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After Hours: Shirley Munn–Finding her bliss as a personal chef

It happens to employees far too often—corporate burnout. Personal chef Shirley Munn,shirley with food.small owner of Let’s Eat IN! Personal Chef Service, distinctly remembers the day it happened to her:

“I was director of medical staff services for a major healthcare facility in Jacksonville. I’d been in the same job for 20 years. My department was responsible for credentialing all the doctors and allied health professionals who came through to make sure they were licensed and had the experience and training they claimed.

“One day, at the end of an especially frustrating day, a friend walked into my office, and I began to vent at her. When I was done, she calmly said, ‘You’re eligible for early retirement, why don’t you become a personal chef?’ She was aware of my love for cooking and sensed I was ready for a change,” remembers Munn.

Even though Munn wasn’t sure what a personal chef was, her friend’s suggestion that day ultimately changed her life.

“I thought a personal chef was someone who cooked for a private household on a daily basis, which didn’t appeal to me. But, my friend suggested I go home and research personal chef to discover whether it was something that did appeal to me. After a few hours on the Web that night, I called to thank her for the great suggestion.  I knew I had found a professional outlet for my passion for cooking. I took the first step in finding my bliss!”

Munn’s epiphany was in July 2004. In September, she attended a four-day conference in Portland, Ore., sponsored by Professional Chef’s Network. During the conference, she affirmed her personal-chef aspiration. “The conference had breakout sessions, workshops, and vendors. It was wonderful being with so many people who shared my passion for cooking. I was like a kid in a candy store, and by the time the conference ended, I was totally convinced that Chef Shirley was about to emerge,” she said.

She completed a home-study course to learn about the business side of being a personal chef. Then she registered her fictitious name with the state, got a business license and liability insurance, a Web site, and marketing materials. She was ready to dip her toe into the personal chef world, and requested to go part time on her “day job.”

“I started working three days a week, with Mondays and Fridays devoted to my new career. Then in January 2005 I took the plunge: I took early retirement and have been living my dream ever since. They say if you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life. I’ve been very fortunate that, even though I took a risk, everything fell into place, and I just love what I do.”

According to Entrepreneur magazine, the personal chef industry is one of the fastest-growing businesses in America. Personal chefs are not to be confused with private chefs. The latter work as full-time employees in private households. Personal chefs, on the other hand, run their own businesses.

Munn says the role of a personal chef is to simplify life for busy people by relieving them of the stress of menu planning, food shopping, and meal preparation. “As lives become busier, mealtime is usually the first to suffer, and families resort to fast food, dining out, and fragmented mealtimes. It doesn’t have to be that way,” she says. “A personal chef can be your best friend.” Instead of going out, Munn suggests, “eat in.”

Although she does not require a signed contract, Munn says most of her clients are on a monthly menu program. For a couple, that means she plans a menu (in consultation with the client), does the grocery shopping, and cooks four servings of six different entrees and sides (which allows the couple to eat each meal two times during the month). She packages, labels, and freezes each of the entrees and then delivers them to the client.

“Since each entrée is individually packaged, one member of the family may select one meal and the other something different on any given evening. Meals can be prepared on site in the client’s kitchen if that’s their preference.

Munn attributes the success of her business in part to her well-designed Web site. “At first I got a few clients from friends and acquaintances, but mainly I’ve gotten most of my clients through my Web site,” she says, adding, “My Web designer really knows his business. If you Google ‘personal chef Jacksonville’ my Web site is one of the first to come up. I believe it was divine intervention that got us together. He was formerly a personal chef himself and was getting into Web design, and I was just getting into the cooking business. I was his first client. It’s worked out well for both of us.”

Munn has been known to barter for her services if the client offers a service she may need, which benefits both parties. She also offers gift certificates.

Although most menus she creates are “normal,” Chef Shirley also accommodates requests for special diets. “I’ve had requests for salt-free, gluten-free, vegan, low cholesterol, and vegetarian. There seems to be an increasing need for gluten-free diets—food prepared without any wheat, barley, or rye. Any specialized diet only broadens my culinary repertoire, so I welcome the challenge.”

Munn foresees her business taking off in a slightly different direction—one that may be indicative of baby-boomer demographics. “Lately, my business seems to include more elderly folks. says Munn. “I have elderly clients whose adult children are concerned for their parents’ welfare, but who live too far away to tend to them. They find me on the Web, and we’re able to work out a solution that gives the children peace of mind that the parents are eating healthy meals.”

“I’m blessed to be living my dream.,” she says. “Not too many people can say that.” For anyone interested in becoming a personal chef, Munn’s advice: “Life is short. Take a risk, jump in, and follow your bliss!”

Shirley Munn is owner of Let’s Eat IN!, www.letseatinjax.com. She can be contacted at 904-629-5391.

 

SIDEBAR

To become a personal chef

• Research. The Web is full of resources, says Munn. Google “personal chef.”

• Visit association Web pages. As part of your research, check out www.uspca.com (United States Personal Chefs Association) and www.personalchef.com (American Personal & Private Chef Association).

• Attend a conference. You’ll get immersed in the industry and find out quickly if this is for you.

• Take a course. Certification courses are available, either through classroom study or home study.


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