For well-heeled people who crave good home-cooked meals but lack the time, skill or inclination to actually cook them, a personal chef may be just the ticket.
Gretchen Ohar of Lockport is one of about half a dozen personal chefs in the Buffalo Niagara region. Her business, "Dinner by Gretchen," operates from her LeVan Avenue home, and she was recognized as an award winner last year by the national Personal Chefs Association. Her Web site address is www.ezchef.net/dinnerbygretchen.
Most of her clients are in Buffalo.
The 55-year-old mother of three grown children -- a former surgical intensive-care nurse at Buffalo General Hospital -- said she always enjoyed cooking and knew she was good at it, but it wasn't a case of an empty-nester looking for something to fill her time.
She was encouraged by her husband, John, an electrical engineer at Washington Mills Electro Minerals in Niagara Falls, but it was a family illness that led to the creation of the business about six years ago.
Why did you start Dinner by Gretchen?
I was a registered nurse and I was working 13-hour shifts. My mom is 90 years old, she's got Alzheimer's, and I couldn't get anybody to stay with her for those 13-hour shifts. This personal cheffing has allowed me to make my own hours so that I can find aides and nurses who can come in and stay with her while I'm cheffing.
Is this a lucrative thing for you?
Yes, it is, very much so. I make just as much money doing this as I did nursing.
How much time do you devote to your business?
It's like a normal business. Usually I'm up and out of here by 9 and home by 5. I cook in my clients' homes. What we do is we decide on a menu together and then on the day that I cook, I shop for all their groceries, take it to their home, cook and package it there, and leave it for them to eat at their leisure.
How many clients do you have?
I have about six clients that I do on a regular basis, every two weeks, every three weeks, once a month, and then I have a lot of clients who call me every month or two. And then I have clients who only call me for parties. It's like catering, but it's not, because a caterer has to have a special license and special refrigerated or heated receptacles to take the food. I am cooking the client's food in the client's home. I'm not transporting it. I package everything for the freezer and the clients will eat what they want the first couple of days. Then, after that, they'll freeze everything, and I have specific directions for them to defrost it and heat it up.
What sort of people need this?
Well, there are dual-income families with children where both parents work and they need to get a meal on the table in less than half an hour. That's a big part of my business. Another big part is senior citizens who can't necessarily cook for themselves anymore, or get out. And then I have professional couples who just don't have the inclination to cook.
I presume you enjoy cooking?
I love cooking. My mom worked when I was a child, so when I got home from school -- I was the eldest left at home -- I was the one who started supper. From there, I just kept on going.
How much does it cost to get you to cook for someone?
It depends on the number of meals that the client wants. The usual price for a service, which is five different entrees, four servings of each entree, is $275 plus the cost of groceries. People can choose to have more or fewer entrees, depending on how much they want to spend and how much food they want.
I see in your menu here that you're not just cooking macaroni and cheese. Some of these things would not be out of place on a restaurant menu: Martini Pork Chops in Vermouth Gravy, Boeuf Bourguignon, even Fried Orange Roughy.
Most of my clients prefer gourmet food, if not ethnic food. I have one client who absolutely loves Thai food. Almost everyone I would call upscale gourmet, that type of eaters, but they'll always order at least one comfort food, like chicken pot pie or meatloaf.
Have you ever been hit by a client with a request for something you've never heard of before?
Many, many, many times, and that's where the Internet comes in real handy.
What if the client's kitchen doesn't have the proper equipment to cook what they want?
I bring my own equipment with me. The only thing I use of theirs is the stove, because some of my clients, because they don't cook, have horrible kitchens. They don't even have pots and pans, so I take my knives, cutting boards -- everything comes with me. As I made a little more money, I was able to put a little kit in my car that has everything I need.
Have you lured other people into the personal chef field?
Not deliberately. Normally what happens is they'll see my Web site and contact me. I'm always very happy to show someone else the ropes. I feel that rather than competitors, we're colleagues.