- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Huang Le has a pan of water boiling on the stove. He’s furiously chopping a handful of parsley. Mounds of food sit on the countertop. Dinner will be ready in a few hours, but he’ll have to resist eating it himself.

Mr. Le looks right at home as he chops, slices and dices, but he’s not in his kitchen and it’s not his food. He’s in Alexandria, making a week’s worth of dinner for Kathy Bailey, an environmental attorney.

Mr. Le caters to working professionals and busy adults with an appetite for fine food but no time to prepare dinner.

He arrives at a client’s home armed with groceries. By the time he leaves Ms. Bailey’s house, her stainless-steel refrigerator is stocked with plastic containers that hold entrees and side dishes and have explicit instructions about reheating the meals.

“People who hire me don’t hire me because they can’t cook. They hire me because they don’t have time,” he says.

Mr. Le, 33, is one of about 5,000 personal chefs registered with the United States Personal Chef Association. Private chefs work full time for one wealthy client, but personal chefs typically cook for several families.

Mr. Le begins nearly every day at Whole Foods Market in Northwest Washington with a cup of coffee from a tiny coffee bar at the end of a row of cash registers. He cooks every day except Friday and buys his ingredients the morning before cooking.

A shot of caffeine fuels his dash through the store.

Mr. Le not only buys all the food he’ll need to prepare meals, he arrives at a customer’s home with all his own kitchen supplies because he can’t be sure the people who hire him will have what he needs.

Three plastic containers hold his pots and pans, aprons, towels and cooking gloves. Two smaller containers hold spices, knives and other gadgets.

He looks as if he’s moving in.

“At first I felt odd working in someone else’s house. After a while you forget about it because you’ve got so much to do,” he says.

When he’s in full swing in Ms. Bailey’s kitchen, Mr. Le has a vegetarian meatloaf in the oven, mushrooms for enchiladas stewing on the stovetop and a pork tenderloin soaking up a marinade.

He’s also cooking rice and preparing asparagus. Broccoli, bell peppers, cilantro and tomatoes sit in a pile on a cutting board.

Dirty dishes pile up in the sink.

There is no time to stand still.

Ms. Bailey approved the menu the night before Mr. Le arrived for his weekly cooking session. Menus are the product of requests from clients and his own suggestions. He prefers ethnic food, due largely to his Vietnamese heritage and the influence of his mother, who worked in a hotel restaurant in Tysons Corner after emigrating to Virginia in 1975 with her four children.

One year after starting his business, called Entree Today LLC, Mr. Le has six clients and supplements his income by cooking for parties and holding cooking classes. Most clients were recruited through word of mouth, and his first customer was a family with a newborn.

Clients sign up for a range of services. Some want dinner each weeknight. Some want meals three nights a week. A family of four that orders a week’s worth of entrees and side dishes pays $385 — about $19 a meal.

This is the second career for Mr. Le, who prefers to eat out after spending so much time in the kitchen. He started his business after a career in information technology.

“I personally am a nerd. I just didn’t like what I was doing,” he says. “The creative part was no longer doing it for me.”

He had worked for a division of MCI Corp. and for the former Bell Atlantic Corp.

He began cooking five years ago. Last year he took a one-week course offered by the personal-chef association that taught him how to run his business.

“It was a little scary at first. I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says.

His startup costs approached $5,000, but he says he finished his first year with a profit —and that’s something the chef hopes he can make every year.

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