Sharon Mateer grew up in a Fayetteville family where women cooked — a lot. Both her grandmothers and her mother were noted for their spreads, and kids were expected to be part of the production line. “In the summer, I had to shell peas, shuck corn and peel peaches,” Mateer recalls.
This story originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Living Intown magazine.
But the Brookhaven resident never saw being in the kitchen as a chore. Even with a hectic corporate job in advertising, Mateer found time to cook. In fact, in the early 2000s, she decided she wasn’t doing it enough and volunteered to be a chef’s assistant for cooking classes at the Cook’s Warehouse.
“Two or three nights a week, I’d work alongside chefs, prepping items for the class and cleaning up afterward,” she says. “The chefs were all very different, and I learned so much.”
It was during those five years as a volunteer that she first heard the term “personal chef.” The idea was intriguing, and when the economy crashed, she finally realized that her destiny was in the kitchen.
A new career
Six years ago, she chucked the corporate world, trained with the Culinary Business Institute to learn the financial and marketing side of running a food business, and opened Dinner at Home. Her personal chef enterprise takes her to clients’ intown homes to whip up evening meals. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says.
As much fun as it is, the job demands more than simply pulling out pots and pans and turning up the heat.
“I always start with a meeting and a three-page food questionnaire about what my clients like, don’t like or have allergies to,” she says. “I also have to get details such as how to get into the house. When I walk away, I have a huge list of suggestions, and I start developing menus that I send to them for approval. I have about 150 cookbooks, and I get five food magazines, so I’m constantly trying new things that fit inside their parameters.”
Mateer says she’s managed to get adults and kids to try different items they might not have checked off the original list, such as Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, collards, kale and various squashes. “I’m also pretty successful at hiding extra vegetables in meatloaf and sauces,” she laughs.
But overall, most clients crave comfort foods: chicken pot pie, hearty stews, that juicy meatloaf with veggie sides.
“Each client is different,” she says. “Some want lots of protein and fresh vegetables, for instance. But the bottom line is they want good food.”
Mateer charges a base fee: Four dinners for four runs about $325, plus $100 to $150 for groceries. She presently provides meal service for two regular clients, which means she cooks at their homes about three days a week.
“For one, I go to their house every Monday and prepare four dinners and four lunches for two adults,” she says. “That lasts through Thursday night. I go to my other client every two weeks and prepare five complete meals with four servings of each. Half are fresh, the other half goes in the freezer.”
A teacher’s patience
When she’s not in the kitchen, Mateer heads the Atlanta Chapter of the U.S. Personal Chef Association. She also keeps busy meeting with clients, working on menus and planning special events such as sit-down dinners for up to 16 and cocktail parties for as many as 75.
“I do about three parties a month, usually on the weekends, and many times they build my customer base when someone asks me to do a party for them,” she says. “I love doing them — the menu planning, the food shopping, the preparation, the presentation, the service, even the cleanup.”
Mateer also offers private cooking classes. For the last two months, she’s been leading a session for two moms and their 7-year-old daughters at a home in Vinings.
“Teaching is something I love to do,” Mateer says. “But with 7-year-olds, it’s very basic. I know I’ll only have their attention for about 45 minutes. The first lesson was hand washing and being clean around food, then we made pasta, pizza dough and toppings. I give them ideas, and they also tell me what they want to learn.”
After the instruction and hands-on lesson, the moms and their daughters have their creations for dinner, and they also make an extra meal to give to someone from their church or neighborhood. The host mom, Meredith Rabalais, recruited Mateer not only to teach her daughter, but to develop more confidence in the kitchen.
“There were things I was intimidated by, like homemade pie crusts and pasta, yet I wanted to be able to pass these skills down to my children,” Rabalais says. “So we thought, what better idea than to learn together? Sharon has built our confidence and shown us tricks we can use for the rest of our lives — proper chopping technique, making pizza and pie doughs, making homemade ravioli. We have enjoyed every second of it and have gained invaluable experience that we use daily. And this is an activity everyone can do together. Nothing fosters community and conversation like a good meal.”
But classes and parties aside, the top reason people hire a personal chef, Mateer says, is because at the end of the day, they’re just too bushed to bake or broil.
“There are companies that will bring you the ingredients in a box, and though it sounds wonderful, when you come home tired, you still have to cook them,” she says. “The reason to have a personal chef is so that you don’t have to do anything.”
And you can include Mateer in the group of folks who come home too tired to cook.
“While I’m out, I’ll often pick up a salad,” she says, “and that’s dinner.”
Dinner At Home. 404-217-7192. dinnerathomeatl.com
The U.S. Personal Chef Association has about 700 members, with 20 in the Atlanta chapter. atlantauspca.com
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