Let’s face it: having a successful career and having a favorite menu item at every local take-out joint can often go hand-in-hand. But while the #7 fried rice combo can be tasty, it can also be less-than-healthy and uninspired, lacking the reassurance and comfort that comes with a homemade meal.
Enter Sarah Arel, co-founder of Chefmade. Chefmade delivers easily prepared, chef-created meals right to your fridge. You pick the menu and the professionals do the rest. It’s as easy as click, heat and eat. Founding Chefmade — or being the “king” as she likes to tell her husband — means Sarah gets to wake up every day truly loving what she’s doing. While that love of food contributes greatly to her success, we’re guessing her advice to be a “little bossy and know what you want” doesn’t hurt, either. Of course, how can we not trust the advice of a woman who includes the importance of a good cocktail in her rules to live by? We’ll raise a glass to that!
“I spent years of my life being timid and shy, but every time I pushed away that fear great things happened.”
How did you discover your current job?
Growing up, I was homeschooled. My mom put a lot of time into fostering my creativity and love of food and art. After my schoolwork was done each day, I would spend hours doing “arts and crafts,” cooking with my mom and baking with my grandmother. Ever since then, I’ve always been a little bit of a “Susie homemaker.” I adore throwing big dinner parties, obsessing over every detail and spending hours DIYing the decorations and creating the perfect menu.
After graduating college, I worked a string of unfulfilling and boring jobs. I struggled to find a job in nutrition, so I waitressed and worked in coffee shops before taking a job at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. My first position there was as a nutrition operator, which was pretty exciting, because at least it had nutrition in the title and I could pretend to be using my degree. In reality, it was terrible and I soon moved on to become an assistant in their breast imaging department. I also was doing small catering jobs and working as a personal chef through KitchenSurfing and would occasionally bring in food and treats for my co-workers that I was testing out for my catering gigs. One of the physicians I had become close to really enjoyed my food and asked if I would consider preparing meals for her and her husband to eat throughout the week. This idea started growing in my mind, and I decided to set up a little test group to see if I could make the idea work. I got a few other co-workers on board, as well as some friends. I emailed out a new menu each week, then cooked all weekend and delivered on Sunday nights whenever I was finished.
My husband is a tech genius and set me up with a website and started helping me with marketing (and grocery runs, moral support, everything!). I did this all while working full time at the hospital in the beginning, but I then moved to part time, and eventually jumped in to launch Chefmade full time with my husband.
How do you organize your day?
Most of my days start in a similar fashion. I roll out of bed, do a workout video or go for a run. Then I make myself a big iced coffee with mint and brown sugar and head to the kitchen. I spend my weekdays planning upcoming menus and testing and photographing recipes. Friday through Sunday, we’re in production mode. On those days, I’m in the kitchen from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. cooking, overseeing my chefs, packaging the meals and doing quality control.
Generally at night, I’ll come home and sit on the couch with a cocktail and answer emails/work on the computer for a few hours before shutting off.
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
First and foremost, I just really love feeding people. I love knowing that people all over the city are eating the food that I have put so much thought and time into creating. I’m also passionate about nutrition, and at Chefmade, we utilize a large variety of seasonal produce and a range of whole grains. Finally, one of the best things about owning my own company is that I have the ability to make decisions that support the causes I believe in. We use all eco-friendly packaging, we donate a meal to the Chicago food depository for every meal we sell, and we buy almost all of our meats and produce from local farmers.
What is the most annoying part of your job?
Never painting my nails or wearing cute clothes anymore. The struggle is real.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
Before starting Chefmade, I was a champion sleeper. I love and need my sleep, and holy cow, is it annoying to toss and turn wondering if I salted the salad dressing sufficiently. Generally I lose sleep over small issues like that — wondering if my portion sizes were correct this week, or wondering if I should go into the kitchen earlier to start a braise.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
It’s a huge problem for me. My life has basically become work at this point. I do try to take one day a week off to explore the city, and exercising during the week keeps me sane.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
I honestly haven’t felt that yet. I love what I am doing now, but I’m still very much in head-down startup mode. I have so many plans and dreams for the future that I might never feel like I’ve truly made it.
What are some of the rules you live by?
Eat your veggies, get exercise, drink good cocktails and take every opportunity to travel.
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?
An obsession with food is a good place to start. Good style, attention to details and a willingness to work hard and fail often. It also helps if you’re a little bit bossy and know what you want.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
Don’t be afraid to talk to people and make new friends. I spent years of my life being timid and shy, but every time I pushed away that fear, great things happened (well, sometimes mediocre things, but never bad things!).