WHEELING – The term “personal chef” might bring celebrities like Oprah Winfrey to mind, but the business model has a side key low enough that a handful of food entrepreneurs are now making a trip out of it in the Ohio Valley.
Wheeling-based chef Melissa Rebholz of Midge’s Kitchen said there are other models that can curb costs in the ranks of middle-income families.
Sometimes, she said, personal chefs travel to customers’ own kitchens once a week or so and prepare multiple meals while they are there.
This, she explained, brings skillfully prepared food directly to the home table, but avoids the need for a legally certified and potentially expensive cooking space.
In Rebholz ‘case, she explores ways to squeeze costs even lower by doing what she calls “batch cooking” for 20 to 30 families a week in the professional kitchen space she rents in the First State Capitol Building downtown.
“I put the menu online Thursday night or Friday, early in the morning,” Rebholz said. Customers have until the end of the weekend to place orders – where the site counts down available portions until they are sold out. “I am only one person. I set limits on what I can do.”
Educated at the Plant-Oriented Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, Rebholz said she offers between six and eight dishes on her weekly menu. Some are vegan and / or vegetarian.
Others are not.
She said a typical week’s choice includes a breakfast product such as chia pudding, a French toastbake or oats overnight; a large salad that can be eaten as a single meal or divided into several sides for a family; a soup; and three to four main courses, such as an udon noodle batter.
Customers – several of whom Rebholz said order every week – come to her kitchen door every Wednesday to pick up their orders.
While the business model is straightforward, Rebholz said what she does a given week has a variation that is often tied to the season. The former chef at the Public Market, she continues to partner with local farmers through Grow Ohio Valley – a relationship she said her clients 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 thinking, ‘I still have half a case of couscous’.”
On the side of what’s available, it sometimes places items like fresh vegetables, root vegetables or winter squash on the menu, she said. Other times, it sets limits on servings.
For example, if she can only get 20 pounds of beetroot, there is only so much beetroot salad that can be made that week.
She noted that winter means that some days of empty pantry come when it comes to local food and she will have to shop further afield. “February to Mayish will be difficult.”
Other times, local food tastes affect the menu, Reholz noted.
“I have a farmer who just has hundreds of pounds of mustard greens and I think, ‘I just can not get people to jump on it.'” She noted that local customers also tend to turn up their noses at majroer.
But ethnic foods, especially Indian entrees, as well as tofu-rich dishes tend to be sold out.
Demand is also high among certain regular customers, she said, for vegetarian items or those that are free of common allergens such as dairy or gluten. She noted that a family has only one member who is a vegetarian and that ordering from a personal chef has made it possible.
Rebholz said her customers range from younger to older, but everyone tends to be busy enough that it’s a struggle to cook in the evening. “They are counting on it,” she said of their weekly orders.
A GREEN ROAD
That kind of regularity has the green-minded Rebholz ready to fine-tune things further. Could weekly customers be switched to recyclable glass containers? Can customers bring their own recyclable bags or crates when picking up orders? Optionally. Probably.
She already likes that she knows exactly what she needs to cook a given week.
That means there is no waste like there can be in a restaurant if something like bad weather keeps people at home, she said.
“It’s good for me right now,” she said of her current efficiency scale. “I have no ambitions to have employees or grow up at some point.”
Such thinking comes naturally to Rebholz. She is a resident of Buffalo, NY and has long lived in New York City, and she worked on organic farms in Northern California, Tennessee and Alabama before coming to Wheeling for the public market job in late 2019.
“I have always cooked and grown food,” she said of making preserves, teaching cooking classes, preparing ground-to-table meals, or running a winery kitchen beyond the duties of the farm during that season of her career.
Her diverse career path also has her planning a food truck as her next goal. She said mobile food is so hot that she could have had a meeting place every week in 2021. Rebholz said she has already experimented with this idea, working on a food truck at Nicky’s Garden Center on Avenue Eats in the weekend last summer.
“I would love to get out and do festivals,” she said.