Lewis Bottomly is not given to exaggeration.
"I've met some very good chefs," he says, and indeed he has: among them, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. But when Bottomly goes on to describe himself as "not so much a chef as a technician," his talent for understatement takes him too far.
Of course he's a chef. It says so on his jacket.
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Bottomly is the owner and sole employee of Tastefully Yours, Arizona's first personal chef service to be recognized by the United States Personal Chefs Association. The personal chef concept has become increasingly popular over the past decade, and most propaganda for it goes something like this: "Imagine! After a long day at the office, you return to a fabulous home-cooked meal, prepared in your own kitchen by an expert chef!"
Such descriptions are basically accurate; the movement is in large part geared toward busy professionals, who can now enjoy services that were once available only to celebrities and to the breadwinners of 1950s-era nuclear families. Others who stand to benefit from the service include retired couples, new parents -- anyone with more disposable income than time or talent for the kitchen.
For five fully cooked meals, each of which serves four generously and can be kept in the freezer until needed, Bottomly charges $275.
Bottomly has 10 clients, many of them long-standing, for whom he cooks on a monthly or bimonthly basis. Today, he's making a first-time visit to the home of prospective clients, a couple with two children and three dogs, who are interested in healthful, low-fat food. (At least, the parents are; the dogs seem interested in Bottomly's shoes.) Here, he will prepare five meals-for-four, four of them destined for the freezer, using ingredients and equipment he brings with him. To work his magic, he needs only counter space, a sink and a stove.
"I've always cooked," Bottomly says as he begins work on his first entree, a Moroccan-inspired chicken braise. "I started when I was 13. I would make breakfast in the morning; I would make supper for my father."
He pauses a moment, thoughtful.
"I wish I had started this earlier in life," he continues. "I wish there had been someone there to tell me that this was my calling."
In fact, the New Jersey native, who has no formal culinary training, would not become a personal chef until 1992. Along the way, he was a Marine, a banker, a jeweler and a musician (a contemporary of Bob Dylan, Bottomly says he knew Dylan professionally). He was a vegetarian, until he decided he liked meat too much. He was part of the 1960s.
"Lately, I was accused of being a left-wing Commie pinko," he says incredulously. "I mean, Commie? Come on, that was the '50s!"
Tastefully Yours was the suggestion of Bottomly's wife, Sandra.
"At the ripe old age of 50, I had decided I didn't want to work for anyone else," he explains. "This was my wife's idea. She told me, 'Lew, you're always cooking for people, and everyone loves your food.'"
Business advice and training were provided by the USPCA, of which Bottomly is a founding member. His was just the third personal chef service in the nation to be recognized by the group.
"They really got me started, showed me how to do it," he says.
Bottomly ladles the chicken braise into two microwave-safe storage containers, garnishes the meals with cilantro, and affixes labels he generated on his home computer. The next meal, a country captain chicken, is already cooking.
"One of the good things about this is that food goes right into the freezer," he says. "It doesn't sit around."
Bottomly's clients enjoy other advantages, too. For example, all ingredients are purchased immediately before being cooked. This is a practice mandated by health departments, and Bottomly notes that it affects his cost, because he can't buy in bulk or from low-cost distributors. But it's obvious that quality is Bottomly's primary concern: His ingredients are topnotch, and he admits to absorbing the cost of organic ingredients, when he can find them.
"People say I'm not cost-effective, and I guess it's true," he says, as he works on an agridolce, or sweet-and-sour, pork-and-pasta dish. Although he is reluctant to disclose his profits, he says that he's not getting rich.
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Bottomly changes his menus with every visit, unless clients request encores of special dishes. His recipes come from any number of sources -- "there must be thousands of cookbooks out there, and I have at least half of them" -- including his own collection. He carries a metal tool chest filled with spices and homemade spice mixes, so that he can alter recipes on a whim. This get-up replaces his previous spice kit, which was in an attaché case.
While Bottomly completes his final entrees, a steak cooked to perfection on a tabletop grill, and salmon with ponzu sauce, I page through the binder that is part scrapbook, part planner. In it, Bottomly has collected the cards of other area personal chefs (he is the former president of the Valley of the Sun Chapter of the USPCA), newspaper clippings related to the personal chef phenomenon, and USPCA literature. (Bottomly adheres scrupulously to the association's code of ethics, respecting his guest kitchen so completely that he refrains even from borrowing a drinking glass.) Here, too, are letters of recommendation from a half-dozen different clients.
These letters have a common theme: Bottomly is dependable, likable and a fabulous cook. Apparently, these qualities have proved more important than cost-effectiveness in perpetuating Tastefully Yours' success. And it can't hurt that Bottomly leaves his kitchens in apple-pie order.
Elan Head, a writer, loves to cook, hates to clean, and gets paid for neither one.