Pro Chef + Home Table
WHEELING — The term “personal chef” might bring celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey to mind, but the business model has a side low key enough that a handful of food entrepreneurs are now making a go of it in the Ohio Valley.
Noting a live-in cook can cost more than $100,000 a year, Wheeling-based chef Melissa Rebholz of Midge’s Kitchen said there are other models that can rein costs into the range of middle-income families.
Sometimes, she said, personal chefs travel to customers’ own kitchens once a week or so and prepare multiple meals while there.
This, she explained, brings skillfully cooked food straight to the home table but avoids the need for a legally certified and potentially pricey cooking space.
In Rebholz’s case, she is exploring ways to push costs even lower by doing what she calls “batch cooking” for 20 to 30 families per week in professional kitchen space she leases at the First State Capitol Building downtown.
“I put the menu online Thursday evening or Friday, early in the morning,” Rebholz said. Customers have until the end of the weekend to place orders — with the site counting down available portions until they are sold out. “I am only one person. I set the limits on what I can make.”
Trained at the plant-oriented Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, Rebholz said she offers between six and eight items on her weekly menu. Some are vegan and/or vegetarian.
Others are not.
She said a typical week’s selections include a breakfast item such as chia pudding, a French toast bake or overnight oats; a big salad that can be eaten as a single meal or divided into multiple sides for a family; a soup; and three to four entrees such as an udon noodle stir fry.
Customers — several of whom Rebholz said place orders every week — come to her kitchen door each Wednesday to pick up their orders.
While the business model is straightforward, Rebholz said what she cooks up any given week has a variability that is often tied to the season. The former chef at Public Market, she continues to collaborate with local farmers through Grow Ohio Valley — a relationship she said her customers value.
“I look at the weather and what’s available and what I already have here,” Rebholz said of setting a menu. “(Maybe) I’m like, ‘I still have half a case of couscous.'”
On the side of what’s available, sometimes that places items such as fresh greens, root vegetables or winter squash on the menu, she said. Other times, it sets limits on portions.
If she can only get 20 pounds of beets, for example, there’s only so much beet salad that can be made that week.
She noted winter means some empty-pantry days are coming when it comes to local food and she will have to buy farther afield. “February through Mayish, it’s going to be difficult.”
Other times, local food tastes influence the menu, Reholz noted.
“I have a farmer that just has hundreds of pounds of mustard greens and I’m like, ‘I just can’t get people to jump on that.'” She noted that local customers also tend to turn up their noses at turnips.
But, ethnic foods, particularly Indian entrees, as well as tofu-rich dishes tend to sell out.
Demand is also hot among certain regular customers, she said, for vegetarian items or ones that are free-from common allergens such as dairy or gluten. She noted one family has only one member who is vegetarian and ordering from a personal chef has made that doable.
Rebholz said her clients range from younger to older, but all tend to be busy enough that cooking nightly meals is a struggle. “They’re counting on it,” she said of their weekly orders.
A GREEN PATH
That kind of regularity has the green-minded Rebholz ready to tweak things further. Could weekly clients be switched to reusable glass containers? Could customers bring their own reusable bags or boxes when picking up orders? Possibly. Probably.
She already likes that she knows exactly what she needs to cook any given week.
This means there’s no waste like there can be at a restaurant if something like bad weather keeps people home, she said.
“This is good for me for right now,” she said of her present scale of efficiency. “I don’t have any aspirations to have employees or get big at some point.”
Such thinking comes naturally to Rebholz. A native of Buffalo, N.Y. and a longtime resident of New York City, she worked at organic farms in northern California, Tennessee and Alabama before coming to Wheeling for the Public Market job in late 2019.
“I’ve always been cooking and growing food,” she said of doing canning, teaching cooking classes, preparing farm-to-table meals or running a winery kitchen in addition to farm duties during that season of her career.
Her diverse career path also has her planning for a food truck as her next goal. She said mobile food is so hot she could have had a venue each week of 2021. Rebholz said she has already experimented with this idea, working a food truck at Nicky’s Garden Center in connection with Avenue Eats on weekends last summer.
“I would love to get out and do festivals,” she said.