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Have Saucepan, Will Travel

Mei Parker pulls a kitchen from the back of her Toyota 4Runner.

Pots, pans, bowls and spices are stacked in portable crates, everything but the proverbial sink. Recipes were organized the night before. Fresh vegetables were plucked that morning from the garden. Now, it’s time to get everything “mis en plas” – in place.

For those who think Fayetteville is more Chef Boyardee than personal chef, Mei Parker may change your mind.

Consider her recent assignment on a sunny afternoon in a quiet Fayetteville suburb: a dinner party for a couple entertaining friends from France. Cynthia and James Wilson were eager to return the hospitality they had enjoyed at the home of Bernard and FranÇoise Louzoun, a high-rise apartment in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower. In Fayetteville, the Wilsons wanted a special menu for a party of eight: the two of them, their French guests, plus Cynthia Wilson’s sister and their children.

Their first impulse was to serve French cuisine but the Wilsons quickly realized that a better choice for their French guests would be an authentic North Carolina feast of barbecue and homegrown vegetables. The Wilsons are both busy professionals with the accompanying demands on their time so they called on Chef Mei Parker (pronounced: MAY).

Parker has built a business in Fayetteville preparing meals designed to order and, if a client requests it, serving them up in grand style. She does everything from the grocery shopping to the final cleanup. James Wilson knew Parker from a local business group. He was also familiar with yet another facet of her business, team-building activities where colleagues work together to create a meal they can all ultimately share. He knew Parker could assist in wowing the Wilsons’ French visitors, and indeed, she did.

“Delicious and healthy food is my passion,” she said, chopping and dicing and flashing one of her warm and winning smiles. A colorful display of tomatoes, peppers and herbs from Parker’s personal garden spilled across the Wilsons’ kitchen counters. Standing by the range, stirring a simmering pan, Parker kept an eye on the grill outside, where spareribs were sending forth a smoky sweet aroma.

Wilson would shepherd this meal from start to finish, market to table. But for other clients, Parker is something of a kitchen genie. The only clue that she’s been there are the meals lined up in the freezer, available for whenever the mood strikes. Parker can complete a minimum of seven dishes in four to five hours including the cooking, cooling down, placing in appropriate containers and labeling. She then slides the meals in the freezer or fridge, cleans up, repacks, and she’s off.

Parker is petite, energetic and as comfortable going cordon bleu as she is turning a rack of ribs on the grill. She and her husband arrived in Fayetteville in 1992. Since then, he has retired from the military, and they’ve added a son, Nicholas, to their family. Parker has worked as a legal secretary, medical transcriptionist and even spent time in commercial real estate. But it is food and cooking that inspires her.

“I am a very driven personal chef,” she says, “but I am not just a personal chef. I am here to help people.”

When a Fayetteville woman and her family wanted a special meal for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Parker stepped in. She was called upon to prepare a celebratory family dinner that included dishes from the many locales the couple had lived in during the husband’s international Red Cross career. From the tasty sushi appetizers (for Japan) through a juicy and tender leg of lamb (for England) and up to the cherry pie (for Michigan) dessert, the extended family enjoyed a memorable anniversary dinner. Thanks to Parker, the couple’s daughter was free to spend time with her parents, spared from the supermarket or a hot stove.

And here’s betting dinner never smelled so good.