Even if your business isn’t exclusively focused on addressing specific health issues, no doubt periodically you’ll get a request from a potential client for help with special diets that address anything from heart issues to diabetes to allergies. Gluten-free diets–which can stem from celiac disease or wheat allergies, or because people perceive it to be healthier–are becoming a common request. New Yorker Donna Douglass, an APPCA member whose personal chef business, What’s Cooking?, stresses healthy, nutritious cooking, has found herself in that very situation.


“I just found myself cooking for someone who is wheat free, which is different from gluten-free, but still a challenge,” she says. “But I did some research and am comfortable with it. It’s part of cooking with whole foods, cooking from scratch.”

Donna's gluten-free Butternut Squash Mac 'n Cheese

Donna’s gluten-free Butternut Squash Mac ‘n Cheese

Donna’s advice is to create menus with whole, not processed, foods–ingredients in their natural state. “If you’re already cooking from scratch, you can do this,” she says with assurance. “It just takes research, carefully reading labels, and being careful about cross contamination.”

Donna offers 10 tips for personal chefs who need to avoid gluten for their clients:

  • Cook with whole foods, mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, organic dairy and local grass-fed meats, organic poultry, wild seafood, and gluten-free grains.
  • Be careful of meats that are prepared with other ingredients–or ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat meats–since they may be prepared with sauces or breadcrumbs that are not gluten-free. Examples include hot dogs or sausages, and lunch meats. Cheese isn’t meat, obviously, but packaged cheese can also have these additives.
  • If using processed or packaged foods, consider Ancient Harvest brands quinoa and pasta. Donna likes them much better than brown rice pasta for taste and texture.
  • Read labels. If there’s nothing natural in it and not labeled “gluten-free,” don’t use it.
  • Be careful if you get cheese sliced at a grocery store or deli. There may be breadcrumbs or other gluten products around their cutting boards or slicer where they are packaging your cheese. Buy gluten-free cheese or organic cheese at a health food store.
  • Make your own breadcrumbs from gluten-free bread or buy gluten-free breadcrumbs and add your own seasonings.
  • Use all-purpose gluten-free flour or brown rice flour for thickening sauces.
  • Almond flour is good for baking. Both Bisquick and Bob’s Red Mill make gluten-free flour mixes that you can use for toppings, dough, and batters for pot pies, desserts, pancakes, etc. Other good choices include tapioca flour, coconut flour, and amaranth.
  • Be wary of condiments on supermarket store shelves. Many brands of condiments include gluten or are exposed to factories that make products with gluten. Look for condiments like soy sauce, ketchup, steak sauce, BBQ sauce, mustard, and tomato sauce that are specifically labeled gluten-free. Even some vinegars may be made with grain vinegar. Again, carefully read labels.
  • Be aware that some spices may be processed on equipment that may have used gluten. For more on this, go to this gluten-free condiment list.

Donna also warns that you should beware of cross-contamination in your own preparation and your equipment.

She’s also provided a list of online resources:

How to Make your Kitchen Gluten-Free

Celiac Disease Foundation

Gluten-Free Living

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness Kid’s Central

Raising Our Celiac Kids

Teens Living with Celiac Foundation

Gluten-Free Diet Guide for Families

Here’s Donna’s recipe for Gluten-Free Portabello Mushrooms with Spinach and Goat Cheese

Gluten-Free Portabello Mushroom with Spinach and Goat Cheese

from Donna Douglass

Makes 6

Marinade for Mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup reduced gluten-free sodium soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, pressed
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ cup Marsala
2 sprig of fresh thyme>
6 large Portabello mushrooms, clean out gills

To marinate mushrooms
Whisk the first 6 ingredients and Marsala in a medium bowl. Stir in thyme sprigs. Cut stems from mushrooms and spoon out gills. Arrange mushrooms, gill side up in a 9×12 Pyrex dish. Pour marinade over mushrooms and marinate up to 4 hours, turning to coat occasionally.

2 bunches of fresh spinach, trimmed and washed
4 ounces Cremini mushrooms, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup homemade GF breadcrumbs
1 container of crumbled goat cheese

Cook spinach in a steamer basket. Drain and set aside to cool. Squeeze excess water from spinach and place in a small bowl.

Add Cremini mushrooms to food processor and use the pulse button to coarsely chop the mushrooms. Heat oil in a sauté pan and add the onion and sauté until beginning to brown. Add Cremini mushrooms and sauté to tender. Add the onions, mushrooms and spinach to a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Spray a baking sheet with oil. Bake mushrooms for about 15 to 20 minutes. Divide filling among the mushrooms. Top with crumbled goat cheese,gluten free breadcrumbs and some left over marinade.

Bake for 15 minutes or until cheese is golden.

Donna's Gluten-Free Stuffed Portabellow Mushroom

Donna’s Gluten-Free Stuffed Portabellow Mushroom

Still intimidated? Don’t be. “You shouldn’t be afraid to take on a gluten-free client,” Donna says. “Even if they have severe issues they’ll let you know and will probably supply special equipment.”

What are your tips for working with gluten-free clients? What are your concerns? Are there other special diets you’d like more information about?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.


January is a time of new beginnings and one of them can include jump-starting your business. It’s essential for personal chefs just launching a business, but even a seasoned professional can use a new tip or two. Getting in front of potential customers can open up new opportunities and there are a myriad of successful ways to approach it.

The most obvious would seem to be paid advertising, but that’s actually not something we endorse. As Chef April Lee has said, “Think about how you go about hiring a professional service provider. Do you hire anyone off a flyer? Does anyone? Do you pay attention to paid advertisements?”

What you should invest money in are professionally printed business cards and a professionally designed and written website filled with mouth-watering photos (and no “selfies”). As you know, we can help you with the website.

The rest of your investment should be in time and creativity. Find ways to get out into the community. Make yourself visible and meet as many people as possible who are either in a position to hire you or to refer business to you—or invite you to speak or participate in any of their business or community activities.


Chef Jim Huff of Traveling Culinary Artist in New York, who was awarded our top prize in marketing at our October APPCA Chef Summit, has more than a dozen quick tips to offer:

  • ·      Polish your elevator speech and use it at every opportunity possible. Family, friends, neighbors, etc.
  • ·      Wear your chef coat while shopping for yourself as well as when shopping for clients.
  • ·      Introduce yourself to the department managers of the produce, fish, and meat departments in the stores where you shop. Use you elevator speech in your first meeting.
  • ·      While waiting for the butcher, fishmonger, etc., to prepare your order chat them up about what you are cooking, etc. Oftentimes other customers will hear you and you’ll have an opportunity to use your elevator speech and present them with a business card.
  • ·      Have a website linked to your name in the APPCA Find a Chef Directory.
  • ·      Use social media, e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., to connect with people from your past, present, and future. Create discussions about your business.
  • ·      Write a blog that connects to your website and all social media. Write about recipes, events, and menus you have created. Quality pictures are a must!
  • ·      Send out press releases—when you start up, anytime you do anything for  a charity event, whenever you want to talk about a new food trend, about whatever is popular with your clients, to feature recipes for an upcoming holiday. Try to get the copy deadlines for these holidays.
  • ·      Send thank you cards to clients when you provide dinner party service or when you fulfill a gift certificate.  (Remember a gift certificate gives you two clients to market to.)
  • ·      Write catchy Craigslist ads and post pictures when advertising.
  • ·      About four to five times a year I mail postcards to all clients, past and present. You can use a variety of topics—for instance, you can remind them that school is starting and that your service helps with the tight schedule families deal with or that Valentine’s Day is coming up and that you can prepare an intimate dinner party, or suggest random dinner party ideas (e.g., recipes from any Julia Child cookbook around her b-day). 
  • ·      Buy car magnets and bumper stickers that promote your service.
  • ·      Print materials describing all the services you provide to be presented to clients when you are performing an assessment. 

Additionally, be sure your email always goes out with a signature offering your business contact information (website, email, phone number, and social media links). And your website, your Find a Chef Directory listing, and any other showcase for you should always have the basics, including your full name, your location, the services you provide, and your background. Personal chefs offer a personal service. Don’t make it difficult for people (or the media) to find you or learn specifically what you do.

And be bold! We had a member some years ago who decided he wanted to reach as many potential clients as possible as quickly as possible. He put on his chef wear and tall toque, put a doily on a silver tray, spread his business cards out on the tray, and set off for the local commuter railway station where he “served up” his cards to hungry, tired commuters at the end of the busy work day. These folks wanted to get home, have an adult beverage, and a good meal. His image and business card went a long way in delivering his message.

Do you have a way with the video camera? Create quality cooking demo YouTube videos that link to your website and social media outlets. Use them to try to get a regular gig on your local television station’s morning show. Are you a good writer? Offer to write a column for your local newspaper. This is especially helpful to the publication if you have an area of specialization like cooking vegetarian or vegan meals or if you combine your chef skills with a degree as a dietician or nutritionist. Chef Donna Douglass of What’s Cooking has done this successfully. She also teaches cooking and nutrition classes and appears at health fairs.

And, if you do have an area of specialization, research organizations that could help direct your services to their clients. Providing meal services to people on special diets can be so rewarding and impactful. New member Chef Lori Himmelsbach of A Chef of My Own in Kentucky googled “hospice,” “oncology support,” “holistic healing of…,” and “gluten-free support” in her area. Then she called the organizations listed, asked for the director of operations or the office manager, and explained who she was and how a personal chef could help their clients.

“I asked if I could send an email giving them more information about my services (including my website), as well as a request to pass this information on to their staff so they are aware of what a personal chef can do,” she explains on one of our forums. “Then I asked if they would like brochures (which I printed at home) to give to their staff or clients. One of my callers has already requested 30 brochures to pass out to her social workers.

“Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone,” Lori says. “As I’m starting my business I ask myself everyday what I can do to increase my income—and then do it!”

Everyone eats, so that means everyone is a potential client. It’s just up to you as to how you want to reach out to them. The only thing that limits us as personal chefs is the limits of our own imagination.

What have been your most successful marketing strategies? Please leave a comment and share with your colleagues across the country.

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

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