Keeping cool in the kitchen

By Du Qiongfang Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-12 18:23:01

Door-to-door chefs make life easier for some

Yang Shaoyi is ready to work with his suitcase of equipment and spices. Photo: Du Qiongfang/GT

For some Shanghai families, the problem of cooking dinners or special meals for friends and relatives is no longer a problem - they ask their personal chefs to do the cooking for them.

Better than an ayi who has a limited skills in the kitchen and a limited range of dishes to offer, these personal chefs can be hired from a range of new and increasingly popular service companies which recruit and then offer the services of trained chefs in your own home.

Nor is this a service for the very rich - a door-to-door chef can come to your home and cook a meal for less than 80 yuan ($12.91). And the whole deal can be arranged through a phone app.

Yang Shaoyi, 30, is one of the door-to-door personal chefs and works for one of the leading chef booking apps. Before he became a personal chef last October, he had worked in restaurants for 10 years.

At 4 pm last Monday, Yang arrived at the door of a regular client's home in Pudong New Area. Before entering the apartment, Yang slipped on disposable shoe covers and, after greeting his client, made his way to the kitchen and put on his uniform. This was the fourth time he had cooked for this family so he knew his way around the kitchen.

Yang prepares food for a chef-cooked meal at home. Photo: Du Qiongfang/GT

Ingredients ready

The ingredients were all ready for him to begin cooking: half a duck, two pig tongues, radishes, green vegetables and potatoes. Within two hours, with these and a few spices and herbs, Yang would produce the Sichuan dishes which the client had ordered.

Yang made himself at home in the kitchen and began preparing a spicy duck stewed with radish, a cold spicy pig tongue entree, stir-fried greens and stir-fried shredded potato. "Now I know where most of the pots and pans are. Most of the families I cook for have all the utensils I need," Yang said.

But from time to time he dived into the suitcase he brought with him to find star anise, bay leaves, cinnamon or other herbs and spices needed for the duck and tongue dishes.

By 6 pm everything was cooked and he brought the meal to the table where the family expressed themselves very happy with the food. Before he left, Yang cleaned the kitchen and took out the rubbish and scraps. 

This cost the family just 79 yuan - which is far from extravagant. Many of the similar services in the US charge upward of $400.

The meal was really appreciated by his client, a woman surnamed Wang, who is a mother of a teenage girl and a newborn baby. She became a fan and a regular client of Yang after she tried his cooking in December.

Well-fed and happy clients make Yang feel happy. Photo: Du Qiongfang/GT

Different cuisines

She and her father come from Guangdong, her mother is from Shandong, and her husband is from Sichuan. They have different tastes and prefer different cuisines. But she discovered that Yang can cook a variety of cuisines, certainly enough to satisfy the members of her family. Before she found Yang she had used an ayi to help. "But the ayi's cooking couldn't cater for my family's different tastes. This home chef service is really good value."

Even though the ayi would cook a meal and only charge 25 yuan an hour, the quality of Yang's food was very much better.

"When he first started in my kitchen I was worried that he would make a mess. But he left everything clean and tidy when he finished and even took out the waste. I was astonished. He was a lot more professional than the ayi we used. I didn't have to ask him about cleanliness and hygiene. He's not at all like the way one would imagine a chef in a restaurant to be."

Initially Wang had concerns about hygiene and cleanliness but the company's customer service officer assured her there would be no problems and the chef was properly qualified. "When he arrived I saw him put on his uniform, hat and mask - everything looked clean and professional. I was happy," Wang said. She did admit that she and her family kept a close eye on him working the first time he prepared a meal but since then they relax while he is in the kitchen.

"Whenever we ask friends over for dinner it has always been difficult trying to cook the meal ourselves. The door-to-door chef service solves the problem and they can cook all kinds of styles, Chinese and Western dishes. It's a great service."

Yang is good at preparing Sichuan, Hunan and Shanghai dishes - before he became a door-to-door chef he worked in popular and noted local restaurants.

Yang cleans a kitchen after cooking. Photo: Du Qiongfang/GT

Easier workload

As a door-to-door chef Yang can prepare two or three meals a day and said the workload was a lot easier that it had been working in restaurant kitchens. "When I worked for restaurants, I used to work from 9 am till 9 pm with only a one or one-and-a-half hour break in the middle of the day," he said.

And he earns more. "A good door-to-door chef can earn around 10,000 yuan a month but I was only earning 8,000 yuan at the most when I was head chef at the restaurant. An average cook can only earn around 6,000 yuan," said Yang.

"Although I didn't have to cook myself when I was head chef, I had to manage the staff and supervise the supply of food and materials which was stressful. Nowadays as long as I cook nice food for my clients I have no stresses. And the work environment is much more pleasant than restaurants," said Yang.

One big difference for Yang is that he can actually communicate with the people he is cooking for. New clients, especially, spend quite a lot of time chatting with the chefs.

"I had trouble handling this in my first week - when I worked in restaurants I never talked to the customers. And I was uncertain how to talk to strangers. But after a while I adapted."

Unlike chefs in restaurants, door-to-door chefs have to be able to handle every stage of preparing a meal, from peeling and slicing vegetables to the cooking itself. Yang said his company set high standards when it recruited chefs. "Most of the chefs are all-rounders. They have to be able to cook different cuisines and ensure that the dishes are nutritional. Cooks who only cook but don't know how to cut and prepare food can't become door-to-door chefs."

A real demand

Xu Zhiyan is the founder of the chef booking app that Yang works for, and used to work in the domestic helper business where he found there was a real demand for personal chefs.

"Some of our clients wanted their ayi to cook for them. But we couldn't offer this service. Even though some ayi can cook, they can't cook well. So I started my own business with door-to-door chefs," Xu said. At present, there are about 450 door-to-door chefs registered with Xu's app - half are full-time chefs and the others work part time.

"Restaurant chefs work all day long and get exhausted. They never communicate with their customers unless there's a problem with the food. When they do a good job, the customers think it's the work of the restaurant and never think of the chef. It's much better for chefs to cook in the homes of their customers.

"And the chefs really enjoy this work. Many of them are really eager to get to work every day, to share their cooking experiences with their clients in their clients' homes. They are very happy if their cooking wins the clients over," Xu said.

Xu said that many city office workers couldn't eat takeout or eat in restaurants all the time but they lacked time to cook for themselves. Even if they managed to buy and prepare the food it could mean they wouldn't be eating until late at night.

But the door-to-door chefs can buy the ingredients for the clients. They shop at supermarkets and bring receipts for the clients. Yang said it sometimes took time and effort to do this but it wasn't too much trouble. "We want our clients to be happy," he said.

Xu's chef booking app started its door-to-door chef service last June and its chefs have now cooked for more than 10,000 households in Shanghai, averaging about 100 bookings a day. The service is also available in Beijing and Hangzhou.

There has been a variation of the service operating in Shanghai for many years: some of the popular restaurants in town offer a door-to-door chef service during the Chinese New Year festival when families get together and eat together.

Door-to-door manicurists are proving popular in Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of Helijia

Hard to supervise

But Jin Peihua, the deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Restaurants Cuisine Association has warned that door-to-door chefs work under personal contracts between customers and companies or restaurants.

"It's difficult for the authorities or the industry associations to supervise this service because inviting a chef to cook in a home is a customer's choice. People have to be careful when they choose a service company or a chef."

Before it signs up its door-to-door chefs, Xu's company checks the chefs' IDs and their health certificates. It has strict standards of hygiene and dress and, finally, candidate chefs have to prepare a dish for a jury of two, a professional nutritionist and a nationally certified first-class chef who will check and taste the meal.

The door-to-door chefs are part of a new range of home services being offered by apps. Last year, a door-to-door beauty service app started providing door-to-door manicurists and late last year, it began offering door-to-door styling services.

"To protect the manicurists and stylists as well as the clients, we have GPS and time accounting systems to ensure that the service is provided in a reasonable time and that both the service provider and the client are safe," said Song Chao, the company's public relations director.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, City Panorama

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