Betsy Rogers ’89 had her eureka moment while sitting in a cooking class.
It was 2000, and the Seattle-based public relations specialist had recently lost her job in a downsizing. Instead of jumping back into a new job, she decided to freelance and take her time in deciding what to do next.
“I did like being self-employed, but I didn’t like what I was doing,” she says. What she really enjoyed was food, though. With some extra time on her hands, the Washington State University public relations graduate signed up for a cooking class.
“So I was thinking about what things really get me jazzed, and I started taking this nine-week course,” she says. At the same time, while researching a career direction, she stumbled across the Web site for the U.S. Personal Chef Association. That same night in class, over stuffed cherry tomatoes and chicken liver mousse, she learned that the classmate sitting next to her was training to be a personal chef. The idea gelled.
Within two months, she had launched her business: Ovens to Betsy, a personal chef service for people who are often too busy to cook for themselves.
Today, instead of putting on a suit and stepping into the corporate world, Rogers starts her mornings at the grocery store. Dressed in full chef habiliments and toting an efficient checklist on a silver clipboard, she dives in. First, she makes a quick stop at the cheese station to try some samples. “Mmmm. It’s breakfast,” she says. Next, she’s hunting down basics like milk and eggs, pausing on the way to the green beans to look over the pears for a pear-ginger tart. Then she spins back down a center aisle to find tapioca. Finally, Rogers darts off to pick up some crystallized ginger before checking out.
On this day, after leaving the store, she steers her Volkswagen to Redmond where she’s chef to a family of five. Pulling up a long drive to a large house in a quiet neighborhood, the chef starts unloading her car, first taking in the groceries through a door to the kitchen, then picking a large food processor out of the back seat, and finally lifting a Craftsman rolling tool case from the trunk. That’s her first rule of cooking: plan ahead, make sure you have everything. Her case holds bowls, pans, strainers, graters, plates, and every kind of kitchen foil, wrap, and paper.
Then she starts in on her second rule, ensuring that the kitchen is clean and ready. She commences her mise en place, prepping and arranging the food according to the dishes she’ll be making. She plops a stack of white towels next to the sink, tucking one into the belt of her apron. And, at last, before starting to cook, she opens her tool chest, picks out the knife roll, selects several knives, and starts to hone them.
Being organized allows Rogers to accomplish in one day what most families struggle with all week: making meals. For this busy family, she prepares five separate meals to get them through the weekdays. The menu might include chipotle burritos with meat braised in a pressure cooker until it’s meltingly tender, tandoori chicken with coriander she toasted herself, and manicotti from her hand-made crepes.
Rogers has a vast selection of recipes and tries not to repeat a menu offering for six months. That is, unless the client requests a repeat. The chipotle burritos are typically in high demand. Usually Rogers plans the entrees and then submits a list to the client before hitting the store.
“I love cooking anything ethnic, especially if it’s hot and spicy,” she says, though she admits to making good comfort food like lasagna and baked chicken. In planning her menus, Rogers likes to work with foods and styles that are in season, and will hunt for the ripest, freshest produce. The winter menus often include braises and roasts, while the summer fare might offer barbecued beef in a marinade and light Vietnamese-style spring rolls.
“I’m not big on diet foods,” says Rogers. Her philosophy is to eat what you want, just use moderation. But she has been known to adapt to special diet needs. One of her clients turned to her for help after being diagnosed with cancer. Rogers took charge of the meals as the client requested, and then on her own initiative started working in tasty, healthy dishes that would appeal to her client, who had lost her appetite to chemotherapy.
Food is such a personal thing for some people—it’s about being home, being with family, and caring about what you put into your body, says Rogers. Being able to do something she loves for a living, and hearing the appreciation of her clients are the best rewards, she says. “Yeah, I’m not making as much as I did in PR, but I’m much happier.”