The Toque's on Him

July/August 2005

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The Toque's on Him

Photo: Roger Christiansen

Three days a week, Mike Agnew does food demonstrations at Trader Joe’s to drum up clients for his Orange County-based personal chef business. In the afternoons, he cooks at someone’s home, serving one meal that night and vacuum-sealing extra meals for later use. On weekends, he cooks for dinners and parties. He’s a busy man.

And a contented one. Agnew chose to become a chef after 27 years climbing the corporate ladder. “I never knew you could be happy working,” he says.

Agnew left Stanford with a degree in political science—and college debt. After working in the car rental industry and studying judicial administration at USC, he was a manager on construction projects in Saudi Arabia and South America. In 1983, he went to work for a health-care company. Rising to vice president, he was responsible for as many as 140 kidney dialysis clinics. In 2001, after a series of buyouts and mergers, he lost the job he’d come to hate.

Agnew and his wife, Barbara, “downsized our lifestyle,” selling the house and buying a condo, so they could get by without a corporate salary. He set up shop as 2 Busy 2 Cook.

Agnew had begun cooking one formal meal a week for himself in his 20s, not wanting to become a “bachelor slob.” He’d been inspired by a book about British colonial officers who’d dress formally for dinner in a tent in the jungle, even though there was nobody around to notice or care.

Agnew charges $200 to prepare a menu of two four-serving entrees, plus four side dishes. Clients usually prefer “the food they were brought up with,” such as pot roast or minestrone. For parties, a favorite is whole salmon with dill and cucumber. Kay Samuelson, a customer for three years, loves his halibut in orange sauce over fennel; her husband is a fan of the apple meat loaf. “He’ll fix exactly what you like,” Samuelson says. “He knows I don’t like cayenne pepper. You can’t get a restaurant to use just the ingredients you want.”

Agnew will try recipes a client saw on the Food Network or clipped from Cooking Light. Once a Stanford Sierra Camp counselor, he’ll let kids help, tutoring them from cheese pizzas to more sophisticated recipes.

Physically, it’s tough work. Agnew is on his feet for hours each day; he blew out one knee bending to check on toasted baguettes. But he loves the chance to express his creativity. “If I’d kept my old job, the stress would have killed me in another five years,” he says. “I feel like I’m a free man now.”


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