Most mornings, Kay Weeks’ alarm wakes her just after 6 a.m. She spends her days showing homes, writing contracts, meeting with clients, returning phone calls and shuttling her 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, to and from soccer practice, basketball practice and the stables where she rides horses. Some days, she doesn’t get home until after 8 p.m.

Her life, Weeks says, is a “constant flow” of activity.

So after more than a decade as a Realtor and mother, this Preston Hollow woman has little time or energy to spend in the kitchen.

“We really value eating together as a family,” Weeks says of she and her husband, Peter, an investment advisor. “But I work long hours…and had to be sure that we made the time to spend together.”

At one time, that meant eating out – up to three nights a week – ordering in or coming up with uninspired meals that she and Peter could make in a jiffy.

Sounds like a buy / When Weeks came across the services of a personal chef at a fund-raising auction several months ago, she placed the high bid. And when the haggling was said and done, she found her family’s culinary salvation in the form of personal chef Karen Dempsey.

“It’s been a real time-saver,” Weeks says. “We don’t spend time figuring out where to eat, driving there and then waiting in line. We just come home, grab something out of the freezer and pop it into the microwave or oven. It’s shaved off about an hour every night for us to spend time together.”

Though the auction package she purchased was a one-time deal, she finds herself – six months later – unable to part with Dempsey’s services.

The Weeks are just one of an increasing number of neighborhood families using personal chefs. In fact, demand has grown so quickly that John Moore, national director of the United States Personal Chef Association, says his organization’s membership has grown from 15 personal chefs in 1992 to about 5,000 today. In Dallas, there are about 30 USPCA members.

“So many people are busy and just grabbing takeout. What’s missing is the quality time, the sitting down with mom and having meatloaf and mashed potatoes. We’re missing that warm fuzzy feeling at the American dinner table,” Moore says.

Personal chefs solve that problem, Moore says, allowing families with fast-paced lifestyles to address what Moore refers to as the “What’s for dinner?” question.

Neighborhood resident Cathy Koraska couldn’t agree more.

“We can actually sit down and relax when we get home,” she says. “We can chat or watch the news together instead of one of us being in the kitchen cranking out a meal.”

A year ago, Koraska was a director of sales in the hotel industry and husband Cliff was vice president of business development for a fitness equipment manufacturing company.

When she saw a booth for Gourmet on the Go at a trade show, she struck up a conversation with owner Steve DeShazo. Intrigued, she mentioned the meeting to her husband, Cliff, who did most of the couple’s cooking, was even more excited.

“His eyes just kind of lit up,” she laughs.

Since they began using DeShazo, they’ve faced some challenges from friends and family.

“A lot of them would ask: What is the difference? Why not just do frozen TV dinners?” she laughs. “But their food truly is gourmet. The caliber of food is on par with the nicest restaurants in Dallas.”

“Miso-crusted chicken. Chicken piccata. Southwest pork tenderloin.” Koraska wastes no time in ticking off three favorite dishes prepared by DeShazo.

Defining the job / So what exactly are personal chefs, and how do they work?

According to the USPCA, a personal chef is someone who offers “complete grocery shopping, customized menu planning, in-home meal preparation, storage in disposable containers and complete kitchen clean up.”

While some chefs vary slightly from this description, a typical personal chef begins by interviewing clients about their food likes and dislikes and nutritional needs. Many chefs cook for people who have special dietary concerns, such as diabetics or people with food allergies.

Variety usually isn’t a factor in any chef’s menu. Dempsey’s online sample menu offers 13 appetizers, 37 entrees and 24 side dishes. Many personal chefs also will be happy to make favorite recipes or even recipes cut out of magazines.

After a menu has been decided, the chef handles the grocery shopping and comes to the client’s home with everything needed in tow: pots, pans, knives, spices, even a food processor. Many chefs call their cars their “pantries.”

Different chefs offer different packages, but most visit on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, typically while the client is at work. The chef stays anywhere from five to seven hours and cooks 10 to 20 meals, each consisting of an entree, a starch and a vegetable. Finally, the chef packages the meals and leaves them in the freezer with reheating instructions after cleaning up the kitchen.

Weeks says she can tell Dempsey has been at her home only because “my kitchen is cleaner than when I left it, and my freezer is stocked full of food.”

Moore says the industry standard cost for a meal is about $9-15 per plate. Nine dollars provides you with something such as meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, while $15 provides you with something a little more gourmet (see sidebar for sample entrees and side dishes).

If that sounds a little pricey, Weeks and Koraska say it’s not really that much of an impact on a family used to eating out frequently.

“I thought it was a little extravagant at first, but once you try it and really put it down on paper, it’s not really that expensive,” Weeks says.

Adds Koraska: “Some people still probably think, ‘Oh, I could cook for half that price.’ But do they have the time? Do they have the desire? I really think it’s about the convenience.”

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