Melissa Wieczorek didn’t study at a prestigious culinary institute, didn’t apprentice under a stern chef and she didn’t pay her dues as a line cook. What she did was approach the kitchen as an entrepreneur who loves to cook. And it’s paying big dividends, professionally and personally.
Too many among us have been there, are mired there now: Hemmed-in-verging-on-suffocated-by an unrelenting work schedule that left little room for anything else. The only rays of hope, the increasingly frequent daydreams about living an entirely different life.
Melissa Wieczorek was there 15 years ago, advancing within the administration of Temple University’s Fox School of Business, but, in the back of her mind, thinking about cooking.
“I knew I wanted to do something in food,” she recalls, “but it had to be conducive to having a family. So a restaurant was out.”
Ironically, while Wieczorek was studying for her own MBA at Fox, an independent study led her to the personal chef industry. She created a business plan as part of her coursework and presented it to venture capitalists. Later, in 2005, she’d put it to use, founding the Newtown-based A la Maison Personal Chef Service, now Zest Culinary Services, which she owns with her partner, Theo Petron, another corporate dropout.
Initially, Wieczorek operated primarily as an in-home personal chef, but she’s since pivoted to prepared-meal delivery, a $1.5 billion market that’s expected to at least double over the next few years. Wieczorek may be at peace with herself in the kitchen, but she’s clearly thinking beyond it. It’s that savvy that landed her in the book, Behind Their Brand, Chefs Edition, Vol. 1, published last September, which offers narratives by Wieczorek and several other chefs who followed non-conventional paths.
We caught up with her—after her trip to Cuba—to find out what’s trending in her kitchen now.
How is a personal chef different from the chefs we read about and see on TV?
MW: Great question. That’s part of why I participated in this book, because so many people think the industry offers a single career track, working the line in a restaurant and eventually becoming executive chef. But there are so many different culinary careers. For me, cooking is only one part of the skillset. It’s an entrepreneurial venture, so I’m everything from bottle washer to business strategist to salesperson.
Meal-delivery subscriptions are blowing up. How are you distinguishing yourself?
We offer a more complete experience. First, it’s like having a personal trainer. This is a one-on-one program, customized not only to your likes and dislikes, but also to your lifestyle. Second, our clients are not cooking at all. They’re taking something out of the fridge and heating it up within a few minutes, which is life-changing for busy people.
What advice would you give someone who’s looking to be more efficient in the kitchen?
Cook once. Eat twice. It’s something often overlooked because people don’t want to eat leftovers. But if you reinvent it into something else that doesn’t look like Monday’s dinner, it’s more exciting.
What kind of food are you passionate about?
I rarely meet a food I don’t like! But, right now, ethnic cuisine is something that consistently excites me. I’m always on the lookout for lesser-known ingredients, that next new thing to try.
What’s your ingredient-of-the-moment, then?
Well, we’ve been working a lot with quinoa—
—Come on! That’s so last year.
[Laughs.] True. We actually just got back from Cuba, where we learned to make a stew that was traditionally made with whatever protein they could find, monkeys, rats, snakes, you name it. But I’m not going to say rats. My big takeaway, seriously, was plantains. They’re versatile and delicious and readily available here. Though, unless you are from a Latin culture, you probably don’t know what to do with them.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love making a peanut butter-and-jelly with potato chips on the sandwich. I know, this does not exactly fit with our vision of “eat well, live fit, have fun,” but I’m a big fan of everything in moderation. Though, sometimes I do OD on chocolate.
Photos courtesy Melissa Wieczorek