Baslers had no time for the meticulously structured meal plans that asked them to weigh, measure, bake and grill.

Enter Shalla Powell, a longtime family friend whom they hired as personal chef. At $30 an hour, she prepares three days’ worth of lunches and dinners that conform to the South Beach Diet’s low-fat, low-carb regimen.

Change came quickly, especially for Rod who dropped 14 pounds in two weeks. Debbie lost only 2 pounds, but said she noticed an increase in her energy level.

“You always feel better when you eat better,” she said.

A growing number of culinary professionals are leaving restaurant and hotel kitchens and answering the call to provide healthier meals for well-to-do American families living life in a pressure cooker.

Between 9,000 and 10,000 personal chefs were working in the United States as of last April, compared to about 6,000 in 2001.

The typical chef does the shopping and prepares between two weeks to a month’s worth of dinners at a client’s home. The meals are properly stored and left with heating instructions.

Personal chef vs. eating out
Bob Stock, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, figures having his own chef makes sense because it costs him about as much as eating out regularly. He spends about $3,600 a year for a plan that offers five dinners a week, which averages about $14.30 for each dinner.

The national average for a typical plan is roughly $75 per person each week, said Candy Wallace, founder and executive director of the American Personal Chef Association.

Chefs who once catered primarily to professional athletes and people with special dietary needs are finding an expanding client pool.

“The bulk of our client base are two-income busy people who want to eat something that’s healthy,” Wallace said. “We basically have people tell us, ’We don’t have time to take care of ourselves.”’

With the stress of preparing meals for busy restaurants and hotels, chefs are no different from other busy professionals, and many want a chance to be their own boss.

“Those with an entrepreneurial spirit ... have a little bit more control in that sense,” said Wendy Higgins, assistant director of career services at the Culinary Institute of America.

Wallace said the average personal chef earns between $60,000 and $75,000 a year.

For Dane Mechlin, owner of Dane and Nadine’s, a personal chef service in California’s Silicon Valley, there have been financial and personal gains.

“I’m making more money, I work less hours, I take more vacations,” he said.

Midwest slow to catch on
Before he made the switch to personal chef about five years ago, Mechlin spent 15 years working in restaurants, hotels and on private yachts. That meant precious little time with his then-girlfriend.

“I am either going to never see my girlfriend,” Mechlin said, describing his thought process, “or I need to come up with something.”

He moved to Santa Clara in the midst of the dot-com boom, building a list of clients that included high-ranking executives of technology companies. He also started offering a less-expensive service to middle-income families.

When the economy weakened and his wealthy clients disappeared, he said the two-income families kept his business afloat. While his services were a luxury to high-end clients, his meals were a necessity for working parents.

“Here I thought I was dealing with a client that was immune from money problems,” Mechlin said. “(But) it was the client that really needed me that kept me through the tough times.”

The service has grown fast on both coasts, Wallace said, but has been slower to catch on in the Midwest, where the attachment to traditional family structure is stronger.

“Mom cooks and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Powell said.

The Baslers are currently Powell’s only clients, but she hopes to build from that base.

“It’s hard right now in this part of the country,” she said. “But I think it’s changing.”

Debbie Basler notices the look of intrigue in the faces of friends when they hear she has a personal chef.

“It’s really not that different from having a cleaning lady,” she said. “She improves the quality of my life.”