NEW YORK - As lives get increasingly busier with careers, kids, commutes and other chaos, a growing number of people are turning to personal chefs to make sure there's a hot meal on the table at the end of a long day.
Hiring a professional to cook for you isn't a whole lot different that hiring someone to clean your house or walk the dog, and it's not just for the wealthy, said John Moore, the executive director of the United States Personal Chef Association.
"It's not Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, " Mr. Moore said. "People don't have personal chefs because they have tons of money, they have them because it solves a problem. It puts dinner on the table."
Personal chefs typically prepare several days' worth of customized meals in advance, potentially for several clients. The meals are prepared and packaged, ready to be popped in an oven or microwave whenever a client wants to eat.
Some chefs charge a flat rate, while others are paid by the hour. The chef does the grocery shopping, along with the cleanup, and those costs are added to a client's bill.
Total costs usually range between $15 and $20 per person per meal, depending on the kind of food prepared and other related costs. That's not much different from a meal at a restaurant, Mr. Moore said.
"Except that people don't have to go out, pay for parking or leave a tip," Mr. Moore said. "And they get to eat a meal that was custom made just for them."
Personal chefs have the potential to make more money than their restaurant counterparts, about $25 per hour on average, compared with about $14.75 for a head cook or chef in a restaurant, Mr. Moore said.
As a result, the personal chef industry has gained numerous "restaurant refugees" who see the profession as a way to both get away from hectic restaurant schedules and make more money, Mr. Moore said.
The association estimates that there are just over 5,000 personal chef businesses operating in the United States and Canada, up from about 1,500 a decade ago.
The industry generates about $300 million in revenue per year, the association said.
Mark Tafoya, who owns the New York-based ReMARKable Palate personal chef service, cooks for regular weekly clients and also offers one-time meal services, such as romantic dinners for two.
Mr. Tafoya prepares the meals in the client's home, with the dishes ranging from chicken enchiladas with a green tomatillo sauce to crab lasagna with bechamel sauce.
For regular clients, the week's meals are discussed in advance and are created in accordance with their dietary needs and personal tastes. Organic, vegetarian and kosher options are available and nothing is repeated for six months unless requested, he said.
Mr. Tafoya said that by cooking for the same clients over a long time, he's able to develop a kind of intimacy and customization that restaurant chefs just aren't able to.
"I think that when I do hit it off and when they like my food and I understand them and what they like to eat, I can suggest new dishes that they might not have tried before, but I think might be right for them," Mr. Tafoya said.
He said he was drawn to the profession after careers in acting and teaching. He saw it as a way to turn his love of food and cooking into a viable business.
Mr. Tafoya said his typical weekly clients are incredibly busy, career-oriented people who don't have time to cook but still appreciate a quality meal.
"They might not be working 12-hour days, they might be working eight-hour days with kids and they still have to take them to band practice, soccer and ballet, and they might have elderly parents they have to take care of too," he said.
"You have all these things on your plate and you're working. The last thing you might want to do is cook."