October 30, 2014
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When cooking gets personal

“Food is more than fuel,” says Deb Fernandez, who has been working as a personal chef for several decades, although it wasn’t by design. “Food nurtures us on a number of levels. For people who live alone, it’s [having a personal chef] a nice thing to anticipate, the companionship and the friendship.”

Fernandez is the owner of Home Star Cuisine, a new Providence-based business, offering personal chef services to homemakers who are too busy or simply not able to plan for and watch what they eat. But don’t dust up the spare room for a live-in cook. Being a personal chef does not have to be a full time job anymore and the cook doesn’t have to move in. But he or she does not have to be a complete stranger, either. Fernandez is one of a new breed of personal chef that is rapidly gaining favor with a wide range of people.

“I start by going to the client’s home, to meet them and get the lay of the land,” said Fernandez. “Then we discuss any special dietary needs they have and what sort of menus they want.”

Armed with what they client wants, Fernandez does all the food shopping and prepares the meals in the client’s kitchen.

“I cook the food, package it, label it and give them any special instructions they need to finish the meals and then, and this is important, I clean up.”

This new enterprise she has undertaken seemed to be somewhat of a preordained career for Fernandez. She was born in Vermont and grew up in an ethnically blessed neighborhood rich in people who loved to cook, including her father and “wonderful” Italian women who taught her how to cook.

“I started when I was just a kid and my grandfather had this enormous garden,” she said. “It was Barre, [Vermont] and we had a lot of different people there. There were a lot of Italian women who taught me how to hand-make Italian things like ravioli and gnocchi.”

Even then, there was that sense that cooking was more than fuel and her family and friends were lucky enough to have her enthusiasm.

“The first big meal I made was coq au vin and chocolate éclairs,” she said. “I was 15 years old and I loved éclairs.”

She was an English major in college but suspected all along that cooking was her “calling.” Calling is right word, because one of the first cooking jobs she got after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America was at a Jesuit retreat house in Cohasset, MA, run by Boston College. She had already proven herself at Boston College, where she worked in their catering department for 24 years.

Now, after having married and moved to Rhode Island, she hopes to bring the concept of having a personal chef to more people. In the past, people thought of personal chefs as people who moved into your upscale mansion or apartment and worked for one family. It has been years since even well off people could afford to do that and these days, it is young professionals or retired people who take advantage of a part-time chef and personalized home cooking.

The idea isn’t all that new. In fact, the trade association that Fernandez belongs to was founded in 1991. According to the Web site of the United States Personal Chefs Association (www.uspca.com), it started about 20 years ago:

“Thanks to these efforts many years ago, clients from coast to coast can have confidence that service standards are in place and that all USPCA personal chefs adhere to these standards including a professional code of ethics.”

More than 70 percent of full-time personal chefs today are members of the USPCA, according to their Web site. Membership includes liability insurance, networking, industry news and certification. They also provide listings for members and clients and forums for members to discuss things like marketing and pricing.

The Food Network aired a special about personal chefs several years ago and offered viewers a chance to win a personal chef's services for a year. But the idea is hardly mainstream Middle American and Fernandez spends a lot of time explaining the concept. People still see personal chefs as the lifestyle of the rich and famous and are surprised at the cost. It’s still not cheap but it isn’t impossibly expensive either.

For people who don’t have to worry about the cost of a personal chef, there is PCI, or Private Chefs, Inc., who boast that they are “Dedicated to finding the perfect match for your home, yacht or private jet.” For the rest of us, a visit to Fernandez’s Web site (www.homestarcuisine.com) will answer a lot of questions. She does admit that you have to expect to pay about $40 an hour above the cost of the food and material and that gives most people pause but also maintains that the total cost can be reduced by judicious planning and keeping it simple. It’s not for everyone but for people who want to stay home and eat well, it’s an alternative to eating out or relying on processed supermarket meals or even fast food. And the menu is up to you.

“I enjoy cooking a wide variety of cuisines,” said Fernandez. “From comfort food to a gourmet dining experience, I can provide food in many styles to suit your preference.”

Vegetarian; Mexican; Italian; French; Spanish; Greek; Middle Eastern; and Indian dishes are available. Special needs, like gluten-free or other dietary considerations can be met, like heart healthy, low sodium or other special diets.

The service can be purchased weekly, biweekly, monthly, or just occasionally. Each service includes an initial consultation and kitchen assessment; menu planning; shopping; cooking, packaging and labeling; instructions; and clean-up.

A variety of plans, based on four servings of each item, are available. For the Full Service Plan; five entrees with sides (20 meals) cost $280. But any number of variations are possible because it is, after all, a person-to-person service and Fernandez begins to worry that she might spread herself too thinly. She’s comfortable with 15 to 20 clients and is prepared to offer other people’s services if they provide the personal touch she requires.

“They have to be the kind of people I know will match up with my clients,” she said. “This is as much about getting along well with people as being a gifted cook. You could be the best chef around but if you don’t have the personal skills, this work is not for you.”

She might add that getting along with and liking the client is as important to her as it is to the client.

“So much of this depends on the social, friendly way I get along with my clients,” she said. “It’s why I do it.”

Fernandez is also very willing to help out at special occasions as long as she has sufficient notice. She has fed large and small groups for most of her career and is not intimidated by a challenge. She has a Zen-master calm about her that must have rubbed off from the ashram she once cooked for, or maybe it was the bounteous blessings of all those grateful Jesuits on retreat.

“If you’d love to hire me as your personal chef but feel it isn't affordable for you right now, you may want to consider sharing,” said Fernandez. “Find a friend who would also appreciate this service and decide whose kitchen I will be preparing your meals in. Then I’ll have a consultation with you both. We will come up with a menu that works for everyone, and on your service day I will prepare your meals for eight and package them for both parties.”

You can visit Fernandez’s website or call her directly at 484-8535.


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