For Deborah Stevens, special diets are both a lifestyle and her livelihood.
Stevens, 48, is a personal chef who works with people who have special diet needs like raw, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian. She helps clients reboot their diets and take control in the kitchen, finding easy variety and balance.
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“I am really passionate about homemade foods,” she said. “A lot of times we give up that control over the ingredients with processed foods. When you make it yourself or hire someone to make it for you, you regain that control.”
Stevens, based in Niles, Mich., works on a weekly basis for her clients, she said. After a consultation about foods the client likes, any allergies that a client has and what the specific needs are, she drafts a menu and adjusts as needed. After a look around the client’s kitchen, she gets the groceries and settles in for what she calls a “cook day.”
“I believe foods in their natural states are so delicious, regardless of dietary or ethical needs.”
Making those connections, she said, is a crucial part of her work.
“People welcome me into their home,” she said. “It’s important to meet face-to-face and develop those relationships.”
With 25 years of self study, Stevens said she still is a voracious cookbook reader and inspiration for recipes is limitless with blogs and restaurant websites. Her favorite cuisines are Indian, Thai and Mexican, she said, and she uses herbs and citrus to amp up flavor.
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Recipe creation is her favorite part of the business, she said, but it’s also an important component to make sure diets have variety. Stevens even eats a vegan diet herself.
“Some of the things I look for are the freshest ingredients and unexpected flavors and combinations,” she said. “I think we all, as eaters, look for familiar comfort foods but also want something new and different. It’s important to balance that out. … Variety is important for enjoyment, and it’s important nutritionally.”
Prices for personal chef services vary from client to client, she said. Cook time and the cost of groceries are factored in, she said, and both depend on the particular dietary needs. For example, a strict vegan wouldn’t be charged the cost of salmon, she said.
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Some rules govern the personal chef business, Stevens said. She has a NSF Certified Professional Food Manager certificate, which sets guidelines for food storage and safety, though it isn’t required. State health regulations also stipulate that personal chefs work in a client’s home and prepare the food in the client’s kitchen, rather than preparing food ahead of time and bringing it into the home, she said.
Though she’s just getting started, Stevens said she’s seeing the growing awareness of vegetarians and vegans in the local dining scene and wants to start the conversation about special diets.
“I believe foods in their natural states are so delicious, regardless of dietary or ethical needs,” she said. “It takes some work but it’s entirely possible to eat a delicious and varied diet. … It’s a beautiful thing in the same way people hire out lawn care, housework or dry cleaning. Personal chefs are not just a luxury for people.”
Stevens offers a free consultation with potential clients and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow digital producer Danielle Waldron on Twitter @DanielleWaldron.