chicken nuggets2

Chicken Nuggets

Thank you, Tom Herndon of Hipp Kitchen in San Francisco, for your insights on cooking for clients with special needs:

Special diets are either a major pain in your patootie, or a lucrative niche market where you can shine as a personal or private chef. It’s up to you. The demand is there. How you meet that demand comes down to making an important choice: either fully embrace this ever-growing market or suffer your way through it, because it ain’t going away. I recommend the former. That’s what I did. Now, 10 years later, having built a good reputation in the Bay Area for being a chef that knows his way around food allergens, I’ve found the demand continues to grow and evolve.

The market has become way more sophisticated in the myriad of allergen-friendly products and solutions being offered than when this whole “trend” started (do food trends actually last an entire decade?). As a personal chef you’ll find there’s still plenty of room for pioneering. But we don’t have to venture out alone into unknown and sometimes dangerous territory anymore. We now have strong allies including many great chefs who have done much of the experimenting along the way; failing, succeeding, and discovering new and better ways to offer truly delicious alternatives. No more hippie hockey pucks!

If you still feel the need to roll your eyes whenever a client asks for strictly Paleo, or allium-free, or everything raw, please read on. You might still want to roll your baby-blues, but you might see something different. If you have already embraced special diets as part of your journey as a PC, as challenging as it can be at times, then you might appreciate some of the basic insights I have gained.

Persian Lamb and Pumpkin Stew

Persian Lamb and Pumpkin Stew

The YES List
What you can eat is way more nourishing than what you can’t. Sounds simplistic, I know, but if a client’s focus is on what she CAN’T have, then feelings of being deprived and all of the emotional baggage that goes along with that (punishment, scarcity, loss…..name your poison) grow even stronger. It’s hard to win as a chef in that kind of atmosphere. I found early on that by building what I call a YES list (those ingredients that are allowed/safe to use) and designing recipes from those ingredients only, not only did my clients feel better, but I could shift my focus from navigating the mine field of all of the no-no ingredients to looking only for those ingredients that work. No more guessing. You know that phenomenon where you decide to buy a blue car and all you see are blue cars for the next few weeks? That same mindset sets in when you—and your client—choose to pay attention to only those items on the YES list. Suddenly a world of food possibilities opens up. Because for a restricted diet variety is key, the YES list gave me the opportunity to get really good at knowing my way around flavor profiles, especially ethnic. Speaking of which…

Flavor is King
A restricted diet means flavor is of the utmost importance. What your client CAN eat needs to be really tasty. What gives food its flavor is nutrients. The more nutrients the better an ingredient tastes. Good nutrients come from good soil and good growing techniques. Over-farmed soil or over-processed foods contain very few nutrients, hence a bland flavor. Therefore, making sure the ingredients you choose are the most nutrient dense you can find is essential. I have discovered that by choosing great ingredients, half the battle is won. It also means I don’t have to have complicated recipes. Cooking becomes simple, my labor is reduced, which means my margin increases.

Chilled Squash Soup

Chilled Squash Soup

Flavor profiles. All of my cooking classes, and I’ve done over 40 of them, are geared towards the Allergenista. My main filter is always no gluten, dairy, soy, shellfish, or peanuts—the five most pernicious allergens. In my first few classes I asked myself, “if diets are restricted, how can I enhance the flavors of what CAN be eaten?” I covered three fundamental areas: spices, herbs, and condiments: three worlds of mostly safe ingredients with the possibility of an infinite amount of flavors. Knowing your way around your spice cabinet, the herb garden, and how to turn simple recipes into flavor-enrichening sauces gives you the ability to provide flavors from around the world. Here are some simple examples of what I mean by ethnic flavor profiles:

  • Caribbean: Annato, Chile, Coconut, Ginger, Coriander
  • Chinese: Cardamom, Cinnamon, Chile, Garlic, Ginger, Galangal, Licorice/Anise, Sesame, Sichuan Pepper, Star Anise, Vanilla
  • Eastern European: Caraway, Dill, Parsley
  • French: Lavender, Tarragon, Rosemary, Marjoram, Sage, Lemon Peel, Parsley

Ten years ago, when I was approached by a nutritionist and long-time friend to start cooking for her clients (she told me that when she gives them their elimination diet they are like deer in the headlights), I quickly saw it as learning a new language. The appeal of providing people with the experience of enjoying familiar foods while using only safe ingredients was great. Discovering new ways to have the look, mouth feel, and aroma be as close to the original as possible was exhilarating. For example, I use organic instant mashed potatoes as a thickener for sauces as opposed to guar gum or tapioca or turn soaked and blended raw cashews into cheesecake or ricotta for lasagna.

Special diets and picky eaters are kissing cousins. As a PC you’re always going to have clients who are very particular about what they eat. Food is emotional. Which means it can feel impossible at times. It also means that food can be connective, fulfilling, and immensely satisfying. Cooking would be easy if it wasn’t for food being so emotional, but who wants that?

Lots of good people are on special diets. Will you be yet another cook who rolls your eyes, or will you be the hero of the day? Your choice.

Chef Tom has great examples of adapting recipes with traditional ingredients into recipes that are allergen-friendly. Click here for a free cookbook. Here’s a sample recipe:

cukes

Cucumbers Stuffed with Smoked Trout Pate

Smoked Trout Pate

by Chef Tom Herndon
Yield: 32 cucumber cups

This recipe, says Tom, meets his basic criteria of no gluten, dairy (milk—but he changed it to vegan mayo), soy, shellfish, or peanuts.

Ingredients:
1/2 pound smoked trout, heads and skin removed, fillets carefully boned
1/4 cup very finely diced onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Fresh lemon juice to taste
2 large English cucumbers (other options are Persian or Lemon cucumbers)

Directions:
1. With clean hands, squeeze and mash the trout into a thick paste in a bowl.
2. Fold in remaining ingredients. Adjust seasoning.
3. Spoon a teaspoon into a cucumber cup or serve as a dip with gluten-free crackers or crudites.

Are you beginning to take on clients with special dietary needs? How have you approached your learning curve?

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.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

Throughout the year we want to inspire you with the various ways in which our members are reinventing themselves and their personal chef businesses. Tom Herndon of Hipp Kitchen in the San Francisco Bay Area is a perfect example of this. And an advocate. He’s our guest blogger this week and has some terrific words of wisdom that we know you’ll take to heart!

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Businesses succeed not by being the best, the first, or the most well run. They succeed because they know how to tell a compelling story. They also learn how to retell their story over and over. This means they refuse to be hemmed in by their past. They know how to re-craft their business identity to stay in harmony with the needs of their customers. Today, especially, there is a growing need to be fluid, adaptable, flexible. Many of the strategies we’ve adopted as personal chefs may not be working as well for us now as they did this time last year. It could be for a variety of reasons—our personal lives have changed, our clients’ lives or budgets have changed, the communities we work in have evolved. For some of us our stories need to be upgraded. It’s important to learn how to craft a different story. And then a different one from that. And down the road a different one from that.

A few years ago I was lucky to be invited by Candy Wallace to speak at the APPCA convention in Las Vegas. The heart of my message was that as personal chefs we have a pretty sexy story to tell, which includes a number of unique advantages. Because we are chefs we are perceived experts on food and food service (large in part due to Candy’s success in making the APPCA a tremendous value for members and their customers). Food experts continue to be highly valued in today’s market. Because we’re cooks, we know how to make something magical out of diverse ingredients, which often includes being willing and able to adapt quickly to our circumstances.

My aim in my presentation was to point out the value of having a powerful and sexy story to tell which includes an innate skill set unique to our profession. These skills keep our work fresh, retain customer value, and help pull us through leaner times. We have the skills to adapt, to change, and to leverage our perceived expertise as food professionals to keep our careers thriving. In other words, we have what it takes to change our story as needed. Does your story need an upgrade?

I read Candy’s December blog post about 10 Ways to Revitalize Your Personal Chef Business in 2015. Items 8 through 10 particularly resonated with me because, since I became a personal chef, I have been diligent in my efforts to keep my business fresh and to continually revitalize my practice. I chose to leverage multiple passions which ended up with multiple streams of income. What I have been doing is changing my story so I can continue to offer value and to have a fulfilling life. Having various ways of making money was the icing on the cake.

Cooking Classes

Cooking Classes

Five years ago my PC business became focused on cooking for people with food allergies, a lucrative niche. I once again changed my story. I changed my company’s name from Full Fridge to Hipp Kitchen (Hipp being short for Hippocrates, who said, “Let food be thy medicine.”). But in cooking alone, I craved company. So I found a beautiful venue in San Francisco and began holding allergen-friendly cooking classes and foodie events. I’ve done over 30 parties, classes, and team-building adventures in this venue alone. I was making more money, as well as developing new relationships and keeping my creative juices floating. Now my story was that I was a (perceived) expert in food allergies.

But there was still one itch that wasn’t being scratched: my passion for travel. I came to find out combining a love for food and a love for travel was also a strong customer need.

Chefs Barge Cruise

My experience shows that you have to leap when you encounter an opportunity. Mine was meeting a travel agent who was working on organizing a culinary tour to Italy. She had the template; I had the people and the passion. I had always dreamed of doing culinary tours in Europe, so I formed a new culinary adventure company called Spirit and Spice—and couldn’t be happier. Leading culinary travel adventures is so heart-fulfilling, and as a source of income it’s been wonderful because my husband and I have been able to travel to Europe. I have lots of repeat business and my customers are still talking about the adventures years afterwards.

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I have organized and led three culinary adventures to Europe. My last tour was called “Floating Through Paradise” and was one week on slow-moving French Hotel Barges cruising up the beautiful Canal du Midi in the South of France, followed by a week in Paris. Candy and seven other personal chefs joined me in the adventure. Cooking classes, wineries, olive oil factories, goat cheese farms, a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu, farmers markets, hunting wild asparagus along the Canal du Midi, and as a group, preparing the final dinner on the barges to say thank you. I brought home new techniques, new recipes, new friends, and a lifetime of memories.

Chefs at the Mediterranean

I have changed my story a number of times. I went from being a home cook to being a personal chef. I went from being strictly a personal chef to also being a perceived expert in food allergies. I then became a cooking teacher, a culinary event producer, and now I am considered by my ever-widening network to be an expert when it comes to creating culinary travel adventures!

Pintxos in San Sebastian

I encourage you to follow Candy’s advice and do what you can to keep your business (and yourself) revitalized. Don’t be afraid to take a close look at your main passions and figure out how to turn at least one of them into a source of income. You have the power to completely change your story. Begin telling it to everyone and pretty soon your new story will be top of mind within your network. Plus, you have lots of wisdom and inspiration offered from your fellow PC’s on the forums to help you get started.

My fourth culinary travel adventure is coming up in May. It’s called “Bordeaux to Barcelona.” I have room for a couple more people and it would be wonderful to have some fellow chefs along. Please check out the details here.

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