Over the next several months we’ll be addressing a topic that many personal chefs take special pride in: learning how to help clients with special dietary needs. Several member chefs who have developed specializations will contribute posts that explore how they got through the learning curve and developed dishes that make life healthier and happier in their clients’ daily lives.

We start with Beth Volpe of Savory Eats by Beth, who has developed the ability to work with a spectrum of clients with special needs. She tells us how this developed and gives tips for how to take on a new dietary challenge so you don’t have to say no–and, in fact, can be the great change in a family’s life.

Working with Special Needs Clients
by Beth Volpe

Last March I was contacted by a nutritionist who had a client with food sensitivities. “Tom” is in his early 30’s, has a high pressure job, is married to a wife with a minimal palate, and his colon was removed 11 years ago due to severe ulcerative colitis. He does not feel good most of the time. He was put on a food sensitivity diet consisting of 25 items (this included herbs and spices). Cooking for clients with dietary specifications of course requires more work and research. However, cooking with only 25 items presents even more challenges when it comes to making the food look and taste good. I was able to add one or two items to the list weekly. Unfortunately, we found that combining certain foods together caused a negative reaction.

Chicken Loaf with Spinach and Ricotta Cheese--created for "Tom." After a couple of months of cooking for him, he was able to enjoy ricotta cheese.

Chicken Loaf with Spinach and Ricotta Cheese–created for “Tom.” After a couple of months of cooking for him, he was able to enjoy ricotta cheese.

I don’t have formal training in dealing with food sensitivities but fortunately there are lots of resources out there. In “Tom’s” case I stayed in close contact with his nutritionist at first to fully understand the list of foods. I cooked twice a week for this client, making 14 dinners and 14 lunches weekly. Half were frozen. Since the couple doesn’t cook I was also cooking for his wife, who did not like many items on his list. More work! I still cook for “Tom” today, however I have given him my recipes and he cooks on his own now. I see him every three to four months.

Vinegar and Coconut Milk--special for "Tom"

Vinegar and Coconut Milk–special for “Tom”

What I have learned:

  1. People with food sensitivities or intolerances feel sick when they eat foods that do not agree with their body. It has been described to me as the same feeling as a hangover.
  2. I always ask if their condition has been diagnosed and who made the diagnosis. Was blood work done? For too many people, the answer is gluten-free diets.
  3. These clients require lots of research by the chef. For me, I needed to understand this dietary program. I always research any medical condition my clients have before I meet with them so that when we do meet I am at least somewhat familiar with their condition. Then I’m able to ask the right questions.
  4. To date, I have never turned down a client with special dietary needs. However, today, I would not take on a client like this or a vegan client or anything that looks too complicated.  At the time I met “Tom” I had just started my business. I was in the market to get clients and entertained any interested parties.
  5. I cook fresh only. I don’t freeze foods anymore. My clients seem to prefer fresh food and are willing to pay for me to come in weekly and cook for them.
Raw Apple Pie--created for a paleo diet

Raw Apple Pie–created for a paleo diet


My business fell into a niche market from the get go. My first client was diagnosed pre-diabetic. Then I did a Paleo Valentine’s dinner (that was fun and interesting). That was followed by a young mother with Multiple Myeloma. She had just had a stem cell transplant. The rest were/are referrals from nutritionists. Now my clientele consist of gluten free, gluten free/lactose intolerant, heart conditions (bypass surgery or heart attack), and cancer/chemo patients. All of these require research. All of these are challenging.

Gluten-Free, Lactose-Free New York Steak and Potatoes with Onions

Gluten-Free, Lactose-Free New York Steak and Potatoes with Onions

If you’ve been approached by people with special dietary needs, don’t turn them down out of hand because you’re afraid you don’t have the knowledge base to help them or that it will be too difficult. But there are challenges in working with them. I’ve put together some tips to help you get started:


  1. Make sure you have the time to devote to clients with special needs. It is not as simple to put a recipe or menu together. They personally may want more of your time.
  2. Be prepared to research what you need to know about their situation. That may mean talking to their doctor or nutritionist directly. Buy the book, Google it, read blogs. Get familiar with why they are seeking your help.
  3. Be patient and be ready to do what the client needs, not what you want to do. I always considered myself a savory cook. Making food taste over the top was what I did. Well, that all needs to be put into perspective when you are limited by the foods you are able to cook with. It doesn’t mean you can’t still be creative. It means you must become even more creative. Save your amazing recipes for those wonderful dinner parties.
  4. It’s a good idea to find out what type of oil the client, doctor, or nutritionist wants used in cooking. Generally extra-virgin olive oil, sesame, and coconut are acceptable. I was surprised to find out that commercial brands of oil such as canola (and many others) are not acceptable (for my clients).
  5. For your lactose-intolerant clients, butter and milk alternatives must be used. I use ghee when butter is called for in a recipe.
  6. Chia seeds are a great binding alternative in any ground meat such as meatloaf. Mixed with a liquid it becomes a tasteless gel.
Chicken Fajitas and Spanish Rice--gluten and lactose free

Chicken Fajitas and Spanish Rice–gluten and lactose free

Beth Volpe is the chef/owner of Savory Eats by Beth Personal Chef Services in Los Angeles.

What types of medical conditions or diets are potential clients contacting you about? How have you learned to help them?

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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