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Personal Cooking

Personal chef Jeannie Heitz takes her talents to her clients' homes

Jeannie Heitz’s workday starts differently than most. By 8:30 a.m. she’s negotiating the produce department at Rosauers with a growing mound of fresh fruits and vegetables in her cart. She picks out perfect potatoes and drops them in a bag while her husband, John, picks up the pre-ordered fish from the meat department.

Heitz is indistinguishable from the few other souls beating the crowds by shopping early, except she’s not shopping to fill her own fridge. She’s wearing her work clothes — a chef’s coat emblazoned with “Jeannie’s Love of Cooking” on one side — and this is her job.

Heitz is a personal chef, and she’s shopping on this morning for her clients Joel Knutson and Lisa Peterson. The artichokes, ginger, grapes, strawberries, parsley, pineapple, kiwi, lemon, lettuce, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, salmon and shrimp will, during the next few hours, become two weeks worth of meals for the couple.

Heitz plops a bouquet of fresh flowers in the cart on the way to check out.

“That’s just an extra thing I do,” she says.

***

Personal chefs are emerging from obscurity to

become one of the fastest growing elements of the food service industry. Not to be confused with private chefs, who cook exclusively in the home of one client, personal chefs usually have several clients who they shop and cook for once every week or two, preparing meals in advance for several days.

Initially a trend in metropolitan areas with busy professionals seeking an alternative to fast food, take-out and dining out, personal chefs are cropping up in small towns, too, as more people with less free time decide they want the benefits of a home-cooked meal without the time and effort involved in cooking it themselves.

The American Personal Chef Association estimates that there are currently about 6,000 certified personal chefs in the U.S. The industry expects that number to grow to 25,000 in the next three years.

Heitz became a certified personal chef last summer after completing coursework at the United States Personal Chef Institute and is creating a niche for herself in the Gorge.

“A lot of my clients have little ones or have just had a baby,” Heitz said. One client hired her while recovering from surgery, and last fall Heitz was called by several orchard owners who hired her as their personal chef during the busy harvest season.

“I’m pretty flexible,” she says. “People don’t have to hire me all the time. I can help them out for short periods.”

But most of her clients are long-term, hiring Heitz to cook for them on a regular basis. Her standard service is cooking two weeks worth of meals — either for two people (20 single meals) or a family of four (40 single meals), including all shopping. With her regular clients, she has a scheduled day every two weeks that she spends at their home preparing meals for the upcoming days.

***

By 10 a.m. Heitz has taken over Lisa’s kitchen and is stirring a lemon-thyme sauce for salmon while curried vegetables simmer on the stove. She’s already finished making two meals worth of Tuscan bean and cabbage soup, and packaged it up in Tupperware containers labeled with re-heating instructions. By the time she leaves, 20 meals will be packaged in the same fashion, ready to heat and eat at a moment’s notice.

Heitz is in a transition period with Joel and Lisa, who were her first regular clients.

“They’re kind of changing their diet,” she explains. For a while, Lisa was following a Weight Watchers diet, so Heitz was cooking according to those guidelines. Now they’re going mostly vegetarian, except for fish.

“Lisa keeps me on my toes,” Heitz says, laughing.

Normally Heitz, who boasts a recipe base of more than 300 entrees, varies her bi-weekly menu so much that clients go months or longer without seeing the same meal — unless they request a favorite.

But with Lisa’s new vegetarian diet, Heitz is more limited.

“I usually leave a menu of meals I’ll cook the next time for them to look over and approve,” Heitz says. “But I have to study my cookbooks and come back with some different ideas.”

Many of Heitz’s clients have dietary restrictions — from low fat to vegetarian to specific health-related requirements — and she caters to all of them.

When Heitz first meets a potential client, she conducts an extensive consultation with them in their home. Through a questionnaire and discussion, Heitz learns dietary requirements and tastes, then goes home and develops a sample menu of entrees and side dishes.

Once the menu is approved, Heitz schedules a day to cook in the client’s home. She brings with her everything to cook, package and refrigerate or freeze each meal.

“By the time I leave, the kitchen looks just like it did when I got here,” she says.

Clients can request special items and all-organic ingredients.

“But I shop pretty healthy anyway,” Heitz says. She and John also have a huge organic garden that John tends. Heitz uses many of the vegetables and herbs from it in her cooking. John also smokes his own salmon, — and slabs of it — in various mouth-watering marinades, like apple-soaked-mesquite-hickory-smoked, — which often find their way onto clients’ counters as gifts.

Heitz has always loved to cook, but only recently made a career out of it. Before moving to Hood River five years ago, Heitz spent 12 years as a domestic violence counselor — the last six as head of her own program in northern California. It was intense, high burn-out work. She often would bring battered women home with her if shelters were full.

“I’ve always loved to cook,” she says. “It became my release.” After coming to the Gorge on a camping trip, she and John decided to move here. Heitz got a job at Wy’east Naturals, where she remained even after becoming a personal chef and gaining a few clients. She finally got too busy to maintain both jobs and left Wy’east this spring.

Heitz doesn’t miss the stress of her former career in the least. And she still gets the benefits of the part of it she loved best.

“I like the people,” she says. “I like the one-on-one interaction. The more I cook for people, the more I get to know them and what they like and don’t like.”

***

By noon, Heitz is rolling veggie spring rolls to leave in a container for snacks. There are 20 meals tucked away in the fridge and freezer — including shrimp kebabs with Szechwan glaze and eggplant picante sauce to serve over pasta — and Heitz is ready to load up her boxes of pots and pans, spices and sauces, extra Tupperware and cleaning supplies.

Before she leaves, Lisa Peterson arrives home after a morning of tennis. The kitchen is filled with lingering aromas of curry and fresh herbs.

“Are we having kebabs tonight?” she asks, inhaling. Lisa enjoys cooking herself, but says she can do without the time-consuming prep work. But one of their main motivations for hiring Heitz was the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Elsa.

“Sometimes I come home and I just want to play with Elsa, and have dinner taken care of,” Lisa says. “This is so easy, plus I have so little clean-up.” She also commends Heitz’s ability to prepare great tasting meals that follow the various diets she’s been on.

Heitz laughs as she remembers a phone call she once got from Lisa.

“I answered it and said, ‘Hi, this is Jeannie’s Love of Cooking,’” Heitz recalls. Lisa came right back at her, saying, “Hi, this is Lisa’s love of eating.”

Jeannie’s Love of Cooking can be reached at 386-2258.

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