A Day in the Life of a Personal Chef

Jo Gonzales is a personal chef.  Most people look puzzled when she walks the aisles of the grocery store in her bright orange embroidered chef's coat or pulls up in her SUV with its magnetic signs announcing her business name: Chef Jo's Home Cooking.  "What on earth is a personal chef?" they ask. It's a question she answers every day.

Unlike a chef at a restaurant or in a commercial kitchen, a personal chef doesn't necessarily have any formal training. Jo is licensed by the City of Houston as a food service manager, but all of her cooking expertise comes from years at a stove guided by her mother and grandmother or one of the 250 cookbooks she's collected and devoured over the years. She belongs to several organizations, such as the United States Personal Chefs Association, where other personal chefs interact with their peers, give advice and share anecdotes via forums, meetings and national conferences.

And unlike a private chef, who works for only one client and cooks all their meals for them, a personal chef has many different clients at a time. In Jo's case, her client roster ranges from seven to 12 clients at a time. Driving to a different client's house every day, she cooks and packages a week's, two week's, or a month's worth of food in one day, labeling each individual meal with its heating or cooking instructions. Jo even buys the groceries, cleans the kitchen, takes the trash home and sets out a few homemade goodies for her clients before she leaves. Then she gets up the next morning and does it all again.

It's a simply exhausting job. And I had the bright idea of following her one day to see how she does it.

On a sunny Thursday last week, I found out firsthand exactly what a personal chef does. Simply watching Jo work is exhausting, from the early morning trip to the grocery store to wrapping up in the late afternoon, hands and backs sore from a day's work. Although Jo's morning begins at 7 a.m. by finalizing menus, pulling recipes, creating heating instructions and labels and loading her SUV with supplies, our day together begins promptly at 9 a.m., when I meet her at the store to go grocery shopping.

9:30 a.m.: Working our way up and down the aisles. Jo, who shops here nearly every morning, has said hello to each of the stockers, cashiers, baggers and butchers. She knows them all by name. The butcher always gives her the best cuts of meat, the stock boys bring out fresh produce for her. We buy primarily fresh items; Jo already has any pantry staples like flour or sugar ready to go each day. Even spices are packed up each day; one of her many heavy-duty tote bags looks like the inside of an extravagant Penzey's gift box.

10 a.m.: Finished checking out and loading the groceries (all in reusable bags; Jo doesn't believe in using plastic grocery bags) into the back of Jo's SUV. Along with the bags of groceries are the aforementioned tote bags, holding everything from All Clad pots and pans to extra Ziploc baggies and plastic gloves. She is a veritable traveling kitchen; she even has butane stoves with her in case a client's stove is on the fritz. "Those came in handy during Hurricane Ike!" she jokes.

11 a.m.: Unloading the SUV at the client's house in Champions Forest, after a leisurely drive up north with "the magnetic sign brigade," as Jo refers to the other service industry folks like herself driving to and from houses: lawn service trucks, plumbers, roofers, cable repair vans. Hauling the grocery bags and endless sacks of pantry staples, pots, pans, cutting boards, knives and kitchen errata into the client's house has already worn me out. "Hey, at least you didn't pick the day with my client who has three flights of stairs," she chuckles at me.

Noon: After cleaning, chopping, pouring and prepping all the food (mise en place seems to be vital here), Jo is well into cooking the five mains and five sides for her client by noon, the ambient noise from a small black and white TV keeping her company as she stirs and sautees. I ask her if the current recession has been detrimental to her profits or client base. "I'm having more people call me now than there were before the recession hit," she responds happily. "They find that I cost sometimes half of what they're spending in restaurants. So for a month of meals -- say, 48 meals -- they'll have spent some $1,200 or $1,300 on restaurant meals and they'll only spend $750 with me. And it's all cooked-to-order and healthy."

12:30 p.m.: There's no stopping for lunch. "I usually eat an apple and some peanut butter when I get home, maybe stop for a smoothie," Jo says. "Having to taste the client's food -- so many different flavors in one short time -- to make sure it's good means I'm usually not hungry."

1 p.m.: I'm helping Jo by rearranging the contents of the client's refrigerator to accommodate the food which will soon be occupying it. I take down last week's menu from the front of the fridge and replace it with the new menu, which lists things like vegetable tarts, chicken pot pies and smoky apple butter ribs. It takes Jo an entire Friday to create the menus for her four clients in the upcoming week, finding menus and recipes that suit their particular tastes and/or diets as well as creating and printing the menus and labels. "For my clients that have very distinct tastes, it takes a long time to plan menus. I can go through sometimes upwards of 50 recipes before I find one that will work for them. I'm lucky to have a huge library of cookbooks in my house and access to recipes on the internet, but it still takes a long time to filter through everything and to remember ten different families' likes and dislikes."

2:30 p.m.: The actual cooking portion of the day is winding down. Only a few items are left in the double ovens -- some asparagus is gently roasting while the many chicken pot pies are developing a gorgeous brown crust. Jo has moved to the cleaning portion of her day as the food finishes and/or cools down. All the pots and pans she's hauled in from the car are scrubbed, all the cutting boards cleaned, all the utensils and spices put back into their individual containers. She moves swiftly, efficiently. Counters are bleached and polished to a shine. The sink is scrubbed with Ajax. The kitchen sparkles by the time she's done. "My goal is to leave everything cleaner than the way I found it," she proudly states.

3:30 p.m.: Most of the food has been packaged and put into the refrigerator by now. Because this client requests individual portions, there are six pot pies to put away, six vegetable tarts, six servings of pasta, and so on. Each portion is put into Gladware and capped with a label that includes heating instructions. This takes nearly as much time as cleaning the entire kitchen, and I'm glad when we're done with it.

4 p.m.: After one last inspection of the kitchen, Jo leaves her invoice on the counter alongside a loaf of freshly-baked bread, some sugar cookies and an Easter card to her clients. "I sometimes leave them some little unexpected treat to come home to," she says. Besides a clean kitchen and homemade food? I wonder to myself. I'd be happy with just the clean kitchen. We begin loading all of her bags back into the car, along with a Hefty bag full of trash. "I take the trash with me and throw it away for them," she explains. "Otherwise, they'll come home to stinky garbage and possibly a dog that's scattered the stuff all over the place. No thanks." I rethink my previous position: I'll take just the garbage disposal service. Hell, I'll take any of it!

4:30 p.m.: We're back on the road, well before her clients come home. Our backs and necks are both sore. We smell like bleach and onions. Jo's hands are swollen from the day's work and her arthritis, but she's infectiously happy. "I work longer days now than I ever did in corporate America, but I love it."

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Katharine Shilcutt