Edgewood chef serves up extra time for busy Atlantans

The Story, 6/5/03

One of Greg Cross’ clients is a single mother with three children. Her life is chaotic, she is busy and she is tired of trying so hard to create healthy meals for her kids after working hard all day. Taking them out to eat, Cross relates, means that often they choose what’s fast and not what’s best. The solution for this busy family? Cross as their personal chef.

In 1999, Cross was working in Charlotte, N.C., trading stocks. He and his wife had moved to Charlotte from Atlanta in 1993 when the bank he worked for, C&S Bank, merged with another, NationsBank, that eventually became mega-corporation Bank of America. After seven years and an interstate move, one day in 1999 Cross was told thank you very much, but his stock trading services would no longer be needed.

“Now what?” Cross quotes as his first thought back then, sitting now in the living room of his craftsman bungalow on Vannoy Street. What he did know, Cross says, was that he did not want to return to corporate America.

“I’ve always cooked for family and friends for years,” he says, “just because I enjoyed it. It was my way to relax. I had never really thought of it seriously as a career.”

After taking the usual skills assessments aimed at finding what he was good at, all signs pointed to cooking. But, Cross remembers, he was hesitant to start from scratch in a new career at that point in his life. Still, days and weeks of pondering led right back to cooking and Cross decided to just jump in with both feet, so he started working in the kitchen at a country club in Charlotte. He was there for four months solid.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he laughs now. “It was like a construction job, working in a kitchen, but I learned a lot.”

In the meantime, Cross says, he had discovered the United States Personal Chef Association, a professional organization that trains and provides ongoing support to personal chefs around the country. He took some culinary courses at a local community college and threw himself headlong into his new career.

Greg Cross is a personal chef, but that doesn’t mean he’s cooking in a kitchen for someone sitting just outside waiting to be served. That, he explains, would be a private chef. What Cross does is come into clients’ homes, cook enough meals for about two weeks, and leave the meals there frozen or refrigerated for the client to reheat at will.

That, he says, gives his clients what they all need so desperately: time.

“People are so busy, they get in traffic, they’ve got to drive home, then they get home it’s ‘What am I gonna eat’? Cross says. “It’s just drudgery to take a shower and then go back out (and) try to find a place to park.”

The first step for Cross’ clients is a questionnaire that asks them what they do and don’t like to eat, if they dietary restrictions, if they have allergies. Cross then reviews the answers and tailors a personalized menu for each family or individual. He shops for the food, shows up at the client’s home with all the necessary equipment and cooks up to about two week’s worth of food. Those meals then get packaged neatly and, complete with reheating instructions, get tucked into the fridge or freezer.

“Most of my clients are families,” he says, “so you’ve got all these different eating styles. I can’t suit everything for everyone, but I try to strike a balance so that everyone gets something that meets their particular needs.”

Cross doesn’t have a canned menu that clients have to choose from. Instead, he’s got a computer database with hundreds of recipes for everything from low fat to haute cuisine. Menus for each client get emailed and edited until they’re just right, with a little something for every member of the family.

Most of Cross’ clients are families, he says, though he does cook for a few singles. Typically, he’ll cook five entrees with side dishes, doubling them so there will be enough for about 10 days. That could get monotonous for a single person, (he just doesn’t have enough time in one day to cook 10 different entrees), but for a family, it’s just right. Ideally, he says, Cross would cook for a client at least once a month. One current client wants everything fresh, so Cross goes to that home essentially every week, putting everything in the refrigerator for about four evenings of fresh meals. That’s just one example of how individualized Cross’ services get.

Most of Cross’ clients are in the city, which just works out best for him. He does most of his shopping at the DeKalb Farmers Market, where choices are good, especially for organic items, he says. More and more clients are asking for organic foods, he says, indicative of the fact that, at least in theory, more people these days want to eat healthier.

“The intent is there for people to eat healthier. I think a lot of times I find that what people say they want to eat isn’t necessarily what they eat,” Cross says. “People want to eat better. People are more conscious about what happens, how the food’s made, where it comes from, is it processed-and rightly so.”

As far as cost goes, Cross puts his service somewhere in the middle. He’s not fast food, he says, but he’s not the “expense account restaurant” either. For about two weeks’ worth of food, the cost usually runs in the $360 range. For that money though, Cross points out, his clients are getting several things. He’s the meal planner, the shopper and the chef. Plus, the meals he prepares are healthier than what families could find elsewhere. And, since he shops for specific meal plans, families aren’t buying ingredients, getting too busy to cook them and then throwing them out the next week when they’ve gone bad.

It’s probably no surprise that the kitchen of his Edgewood home was the selling point when the Crosses moved back to Atlanta just over two years ago. The classic bungalow had just been renovated, and the previous homeowner had moved the kitchen from the back of the house, (where kitchens were always located when these homes were built), up to the front, and added a tile floor, a bar area and stainless steel accents. The family wanted to live intown, Cross said, but was soon discouraged by the price of real estate.

The Crosses eventually found a house in Edgewood though, and was ready to make an offer when they discovered their current home. Instead of going the do-it-yourself route with the first choice, (Cross says he’s a chef, not a fixer-upper), they chose the Vannoy Street home.

According to Cross, a personal chef service is just the ticket for Atlantans short on time.

“I give people time,” he says. “I’m taking their nutritional preferences and it’s already made for them.”