No time to cook? Call rent-a-wife, says James Sherwood
It is a myth that Superman or Supermum can finish a 10-hour day at the ad agency, pick up the kids from nursery and return home to cook a flawless dinner from the River Cafe cookbook. This is not Nineties lifestyle, it is an assault course.

"I got so fed up with take-aways or booking tables in expensive restaurants just because I couldn't face going home at 10pm after work and cooking pasta and pesto," says Susan, 27, who works in the City. "It was even more depressing when I went to a girlfriend's house for a quiet dinner and she rustled up three courses of Kensington Place quality. It wasn't until I followed her into the kitchen that I discovered her secret. She had hired a cook for the night."

Meet private-cook-cum-rent-a-wife Jane Foster. Maverick cooks such as Foster are increasingly supplying the demands of young urban professional lifestyles. "After a couple of years cooking my way around Tuscany, I returned to London and friends would ask me to cook for them," she says. "They would give me the keys to their apartments and I would shop, cook and have dinner on the table when they got home from work. Everyone is more food literate now. My clients have eaten in Conran restaurants for work and for pleasure. So, they do not want to come home to a take-away that is filled with additives. Nor do they necessarily want rich restaurant food every night of the week."

Sarah Willes is the managing director of Blues Agency, which has supplied private cooks all over Europe for 20 years. "Personal chefs are big business: we average 100 appointments per day," she says. "Professional twentysomething women are the biggest new clients. These are high-flyers who have the budget to go out for dinners, but prefer good food prepared at home."

Increasingly, people are coming out of the closet about their personal cooks. "Working mums who hire nannies aren't looked down upon," says Susan. "I don't have children, so I choose to spend my money on a private cook three or four times a month. The price may be the same as a dinner in town, but without the pomp and circumstance surrounding London restaurants these days.

"I keep quiet about my cook because she's so bloody good. I don't want all my friends knowing about her. A good cook is as indispensable as a hairdresser - you only give her number to your very best friends. But I have no guilt about hiring her. She loves to cook and I love to eat well at home."

As Foster says, "It's not as if I'm stuck in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove feeling servile. I like to cook. That's what I do. I love the ritual of shopping for my menu in the markets and speciality food stores. I know my clients would love to do it if they had the time. But they don't."