When Victoria Magnus cut gluten out of her diet eight years ago, it was hard enough to figure out which foods she could eat. But when she recently added dairy and soy to her list of verboten ingredients, she realized she had little left to consume. Even when Ms. Magnus, an assistant manager and event coordinator in property management, thought she’d cooked herself a meal free of gluten, dairy and soy, she would realize later that some of those ingredients had sneaked in.
“Even though I enjoy cooking, I was making mistakes because I don’t know how to read every label and understand it,” she says. “For the sake of my own sanity, I wanted someone to take out the guesswork so life would function a little easier.”
Ms. Magnus, who lives in River North, hired William Blackburn, a personal chef specializing in gluten-free, dairy-free diets, to make her seven meals a week—to the tune of $30 per meal.
In the past, counting fat and calories was all it took to stay on a diet. But with today’s dieters adhering to specific diets that eliminate some or most ingredients, it’s hard to figure out what they can and can’t eat.
SPECIALTY CHEFS IN DEMAND
Enter specialized personal chefs, who focus on creative solutions for people on those tricky elimination diets. Though these chefs typically charge more for their services, they’re in high demand, partly because they are still rare—an estimated dozen or so work in the Chicago area.
“There’s been a rise among people on those specialty diets, and more and more people are looking to personal chefs to fulfill those needs,” says Vince Likar, executive director of the United States Personal Chef Association, based in Orlando, Fla. People are happy to fork over hundreds of dollars a month for the luxury of having someone else deal with their restrictive diets, he says.
Mr. Blackburn, who is based in Chicago, was overwhelmed with requests after he wrote on his website about his gluten intolerance—and his dedication to cooking without gluten, dairy and genetically modified food.
“I’ve been bombarded with emails and phone calls, and I can’t keep up with the requests that I’ve been getting,” he says. “I’m turning down a lot of people.”
Part of the reason for the increase in demand is the recent acceptance of specialty diets into the mainstream. One-third of Americans reported wanting to cut back on gluten or to eliminate gluten from their diets, according to a March report by NPD Group, a consumer research firm. Others are zapping dairy, soy, nuts, sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, fruit, carbs—or any combination of the above.
Since so many people are cutting out whole food categories, teaching students how to cook well even while eliminating key ingredients has become part of the curriculum at Kendall College, says Eric Stein, a registered dietitian and chef instructor at the Chicago-based college. Kendall has added classes such as culinary nutrition and baking for specialty diets, where students learn to cook vegan, gluten-free, allergy-free and heart-healthy foods and for athletic-performance nutrition.
Amanda Skrip of Chicago attended the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health, a culinary school in New York, before becoming a private chef, health coach and natural foods educator in 2007. She focuses on helping clients achieve health via cleanses, special diets and healthy eating.
Ms. Skrip has noticed a big shift within the past two years as more clients request gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free diets. “They know home-cooked meals are an important part of a healthy lifestyle—they just don’t have the time or the skills necessary to make it happen every day,” she says.
LEAVE IT TO THE EXPERTS
In the hands of professional chefs, restrictive-diet meals can be so delicious they can convert even nondieters. Mr. Blackburn makes two meals a day for Meredith Martin Addy, a Chicago patent lawyer and a single mom who follows a gluten-free diet. When she’s out of town, he ships her homemade, gluten-free protein bars. The meals are so good that Ms. Addy’s 10- and 12-year-old daughters have gone mostly gluten-free.
Jeremy Sartori, a 32-year-old consultant who lives in Edgewater, pays Josh Katt, a chef at CJK Foods in Chicago, $600 a month to make his weekday lunches and dinners. Mr. Sartori sticks to the Paleo diet, which is based on the premise that people should be eating the way hunter-gatherers ate: high protein, high fiber, moderate fat, low carbs.
He tried to follow the diet on his own, but once he started eating Mr. Katt’s prepared foods, which include a low-carb, gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna (instead of noodles, Mr. Katt uses zucchini), Mr. Sartori lost 10 pounds.
“I thought I was doing enough, but I wasn’t seeing the results,” he says. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s have an expert show me how to do it.’ It’s much more convenient, so I don’t see the point in going back.”
Mr. Katt doesn’t stick to a dietary regime himself—but all of his clients are on either the Paleo diet, an anti-inflammatory-diet (dairy-, corn-, gluten-, soy-free) or the Plan Z diet. He got his start four years ago after a client requested meals following an anti-inflammatory diet.
“She told me to buy a cookbook and to think of some recipes, and I did,” says Mr. Katt, who serves his clients meals such as spring vegetable “noodles” with pulled chicken (the “noodles” are raw zucchini, asparagus, carrots, scallions, peppers, spinach and squash, which are in a coconut milk and almond butter sauce).
Mr. Katt used to travel to his clients’ homes to cook, but he quickly reached the point where he couldn’t fit them all in, so now he prepares meals in a licensed kitchen and delivers them. Instead of reaching five people, he serves 150 Chicagoans on special diets at $15 per meal.
“They want healthy food, they want it to be convenient, they want local products and they want the buzzwords of it being soy-free and dairy-free and GMO-free,” he says.