The Spreadsheet Diet
How a Personal Chef Got His High-Powered Client to Embrace The Whole Grains We All Need

By Ed Bruske
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A friend at a local catering company called one day with an intriguing offer: How would I like to prepare meals for a successful Washington businessman eager to lose weight?

My hours would be my own, the friend said. No haggling over menus: The Client had no time or inclination for that. Besides delivering the food on time each week, all I had to do was present a bill for time spent planning menus, shopping and cooking. Oh, and receipts for the cost of groceries.

The details, I assumed, would be hashed out with The Client. Instead, there was coffee with one of his assistants, who gave me a copy of some dietary guidelines The Client expected me to follow. Give it a good read, the aide said.

And a few other things: no cucumbers, no beets, no spicy foods.

Years of catering and testing recipes as a food writer had taught me a few things about food and health. But after studying the paperwork closely, I realized that it outlined a new culinary world: good carbs, meaning whole grains, as well as lean meats and lots of vegetables.

Goodbye , baked potatoes! Adios, white rice! Adieu , French baguette. Ciao, refined pasta.

One year later, The Client's aides tell me he is satisfied and they send regular, generous checks. My style of cooking has changed forever. I've not only embraced whole grains, I have a system for turning them into healthful dishes that also taste good.

Picture a spreadsheet, a kitchen Excel, with grains on one axis and a variety of companion ingredients -- vegetables, herbs, nuts, marinated foods, vinegars, olive oil -- on the other. By moving across the spreadsheet, picking ingredients as you go, you can create pilafs and salads that put once-scorned nutritious foods within easy reach.

But last January, standing in the bulk section of the local Whole Foods, staring at bins full of wheat berries and barley and brown rice, my reaction was something along the lines of: What the heck do you do with this stuff?

And, more importantly, would The Client eat it?

It is a bit of a handicap for cook not knowing what, exactly, The Client likes and doesn't like to eat.

Occasionally, I got phone calls.

An experiment with buckwheat groats -- or kasha -- for instance, yielded a pudding that seemed just right for breakfast. The response was immediate: Ixnay on the buckwheat pudding, his secretary said.

On another occasion, I expanded The Client's usual portion of fresh berries into a fruit salad. Again the phone rang: No cantaloupe, please. Make that no melons, period.

The phone calls were like portents of doom. The Client's number would appear on my caller ID. I immediately assumed I had poisoned him. One time, in the name of variety, I sent him a big serving of pho , the Vietnamese noodle soup. Ring, ring. No discussion: Ditch the pho.

And when I sent him a breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal, I simply held my breath. Surprise! "We weren't sure how that would go over," exclaimed the secretary in an unusually jubilant tone. "But he really liked it!"

When The Client and I do exchange words, it's usually accidental. One morning we bumped into each other in the elevator at his office. I was picking up empty food containers. He said he surmised it was me, since I was the only person around carrying food containers. "I've been praising you to the skies," he said. But as the elevator doors closed, his parting words were about how he wasn't really losing any weight.

And yet we carried on. I like to think this is because the food I make is so good. I can only imagine what The Client must think of dieting. Despite his success in Washington's business world, he's a normal, all-American sort (whose privacy I'll protect here, to keep my job). He's not a food expert, but like any good businessman, he expects results from his investments. He expects me to help him get thinner.

Yet when I add it all up, I'm only making a third of his meals. For the rest, he's often in restaurants entertaining clients of his own. Some of my food never passes his lips: If he's called out of the office, he simply gives the food to his employees.

We live in parallel universes: He of the multiple homes, the cadre of aides, the catered parties and connections to the city's elite. Me of the vegetable garden, the crusted iron skillets, the 20-year-old electric range. Yet we are bound together in a mutual belief that healthful food is essential to his well-being. Somewhere out there is a diet with his name on it, a silver bullet that will deliver the physique he's looking for, and for that he compensates me well. I, meanwhile, thrill in the challenge his diet poses, in the freedom it gives me to create wonderful meals.

Working for The Client has caused me to reevaluate the way I cook, to become intimate with ingredients I hadn't used before. I feel less of an urge for big, juicy pot roasts and braised pork. My focus now is on the opposite end of the food spectrum: lean meats, lots of fish, ingredients rich in nutrients and light on saturated fats. And those starchy side dishes? Think wheat berries and barley instead.

Because The Client didn't like "spicy," I dropped chili peppers of all kinds. Occasionally North African and Indian dishes made it onto the menu, with lots of cinnamon and turmeric, garlic and onions. I flavored meals generously from my herb garden: basil, arugula, sorrel, cilantro, mint, thyme, marjoram, oregano, hyssop, lemon balm. I chose locally grown vegetables, bursting with freshness, and switched to pasture-raised meats with more flavor.

The menus I create for The Client are not so much "diet" food as good food that happens to be good for you. Good carbs, it turns out, need not taste like wood chips.

My conversion did not come easily. I spent days researching what the nutritional gurus had to say. I combed my library of cookbooks, and any food magazine I could lay my hands on, for recipe ideas.

Over time, whole grains seemed to me not so much dishes in themselves -- or the holy grail of weight control -- as ingredients in a grander scheme. Different grains paired nicely with nuts, fruits, fresh vegetables, low-fat cheese and olive oil. I mixed and matched. Week after week, the pieces of a cohesive design came into focus.

Should you pick barley, for instance, from the grain side of the spreadsheet, you would move your gaze to the right, selecting items from other columns organized according to common usage -- carrots, walnuts, raisins, shallots, scallions, celery, parsley, olive oil -- until you arrived at a recipe (see above). The spreadsheet is a work in progress, still evolving. It is not meant to be a fixed template, but rather a general guide. So by all means, try new things, things you like. Edamame? Avocado? Asparagus? Jicama? Sure, why not? And if you are looking for something more than side dishes, you could easily add grilled chicken or salmon, or maybe some shrimp or tofu, to create luncheon and dinner entrees.

Cooking from the spreadsheet is easy (can you chop vegetables, open a jar, boil water?), and these foods can all be made ahead. They are meant to be served at room temperature, so they work well for dinner parties and buffets.

But a gentle warning is in order: Do not try to memorize the spreadsheet. Carry it with you. Fold it into a little square and tuck it safely into your wallet. Then, the next time you get into a lively discussion with a guy on the subway who says, "Wheat berries? What the heck do you make with wheat berries?" -- just smile and pull out your spreadsheet. Freelance writer Ed Bruske last wrote for Food about duck.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company