Jim Loellbach

Throughout the year we’re trying to dig deep into various types of diets–some address health issues, others represent personal preferences. The latter brings us to vegan diets. Cooking without any animal products can be a challenge to chefs who haven’t dealt with that before–and no one wants to turn down a client. That’s what happened to personal chef and APPCA member Jim Loellbach of Custom Provisions in Chicago. How he went about developing a robust menu for his first regular clients is a lesson in critical analysis and creativity. Below, Jim explains how he went about it–and he gives us a marvelous recipe for Mushroom Bolognese.

Being new to the personal chef game, I recently landed my first regular clients. They’re a busy couple with a one-year-old child and another due in about six months. In addition to the normal challenges that face any new personal chef, I’ve had to face one more: my clients are vegans.

Before becoming a personal chef, I was a cook and sous chef in several restaurants and hotels in Chicago. My first sous chef position was as banquet chef in a smallish boutique hotel. Most of my work was for corporate groups, wedding parties, or other social events from 10 to 100 guests. While these are fairly small numbers in the banquet world, I had to be prepared for guests with special dietary needs. I had to learn the basics of gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, and vegan diets. In the end, I developed a small set of simple dishes that could satisfy these requests. That was fine for one-off events, but more difficult for groups that were in house for many days. Then, I’d have to accommodate a guest’s needs without serving the same thing over and over. When I had enough time, it was a fun challenge; but when I didn’t, it was a real pain!

Vegan cooking has one rule: don’t use any animal products.

For my new clients, I needed to develop a substantial vegan menu. I started by taking my normal menu and simply including everything that was already vegan. Most of my salads were already vegan, or could be by eliminating things like cheese or bacon. I stuck with vinaigrette dressings instead of creamy ones using eggs (although, I’ve since learned of some vegan substitutes). Likewise, many of my soups could be vegan by eliminating cream, using oil instead of butter, and using vegetable stock instead of meat stocks.

It was a bit harder to come up with a substantial number of vegan entrees. I already had a small number of vegetarian entrees which were easily converted to full vegan, but it just wasn’t enough. So I looked at several meat and fish entrees and asked myself whether or not they needed the animal protein at all. I had several items (stir fries and curries) that would be fine without the animal protein. Chicken in Yellow Curry became Vegetables in Yellow Curry, maybe adding chick peas to add more substance. Pasta with Meat Sauce became Pasta with Marinara Sauce.

Next, I looked at meat or fish entrees that really depended on the protein, and thought of substitutes: items like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and textured vegetable protein (TVP). I had a Thai Basil Ground Pork dish that consisted of little more than heavily seasoned spiced ground pork (served with rice, of course). TVP makes a great substitute for ground meat in most dishes, and this dish was no exception. I made it for my clients on my first cook date, and they requested it again for the second. Seitan strips make a great substitute for beef, pork or chicken in a stir fry. Tempeh, a form of tofu made from pressed whole soybeans, can be crumbled into chili instead of ground or diced meat.

Most of the dishes I’ve described so far do not represent the typical American plate: a large central piece of animal protein with supporting sides. I fleshed out my menu with a few more vegan options more along these lines: Miso Glazed Tofu Steaks with Peppers, or Soy Sesame Roasted Portobello Caps with Leeks. When I was done, I had plenty of options for my clients to choose from.

Of course, the first step in all of this was consulting with the clients. What do they usually eat? Do they prefer to have a central protein in meals? Do they already use meat substitutes? Do they like various ethnic foods? Luckily, my clients like food from around the world and don’t require a protein centerpiece on the plate.

One caveat: it’s important that vegans get a mix of essential amino acids in their diet (those that the human body cannot generate on its own). This is easily done by using a wide variety of protein sources: dried beans, rice, wheat, soy, nuts, quinoa, and others. It is not necessary to get this mix in every meal, just over the course of every few days. Variety is the key.

Here are a couple of random tips for vegan cooking. Tofu almost always benefits from removing some of its moisture. First, I almost always press it between paper towels for 15 minutes. If I want it even drier, I cut it into slabs and bake it at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Most dried pasta is made without eggs, but check the label. Indian cuisine is a great source of vegan dishes. Smoked paprika can add a meaty smoky taste in place of bacon or smoked meats. Soy sauce, miso, kombu seaweed, and dried mushrooms are great sources of umami, which meatless dishes often lack.

For online resources, I can’t recommend anything better than seriouseats.com (for vegan and non-vegan alike). The editor of this site goes vegan for one month every year, and they have collected a large amount of material. Search for “vegan” on that site and you’ll find a wealth of ideas, recipes, and links to other sources.

Finally, here’s an example of a recipe I converted from non-vegan to vegan. It’s a mushroom Bolognese sauce for pasta or polenta. The usual ground meat is replaced by a mixture of cremini and shiitake mushrooms that are chopped in a food processor to have the texture of ground meat when cooked. This sauce is as satisfying as any meat-based sauce I’ve had.


Mushroom Bolognese

From Jim Loellbach

Serves 4 to 6


200 grams onion, finely diced
54 grams fennel, finely diced
170 grams shiitake mushroom caps
560 grams crimini mushrooms
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for sautéing onions
24 grams garlic, minced
7 grams salt
3 grams fennel seed, ground
4 grams salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for sautéing mushrooms
Salt and pepper to season mushrooms
520 grams canned San Marzano tomatoes
950 grams vegetable stock
7 grams fresh oregano, minced
Salt to taste


Make a simple vegetable stock using the onion and fennel scraps, the shiitake stems, and 5 cups of water. Reserve.

Place one-third of the mushrooms in a food processor and pulse to chop coarsely, about 10 to 15 pulses. Stop when the largest pieces are around 1/2 inch in size. Put the chopped mushrooms in a bowl, and repeat with the remaining mushrooms in two batches. Do not overcrowd the processor or you will get a paste instead of chopped mushrooms. Set the mushrooms aside.

In a large Dutch oven or two-gallon stock pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Add the onion and salt, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook until the onions are caramelized. Add the fennel and fennel seed and cook until the fennel is softened. Remove this mixture and set aside.

Working in three batches, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pot over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add one-third of the mushrooms to the pot. Leave undisturbed until the mushrooms release their moisture. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms dry out. Season with salt and pepper near the end of cooking. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl. If the bottom of the pot is getting too brown, deglaze with some of your stock, reserving the deglazing liquid. Repeat with the remaining two batches of mushrooms.

When the third batch of mushrooms is done, add the onion mixture, the two previous batches of mushrooms, and the tomatoes to the pot. Add vegetable stock to any reserved deglazing liquid to get 950 grams total, and add to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until reduced to a thick sauce consistency, about two hours.

Stir in the fresh oregano and the final addition of salt. Correct seasoning if necessary.

Have you been cooking for vegan clients? What tips do you have for colleagues?

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!

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