Diablo Magazine, May 2002
East Bay Rent-a-Chefs
Personal Gourmet Service Brings Haute Cuisine Home
Inspiration can sometimes strike in mysterious places and through interesting means. For Walnut Creek, CA native Tom Stieber, that place was a Southwest Airlines flight. The conduit: the ubiquitous in-flight magazine tucked into the seat pocket in front of him. A short article on a personal chef in New Mexico got him thinking. The chef had formed a professional association for others like himself.
Stieber, then fresh out of business school and working as in-house counsel for an Internet company, was casting about for an idea to strike out on his own. A business plan was born. “I got the sense that all of these personal chefs worked independently,” he says. “It seemed to me we could create some economies of scale.”
A little more than a year later, Stieber, 30, along with buddy and business partner David Fischbein, 28, are heading up their own growing company, Big City Chefs, connecting independent professional chefs with those who don’t have the time, inclination, or inspiration to cook for themselves. After a year of testing the market for their services in the San Diego area, the company has moved into the food meccas of New York City and the East Bay.
The concept is simple. Stieber and Fischbein recruit professional chefs via Internet job listings and trade shows, then match them up with clients based on tastes and dietary needs. After an initial consultation with the client, the chef customizes the menus. Big City Chefs takes a commission, and the chefs take it from there.
The response has been strong so far, Stieber says. The company now counts chefs from Lalime’s, Il Fornaio, and Casa Madrona on its roster, among others. “Our minimum standards are a culinary degree and several years of restaurant experience,” Stieber says. “The caliber of the chefs we’ve recruited is quite high.”
Longtime Moraga resident Martha Rubin, a musician and piano teacher, says the appeal of the service is the freedom it provides – along with a touch of luxury. She found the company while Web surfing late one night in search of something to help simplify her family’s dinnertime challenge. “I’m not often free during the time blocks one usually designates for shopping and cooking,” Rubin says. “My husband is also a musician and instructor, sharing similar hours.”
Some of her favorite meals so far: pasta tossed with fried shrimp “diablo” and roasted chicken with fennel potato gratin and creamed leeks. “I can’t recall ever having had food tasting any better in a restaurant,” Rubin says. “The meals ate tasty and inventive, and much more creative than my previous attempts to make vats of soup ahead of time in a crockpot.”
Carlo Soranno, former executive chef at Mercury Grill in Washington, D.C., has been cooking for Big City Chefs for four months, handling five regular clients and frequent catering jobs. The gig pays better than restaurant work and allows him the freedom to continually alter his custom menus, he says.
“The thing about cooking in a restaurant is that you have to cook the same thing over and over, exactly the same way,” Soranno says. “But as a personal chef you have full creativity – you get to use your ingredients in experimental ways.”
So does it ever get weird, setting up shop in a stranger’s kitchen? “It’s actually kind of fun; sometimes the kid and the dog and the husband will all be hanging out,” he says. “You’re not necessarily part of the family, but for those three or four hours, it’s kind of cool.”
For a cost of $325, he prepares and freezes 10 dinners for two. Soranno – as do all Big City Chefs – buys all of the ingredients for his meal preparations and brings his own cooking utensils, pans, and storage containers. A kitchen scrubbing is thrown in as a bonus. “I love it,” says Sylvia Bartlitz, a client of Soranno’s in Walnut Creek. “Carlo always seems to make the kitchen cleaner than before he began.”
The San Diego-based American Personal Chef Association, a 3,000-member registry, is a testament to the rapid growth of this niche profession. Candy Wallace, founder and executive director, says there are now 5,000 to 6,000 personal chefs operating nationally, up from only about 700 five years ago.
Stieber and Fischbein talked with the APCA as they polished their business plans. What sets Big City Chefs apart, Wallace says, is that they identified a need in the marketplace and filled it.
“They are providing the business administration and marketing backup that most chefs abhor,” Wallace says. “The boys didn’t re-create the wheel. They’ve just taken a segment of the business that the chefs like least and said they will do it for a fee.”