Personal Chef Karen Hadley's passion is food — teaching about it, cooking it, creating menus — it's what she's enjoyed since childhood. Hadley works with individuals and organizations to create and execute meals serving from two to more than 300 people.

"I cook for many private couples in their homes and also do events, from Cope Family Center to the Napa Valley Symphony," said Hadley, a slender blonde with a ready smile.

"I use all my own utensils, pans and platters. If staff is needed, I hire them. I come in, set up and do the event, no matter how large or small, then clean up and you don't even know I was there."

Except for the lingering aroma, perhaps, of crab canaps, lobster and avocado salad or her triple chocolate cake with strawberries and crme frache.

The American Personal Chef Institute estimates there are 8,000 operating personal chefs in the U.S. and predict that in the next five years, at the present rate of growth, there will be nearly 20,000 operating personal chefs serving nearly 300,000 clients and contributing approximately $1.2 billion to the U.S. economy. Entrepreneur Magazine called the personal chef industry one of the fastest growing businesses in the country.

"I work with the client to develop the menu they want," said Hadley, who learned how to make scratch spaghetti sauce at age 8. "There's no charge for consultation. I inquire about food allergies and ask if the meal has a theme. I'm able to purchase food products from wholesale vendors, rather than retail, and pass that savings on to my clients. I don't think there are many private chefs who pass on that savings."

She prints a keepsake menu for the occasion. "Many of my clients are repeat customers, such as the businessman who has flown his staff to Napa the past two years for a pre-Christmas event."

A private chef sounds like an incredible luxury. Isn't it pricey? "For dinner at a nice restaurant, with an appetizer, main course and dessert, not counting the wine, is about $100 per person, $200 a couple. To hire me, it's about $300 total, including food. I charge $85 an hour."

Her clients include Bruce and Karen Chinberg of Napa.

"Karen does a fantastic job," said Karen Chinberg. "Her gift is the ability to pull together a fabulous meal in a classy way and yet remain on a friendly and personable level with guests. We've used her services several times with large groups. You know what it's like when you're hosting and trying to do the cooking and entertaining yourself? You don't get a chance to do anything with your guests. Karen is liberating. I can visit with my company and enjoy myself. She does all the prepping, cooking and cleaning. I've seen so many Napa homes trashed by caterers, but Karen isn't messy. She's very professional and has found her niche."

Hadley finds time to give back to the community by volunteering at her alma mater, West Park Elementary School, teaching gourmet cooking to third graders.

"I go in once a month and I'm 'Chef Karen' to two classes of 8-year-olds," said Hadley. "We had an organic garden, which was torn out to make room for a classroom, but will replant again. We see what's in the garden, harvest it and I show the students different ways to cook it. Cooking meals teaches the students nutrition, math, science and even foreign language and it's fun."

Every May, West Park School has a fundraiser and Hadley donates a four-course, four to six person meal for the silent auction. The school's principal, Julie Herdell, is always the highest bidder.

"Chef Karen is like a movie star here," said Herdell. "She comes in her chef's jacket and chef pants and teaches the children food terminology, measuring and reading. Karen is a West Park alumnus and what she's doing ties in with the district's vision of people giving back to the community. She's passionate about her occupation and exposes children to food they wouldn't normally try. The children are never told they have to eat something, but just taste it. Recently she had a session called Under the Sea cooking and gave the children their choice of preparing calamari or scallops. The results were like eating at Terra restaurant. It's also a way of promoting another profession to the children. Karen does so much for the community and our school."

Hadley didn't start out in the culinary arts. A series of family losses helped her decide that life was too short not to follow your dream.

"My father, Dr. Jack Hadley, had been a dentist in Napa since 1957 and I'd worked in many aspects of the dental field since 1971," said Hadley. "On the side, I made 'Karen's Old Fashioned Potato Salad with Bacon' for V Sattui's deli and produced 36,000 pounds of it before I stopped counting. When I realized that I wanted to learn more about the culinary industry, I applied to the Napa Valley Culinary School and was accepted. At 45, I was the oldest student in class."

A single mother with a teenaged daughter, she applied herself to her education.

"A requirement for graduation was a 700 hour internship," said Hadley. "I had a fabulous opportunity and was hired by executive chef Robert Curry at Domain Chandon. He knew I was green and that I'd never worked in a restaurant. My title was 'Garde manger,' in charge of cold items. Half the menu items were at my station on the dinner shift. What a mentor he was and still is. I learned so much about classic French cuisine in the two and a half years I was there."

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She had the opportunity to become the executive chef at the now-defunct Penguins in Napa, when it was about to reopen with new owners. "I got it up and running and the Register ran a feature about it."

Unfortunately, the venture folded. "I decided I didn't want to work for anybody but myself. As of that day, I was in the personal chef business. Although for few days a week, I still help out in the (dental) offices of Dr. Robert Sprott, who's like an adopted father to me."

Hadley printed flyers for her business and has run a few advertisements, but finds word-of-mouth the best promotion. She also has a couple of cooking segments on local Channel 28.

She is a member of the Elks Lodge, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Better Business Bureau along with a ServSafe certificate for her knowledge of proper food handling.

"I'll do kitchen consultations, helping people organize their working space and utensils," said Hadley. "I also offer cooking classes for small groups at individuals' homes, which is very fun. No question is too silly for me."

Every type, style or ethnic preference of a meal is possible and Hadley maintains a large library of cookbooks as references for obscure recipes that clients might request. "I love Japanese food and my personal favorite dinner is calamari steak."

Even though Hadley loves her work, it's a difficult life to recommend to someone considering a culinary career.

"It's tough for many of the beginning students," she said. "Culinary school is expensive and then you don't get paid much in your first jobs. That's hard on a person just beginning who might want to start a family, buy a house. I was lucky because I already had a condo and a car and was raising my daughter on my own. I was also blessed because I had the part time job with Dr. Sprott."

If she had to do it again, would she?

"Yes," she said and smiled. "Although if I'd investigated the income beforehand, I probably wouldn't have. Cooking is my passion. I'm proud of my presentation and quality is the key. You can't end a day any better than when your clients are happy."

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