Former Kodaker cooks up a new career

Mary Lynn Vickers ’01 (statistical quality) woke up one morning ready for a change.

Although she enjoyed her 25 years as an industrial engineer and project manager at Eastman Kodak Co., Vickers began to wonder if there was something else she’d like to do with her life. She decided to take advantage of an opportunity to retire early and began exploring other interests.

She was surprised when a career aptitude test placed marketing executive and chef in the top slots. While mulling over the possibilities, she happened to hear an interview with a personal chef on National Public Radio.

“I said, ‘That’s for me!’ ” Vickers recalls. She joined the United States Personal Chef Association, got the necessary health and safety training and certifications, and launched her business – dubbed The Phantom Chef – in 2001.

She believes she was the first personal chef in the Rochester area, and, as the pioneer, she initially had to educate people about the service. A personal chef, she explains, goes to clients’ homes and prepares meals, packs them in serving-size containers and stocks the freezer. The number of meals prepared on one visit depends on various factors including the size of the family and freezer space available.

Menus are determined in advance, customized to clients’ preferences. Prices vary according to ingredients, but Vickers says the cost per meal typically compares to dining at a mid-range restaurant. Many busy people consider it money well spent.

“I’m a convenience, not a luxury,” she says, noting that her service saves people time shopping, cooking and cleaning up, or time and money they might otherwise spend at restaurants. “The time savings can add up to 15 to 25 hours a week. Many people who like to cook and are good cooks hire me to solve the everyday problem.”

Besides her original “meals for busy people,” Vickers has added two other services. She prepares custom dinner parties for groups of two to six, and she offers cooking-class events based on a culinary theme, where all the guests learn how to create the dishes served and go home with the recipes. The parties take place in clients’ homes, and Vickers does all the shopping, preparation and clean-up.

She gets ideas for her theme parties from her “foodie travel” adventures to places including Santa Fe, Italy and Spain.

“Everywhere I go I’m trying to reverse-engineer recipes,” she says.

As a one-person business, Vickers handles marketing, promotion and bookkeeping as well as the cooking and shopping. “Every aspect of the business requires attention to detail,” she says. “When you’re a sole proprietor, you wear all the hats.”

She’s received honors for her efforts. In 2006, she became the first person to receive the “212 Degree Fahrenheit Marketer of the Year” award from the Personal Chef Association. In August, Vickers was invited to present a session on interviewing clients at the association’s annual conference.

The recognition from her peers has been gratifying, but Vickers says the best part of her new job is the appreciation of her clients.

“The best part is when they love the food.”

For more information, contact Vickers at 585-671-6508 or phantomchef@rochester.rr.com.

The University Magazine, Winter 2007-2008