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We're Eatin' Real Good

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Posted on on 6/12/2000, By Ann Marsh

Two years ago Ed Stiefel and Jennifer Struck of Allendale, N.J. hired Patricia Havelka to come cook for them. Twice a month Havelka stops by and whips up things like baby lamb chops with fiddlehead ferns and pattypan squash, which she leaves in the fridge for the couple to eat over the following two weeks.

The couple are no dot-com swells bored after buying a sailboat and a Montana ranch. Ed is a self-confessed “steak-and-potatoes” guy who sells speedboats. Jennifer owns a nearby hairdressing salon.

Before the baby arrived a year-and-a-half ago the pair, both in their 30s, went out to eat four nights a week. All of a sudden they were staring at a few years of nonstop takeout Chinese, salad-bar pasta and burritos. Blecchhh!

Havelka offered an escape. For $240 for two weeks–less than their weekly restaurant tab–Ed and Jennifer get a variety of carefully prepared foods, and, just as important–extra time. Ed Stiefel’s blunt verdict: “We’re not making $1 million a year, but we’re eatin’ real good.”

Let’s face it, a personal chef is still a luxury best enjoyed by the pretty well-heeled. But remember when the only people you knew who had personal trainers were movie stars? Not that long ago. You may not know it yet, but the day when you’re standing around the water cooler bragging about your chef’s osso buco may not lie all that far off.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s it wasn’t all that unusual for upper-middle-class families to have a cook. But times change....

The reason has as much to do with supply as demand. Cooking has turned into one of America’s glamour professions, but working as a restaurant chef isn’t much fun, and it sure won’t make anyone rich, beyond a handful of superstar hash-slingers. It’s a 12-hour-a-day grind in a hot kitchen with a salary that often strains to top $30,000 a year. Trish Havelka used to work for a catering company, earning $18,000. Now she cooks for 14 other clients besides the Stiefels and figures she’ll be making $40,000 before too long.....

It hardly comes as news that no one has the time or desire to cook anymore, but at the same time we’re also pickier about what we put in our mouths. And anyone who has overheard someone infuriate a waiter with a laundry list of alterations to a standard menu item knows just how persnickety some people get. Accommodating the most bizarre requirements is all in a day’s work for the personal chef.

Darra Rochelle gets some pretty weird ones. She’s had a client who insisted on a menu with no orange-colored food in it. Another client nixed all white-colored food. Still another ordered the truly disgusting-sounding sugar-free Jell-O birthday cake. Rochelle aims to please–when humanly possible. The client who ordered the vegan clambake didn’t get it; there is simply no such thing.

Rochelle is one of the new breed of personal chefs who make it possible for customers on less than a Bill Gates-size budget to join the cooked-for class. She and a partner used to work as private chefs for the Hollywood A-list. But the problem with working for stars is they behave like stars. There’s no polite way to say this, but there was the time a client demanded she prepare a garlic enema. That just about did it. Says Rochelle, “At least I didn’t have to administer it.”

Rochelle now runs Reel Food Productions, cooking for private clients in a rented commercial kitchen near Los Angeles and delivering the food to customers. “It’s almost like a private chef, but you don’t have to spend $1,000 to $1,500 a month,” says Rochelle.

Of course, if you want to get considerably fancier, no one’s stopping you. Atlanta native Kristiaan Kosloff cooks for clients like playwright Richard Nash on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (guests at a recent dinner party savored Kosloff’s chilled corn soup, smoked salmon with Sevruga caviar and a rosemary-crusted baby lamb chop on corn cake with a cassoulet of vegetables). Kosloff charges $30 an hour, not including food costs, but he can spend an awful lot of time in the kitchen. A recent job preparing food for a client’s day-long party in the country took him 18 hours–a $540 labor bill, not including $300 to $400 ingredient costs for food.

You want the top-shelf option? Computer entrepreneur Lee Perlman and his wife are rich enough and lucky enough to enjoy the cooking of Jewels Elmore Noyes five days a week at their home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. (On weekends Noyes cooks for longtime clients Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.) Perlman figures he spends $150,000 a year on Noyes’ salary, plus food costs. For that he might arrive home to a dinner of asparagus soup with goat cheese croutons, salmon with “forbidden rice”–a Bangladeshi delicacy–and passion-fruit crme brle. Not to mention “face time with the kids,” says Perlman.

At a recent dinner party not one but two guests started a serious bidding war to lure Noyes away, but Noyes says she’s grown close to the family and wouldn’t budge. Perlman has no regrets. “You know, years ago I thought having a personal chef was an unnecessary extravagance.” Funny how these things become necessities.

NOTE: Businesses and Chefs mentioned in this article are not affiliated with The Chef Alliance