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Cooking? Not in My Kitchen.

It really isn't fair. You've worked another ten-hour day, slogged through traffic, suffered with errands, returned the irritating phone calls, fed the pets. Now its 7 p.m., and there's nothing in the fridge except for a prehistoric casserole and a jar of Grey Poupon.

Wouldn't it be nice to sit down to a meal prepared by your very own cook? Of course it would. But if your pad isn't equipped with quarters for domestic help and your income isn't equipped to pay someone full-time, dining regularly on dishes prepared by a personal chef still isn't an impossible dream.

The budget version of the in-house gourmet does exist outside of the frozen food section at the store. Trained chefs who prepare meals and deliver them to your door are all the rage. According to the United States Personal Chef Association, the number of personal chefs in the country has grown from zero to 2000 in a little more than a decade. Unfortunately the cost of customized menus and delivery is often nearly as prohibitive as having a live-in. "We always caution the customer about the possible expense involved in overcustomization of a menu," says Sandra Cohen of Broward's Family Catering.


Personal chef

Contact Denise Sharf at 954-420-5246; Catering by Randy at 954-989-7688 (Hollywood) or 954-382-5744 (Plantation); and Family Catering at 954-382-2222. All prefer calls between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And without customizing, you might as well be ordering from a standard take-out menu. Denise Sharf, however, brags that she can cook for a client for six months without repeating a meal and do so at a relatively reasonable price -- between $15 and $20 per person per meal. There's also a one-time fee of $50 for the plastic containers in which the food arrives.

Sharf started out more than 15 years ago cooking for country clubs and hotels in the New York City area and later got her certification from the American Culinary Federation as a chef de cuisine. "I can cook pretty much anything, from American to ethnic to classical French," she says. All her clients have to do is arrive home safely, go into the kitchen, open the fridge, and pop their chosen entrée -- say, canard à l'orange -- into the microwave, then sit down to the joy of not cooking.

Of course there's a little more to it than that. Most personal chefs, such as Catering by Randy and Family Catering, work from a preplanned assortment of entrées. Sharf, however, has her customers fill out a detailed questionnaire about their food preferences (and allergies), then plans a customized menu for a predetermined number of nights.

Armed with her menu, Sharf heads out for some serious shopping. She picks up various items from an assortment of natural-foods markets, grocery stores, and specialty seafood and poultry shops. Shopping bags full, she returns to her home, cooks, and puts the food in containers for delivery.

"I personally like to cook fresh daily," she admits. "Of course it's more expensive, because you have to add on a daily delivery fee. Sometimes I go to my clients' homes and cook fresh, but most of the time they would prefer to eat without a stranger in the kitchen."

Sharf and the other chefs stand by the freshness of their food, though, believing it tolerates a stay of up to two days in the refrigerator. If people order five meals per week, Sharf freezes the final three meals, and the customer thaws them.

So what's the advantage over eating out or ordering take-out? Driving and tipping aren't involved. Besides, delivery drivers don't leave gratis flowers and a loaf of bread like Sharf does, and there's that no-repeat clause that assures an ever-changing variety of gastronomic delights.

The mind boggles as the mouth waters. Lets see… what'll it be tonight? Salmon with dill sauce? Seafood pasta? Medallions of beef with portobello mushrooms?

Of course after the haute cuisine has been devoured, you still have to force your exalted flesh to wash a few dishes. But then, life is unfair, isn't it?

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