Cooking was just a hobby. Making a career of it? That wasn't on Cate Meade's radar.
Though perhaps it should have been. As a kid, Meade says she always gravitated to her Easy-Bake Oven toy, prepared breakfast for her family starting when she was "old enough to see over the stove," got a taste of what it's like to be a chef while babysitting for a family in the business, and cooked just about every day while in college.
"I always loved to cook. That was my hobby," says Meade, now 29. "But I never saw myself as a chef."
Meade did other things instead. She got an undergraduate degree in justice studies, became certified as an instructor by the Russian Kettlebell Club, and completed a certification program in holistic nutrition from the American Fitness Professionals & Associates.
Between teaching clients about the benefits of working out and eating healthy, Meade saw the missing link that connected to her lifelong passion for cooking. "You have all this food, but if you don't know how to cook it or how to use it, it goes bad or you waste it," she says.
In 2015, she started a business, Cate's Kitchen Fit, where she offers services that include personal meal prepping, teaching cooking classes, and health and wellness seminars. Along the way, she also competed on two seasons of "MasterChef," placing fourth in 2017. And now she can pull in up to $2,500 a week.
Here's how this this Chicago-based chef has pursued her lifelong passion and realized her hobby could be a fulfilling career.
By the age of about 10 or 11, Meade says she was eager to move from the Easy-Bake Oven to the real deal.
"My dad was really into breakfast, that was his thing," Meade says. "One day, I asked if I could help, and I had so much fun. Everyone thanked me and they would tell me how good everything was."
Meade was hooked. By her early teens, she was cooking with her aunts for the bigger family events and continued developing her skills thanks to gifts like cookbooks or chef's knives. She also developed a specialty: "Potatoes were my thing."
Video by Jason Armesto
In those teenage years, she also got a glimpse of what this career path looked like, thanks to a regular babysitting gig, and it wasn't as glamorous as it appeared on TV. Often, Meade would watch as the father, a professional chef, came home with a bag of Chinese food, too exhausted from preparing food all day to prepare anything more. "His life was just crazy," she recalls. "I remember thinking: 'I don't want to be like that.'"
Still, the kitchen beckoned. Cooking was Meade's dream career — "I always said I want to be like Ina Garten in a healthier way" — but she saw no obvious path to get there. In the free time between bartending, nannying, and pursuing her undergraduate degree at Northeastern Illinois University, Meade continued experimenting at the stove.
"My house looked like an old lady who was a gardener," she says laughing, recalling the green smoothie that ended up on the ceiling and herbs that filled the kitchen.
Like many people after college, Meade pieced together a few different jobs to make ends meet. After receiving those fitness and nutrition certifications, she began thinking about a holistic approach to wellness and, by 2015, she'd found a recipe for a business idea.
The initial idea with Cate's Kitchen Fit was to work with clients on meal planning and taking them to the grocery store to teach them how to shop. "Then we'd go home and cook four meals in one day," she says. She also taught people how to incorporate proteins in multiple meals, extend the shelf life of groceries, and get set up for the week.
Video by Jason Armesto
Meade had a list of potential clients since she already was working with people seeking a healthier lifestyle. She also grew her business through word of mouth and while bartending. "I had unhealthy people coming to me, and I was a health figure," she says.
She'd also found a way to make money from her passion. For a full day's worth of work with a client, she generally charged $400 to $450. "It was good money," she says.
One day, Meade came home and was watching FOX's "MasterChef" — the competitive reality show starring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay — and saw there were auditions coming up. The $250,000 prize was enticing, and so was the opportunity to make a name for herself and find a foothold in a competitive industry.
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. Meade was eliminated from the seventh season early on in an experience she describes as "short and sweet." She returned to Chicago having learned about the reality side of the cooking business: "As a Midwestern blonde, I was naive to a lot of that."
The next year, "MasterChef" offered her the opportunity to audition again. Her reaction? "Hell yes."
Meade fared better in the show's eighth season. She spent three months filming the show in Los Angeles and eventually advanced to the final four.
As a self-taught chef, Meade's experience on reality TV gave her the confidence to expand her business. After returning from filming, she began offering what's become her primary source of income: Working as a private, in-home chef for six families in the Chicago area.
Here's what a typical week might look like for Meade now. After coordinating with her clients on four different meals, Meade heads out each morning around 7 a.m. to do her grocery shopping for the day, then goes to a client's home and begins cooking four different meals. She tries to finish up by 4:30 p.m.
She'll leave enough portions for the family, along with instructions on what order to eat the dishes during the week, and how to best finish each recipe. An example of a recent meal she made: Herb-roasted lamb chops with roasted butternut squash, carrots, and sauteed Swiss chard.
These days, Meade is charging her clients $500 for her time (they pay for groceries), meaning she makes up to $2,500 a week — the equivalent of $130,000 a year if she were to never take a week off. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a chef in 2018 was $48,460 a year.
Meade also has branched out. In addition to cooking for private dinner parties and offering cooking lessons, she's a paid spokesperson for Holland House, a line of cooking wines. In this role, she helps educate people about why cooking wine is preferable to use in recipes versus drinking wine, posts about the products to her 21,000 followers on Instagram, and she's developed exclusive recipes for the brand.
At a young age, babysitting for that family with two chefs as parents, Meade saw how taxing this industry can be — and she vowed to not become like that. While that father worked at a restaurant, she can relate to the idea of not wanting to cook the food she prepares.
"Some days I don't want to sit down and eat that meal anymore because I've tasted it so many times," she says.
What's more, the job can be exhausting and frustrating, especially if a recipe doesn't turn out like she wants. "It's a very physical job. I'm running through the aisles of grocery stores," Meade says. "I get home, and I'm tired of standing and my wrists hurt."
As she continues to perfect her techniques and become faster and more knowledgeable, Meade still has those reality TV aspirations and wants to pitch her ideas to people at the networks — maybe that Ina-Garten-but-healthier idea, or a cooking show based on her passion for hunting. "Eventually," she says, "they'll want something like that."
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