The morning is wintery, and a thin sheet of ice has made Jim Gray's Grant Creek driveway practically lethal. But inside, in the kitchen built especially for television segments, aromas beckon and the warm steam that rises from the Viking oven erases the air outside.
In between quick dabs of tan matte face powder, Gray is busy chopping, cubing, dicing and whisking ingredients for 12 dishes he'll make between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to satisfy three months of two-minute segments of his weekly television short, "Kitchen Guy."
They are, as he calls them, "the tastiest two minutes in television."
On this day, Gray's "Kitchen Guy" turns out to be the tastiest two hours of taping. From seasonal recipes like sausage and cheese breakfast strata to crab cakes with a spicy remoulade aioli fit for munching along a sunny East Coast seaport, the parade of food is hard to resist, and the crew digs in to clean plates before the next take.
Between bites, the crew says it takes 90 minutes to create a food set, and a multitude of minuscule camera rolls, to create each segment that airs on television stations across Montana.
"We even have one in Portland, Maine, now," Gray says, then explains plans for broader syndication that will root once the library of segments tops 250.
Max Media president Linda Gray sits behind a clock writing time codes. She knows the cadence of her husband's voice like a metronome keeps pace with piano finger scales.
"Did you just say ‘sausage and egg' on that take? Shouldn't it be ‘sausage and cheese strata?' " she queries.
Gray sighs and jostles his shoulders to exorcise exasperation, then bobs his head "ready" for a new take.
Big smile ...
"Today, on Kitchen Guy ..." he says, audibly enunciating an extra "y" or two.
Days before, Gray deconstructs recipes - most all his own - and cuts them into carefully clipped steps that are meticulously timed. On the day of shooting, each of those steps is spoken, to the second, for easy post-production.
"Essentially, each segment teaches viewers how to make restaurant-quality food from start to finish in their home kitchen," he says.
Breakfast strata - egg-saturated bread, sausage and creamy goat cheese - ooze from oven pan to serving plates, as Gray moves on to crab cakes.
Cooking seriously for only about the last 15 years, Gray wasn't the guy with youthful dreams of becoming a chef. He didn't apprentice in kitchens in the months after hitting puberty, and didn't apply to prestigious culinary academies.
Gray came to the kitchen late, as a man long-established in life.
Press credentials from the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit dangle on the wall across from his desk, obscuring three Market News Service badges from days spent covering Washington's financial news as a print journalist based in New York City.
After brief stints anchoring television news and governing professional associations such as the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, Gray later moved to Indianapolis, where he helmed the Society of Professional Journalists, serving as its executive director from 1999 to 2001.
It was there that he thumbed through a local community college course guide and saw the many culinary courses offered.
After a few courses, he decided that cooking was so much fun, he left SPJ to form his own culinary company.
Around the same time, wife Linda was producing a three-hour morning news program for the Indianapolis Fox affiliate, and was looking for a chef to do a live cooking segment.
Gray says he jumped at the chance to develop it.
Once the couple decided that Missoula was to be "their last stop," Gray put himself out in the community, opening the kitchen at former Washington Corp. links course Phantom Hills, and developing savory crepe recipes for Liquid Planet's debut on Higgins Avenue.
During that time, he broadened his repertoire to include personal chef duties.
"I remember my first personal chef cook date," Gray chuckles. "It took me nine hours to do it, and typically now will only take me 3 1/2 hours."
Clients in Missoula are mostly "empty-nester" households, he says, but his newest client is a husband and wife with teen sons.
Rochael Teynor is a freelance writer with four boys - ages 14 to 20. Between culinary travel writing and penning technical material for high-tech companies such as Microsoft, she says she and her husband work an average of 120 hours a week with a fair amount of that time spent out-of-town.
That leaves her few hours to cook meals, despite being an avid foodie.
She's always loved to cook, she says, but when weekly schedules get tight, the family hires Gray to prepare five days of entrees and side dishes, every other week, so that nutritious food is accessible.
"At first, it felt odd to farm out food," Teynor says. "But Jim's a great chef (and) he prepared ‘comfort foods' the boys really enjoyed."
Meatloaf, cheesy potatoes and enchiladas, she says, are among her boys' favorites.
Dollar for dollar, Teynor admits having a personal chef cook meals isn't exactly inexpensive, but it may be invaluable for busy families with little time to do the work themselves.
"It's very affordable when you stop to consider what you're actually spending on groceries, your time in the kitchen, coupled with what you may spend on take-out meals each week," says Gray. "It depends on what you value."
The standard personal chef package is two weeks, according to Gray. Clients talk food preferences, then he selects recipes from a culinary database within professional chef's software. Many of the recipes are Gray's own.
"Clients can really request anything they like, and the answer is always ‘yes,' " he says.
Each week, he prepares four servings of five entrees with side dishes that he'll pack in special containers he buys, or pack food for the freezer with containers a customer has on hand.
The average cost of services is around $299 per week, or $15 per person, per meal.
After serving as a culinary instructor in University of Montana College of Technology's culinary program, Gray was honored by the statewide chapter of the American Culinary Federation as Montana's "Chef of the Year" in 2005. He is a founding member of the not-for-profit "Personal Chef's Cooperative," and
among a panel of distinguished experts at ChefsLine.com.
Freelance food writer Lori Grannis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.