BY SCARLETT SALEM — The national award for Personal Chef of the Year went to a Hyattsville resident last month. Monica Thomas received the honor at the U.S. Personal Chef Association annual conference, held in Washington, D.C.
Thomas was born in Chillum and has lived in the area most of her life, moving to a house on Hamilton Street in 1991. Her husband’s job took them to St. Louis for a few years, and it was there that she began working for a caterer.
In 2001, they returned to Hyattsville, buying a fixer-upper on 42nd Avenue that needed a whole-house renovation. While they were in the midst of that, she began training as a personal chef at the Culinary Business Academy.
Combining her event-planning background and catering experience, she opened Tailored Taste Personal Chef Service in 2004. At first, she said, she had customers “from Burke [Va.] to Boyds [Md.]” But since all cooking is done on-site, she has narrowed her driving radius and now has only a handful of clients outside the Beltway. Half are in D.C.
In addition to honoring her work, the award recognizes her volunteer efforts ─ and they too revolve around food. She’s starting her third year of running a twice-monthly Chef’s Club at Holy Redeemer Elementary School in College Park.
The program is part of Chefs Move to Schools, a nationwide initiative established in 2010 as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. Held in school kitchens, it aims to educate children about healthy eating through hands-on cooking.
“We taste things that most kids wouldn’t normally taste,” says Thomas.
Students pay $5 per meeting to participate. There were 30 fourth- through eighth-graders enrolled the first year and 49 the following year.
When not surrounded by students, Thomas is likely planning, shopping or cooking customized meals for people throughout the metro area. Her clients’ schedules vary; they may require her services weekly, monthly or just for the occasional dinner party.
“There are no two days alike in my world, which is fun,” she says.
For regular customers, prices start at $300 (plus groceries). That covers five entrees with four servings each, according to her website, www.tailoredtaste.net.
As a one-woman operation, Thomas takes care of every part of the meal preparation, from planning to cleaning up afterwards. (All cooking is done on-site.)
On a typical day, she arrives at the grocery store first thing in the morning – “my least favorite part of the job” – to gather ingredients for the meals she will be preparing that day. From there, she goes straight to the client’s home and gets to work. After preparing the meals, she packages them for later consumption and tidies up before leaving.
She returns home late in the afternoon to complete paperwork and plan for the next day, using software to help track ingredients and recipes for each customer.
“I don’t repeat an entrée for six months,” she says.
The ingredient tracker reminds her of food aversions or allergies, which is essential because several people she cooks for must avoid dairy, wheat, eggs, nuts or some combination of them. One of her earliest clients had a list of forbidden foods that ran to several pages and included all of the above, as well as many vegetables.
The secret of her success is apparent. “I make people’s lives much easier,” she said. “A lot of chefs won’t touch allergies with a 10-foot pole.”