by The Urbaness | Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
We first met personal chef Alia Dalal on a damp and drizzly spring night. Outside, the weather was ominous and grimóa stark contrast to the warm and homey kitchen in which she welcomed us in. Prepping to put a pot of soup on, Alia took time between her slicing and dicing to talk about building her own business, touring the city by cuisine, and being the youngest candidate in line to be the next host of WTTWís Check, Please! Eavesdrop on our chat belowóand pick up the recipe for her soup of choice, Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita.

Q: Youíre one of 17 candidates in the running to replace Alpana Singh as the next host of Chicagoís restaurant review TV show, Check, Please! How did you make this happen?

A: I was very familiar with the show and I saw that they were looking for a new host and opening it up to the public. I love contests! I love going after things like this. And itís funny, too, because I wouldnít have considered pursuing this in a traditional sense: I never wouldíve intentionally tried to meet TV producers or taken an on-camera class. Things like that donít always occur to me, but sometimes when things are opened up to the publicólike a cooking contest I won a few years ago through Cooking Light Magazineóthen these big ideas suddenly seem more achievable to me.

So Check, Please! was only asking for a two minute video. I had this silly idea to do a Rocky-style training montage of what Iím doing to become the host. I kept thinking, this could be totally hit or miss! I had one of my friends come over and shoot it and my sisterís boyfriend was in it with me. So the four of us, we were all just making this video together. I ended up getting called back for the first round of Check, Please! cuts where we got to meet with the producers. About 1,000 people submitted and in that first round, there were about 140 of us. From there, they narrowed it down to 17 peopleóand thatís where weíre at right now. Itís open to public voting but we all have to go into the studio to tape a mock episode. Itís really exciting! Itís such a nice fit of things that I like and am passionate about. Itís been so fun connecting with others involved and I hope that, after the contest, the 17 of us have a chance to all get together!

Q: How did you become a personal chef?

A: Well, I went to college and studied English and music, two things that are totally unrelated to food. After school, I worked in New York but, after a couple of years, found that I really needed a change. I ended up going to culinary school, mostly because I have always loved food, but I was also really interested in the social aspect of food, as well as health, nutrition, and sustainability. So I explored different avenues from public health to nutrition. I found those fields very hands-off. They have value of course, but I didnít think they were a good fit for me. So I eventually decided on culinary school and found this school in New York called the Natural Gourmet Institute. After I graduated, I worked in restaurants in New York, Chicago, and India. Then I came back to Chicago about two years ago and I started my own small business by becoming a personal chef.

Q: So how does that work? Do you have a regular roster of clients?

A: Yes, I have five clientsóa Monday client, Tuesday client, etc. I make them a lot of meals at once and the clients reheat them throughout the week. Theyíre mostly working couples, normal people who value eating well and need a way to make it happen in their busy lives. So itís not like Iím Rahm Emmanuelís personal chef or anything! I cook in their homes and sometimes

[My clients are] mostly working couples, normal people who value eating well and need a way to make it happen in their busy lives. So itís not like Iím Rahm Emmanuelís personal chef or anything!
theyíre there while Iím working, but other times theyíre not and Iíll just leave everything packed away in the fridge for them. Thereís a lot of work that happens at home though: researching, trying new things, and planning menus.

Q: We have a hard enough time trying not to cook spaghetti every night. How do you constantly come up dishes to cook for your clients?

A: I learn a lot about them! A lot of clients I work withóbecause I have this health focus and studied nutritionóa lot of my clients might have health problems, or are trying to lose weight, or theyíre pregnant, or fighting cancer. Many of them come from situations that diet can really help, whether thatís just bringing pleasure to their lives or helping them have a higher quality of life. Usually I know what they like and what they need to be eating, and then I create a menu and send it to them. After a while they just trust me and sometimes theyíll request dishes Iíve made in the past.

Q: So youíre surprising clients with new dishes each week?

A: Yeah, I usually donít repeat things unless someone requests something special. But clients always know what Iím going to make before I show up in their kitchen. Iíll send them a menu each week and Iíll let them know that, for instance, Iím going to make an Ethiopian curry. They might not know what exactly that means. But I know, based on past dishes Iíve made, that theyíll really like it.

Q: So youíre going out to the markets and shops each week to buy groceries for yourself and several different clients. In your professional opinion, whatís the best grocery to shop in the city?

A: One of my clients has a CSA [community supported agriculture] and I love cooking from that. It can be a little challenging because sometimes sheíll tell me she has three heads of broccoli and Iíll plan a whole dish around that, only to find theyíre these super tiny heads as opposed to what I was thinking. But sheíll send me everything thatís in her share that week and Iíll create a menu around it. Iíd love to incorporate more of that, using the farmerís markets and local produce, but sometimes the best thing to do with so many different menus is to shop at Whole Foods.

Q: You have an impressive spice collection. Where do you shop?

A: Spice House in Old Town is really great! I have a crazy spice drawer. It makes me look like Iím super type-A. Aside from Spice House, I also love Patel Brothers on Devon. Iím very, very, very into spices: theyíre medicinal and they add a lot of flavor.

Q: Whatís your favorite spice to work with?

A: I love chilies! Both fresh and a whole range of dried chilies. I also cook with a lot of cumin and I really like sour spices. Theyíre not as common in Western cooking, but they impart a really interesting flavor. The most common one is sumac which is used in Middle Eastern cooking. Itís actually a berry and has a tangy scent to it that imparts a sour flavor. Another one I love? Black limes! Theyíre limes that have been cooked in salted water. It gives a really interesting flavor

Black limes add a different kind of acidity. So I like bringing these in because they really wake up the flavor and you donít have to add a ton of salt or fat to keep someone interested.
that we donít usually have in Western cookingóor that sometimes people [approximate] by using lemon juice or vinegars. Black limes add a different kind of acidity. So I like bringing these in because they really wake up the flavor and you donít have to add a ton of salt or fat to keep someone interested.

Q: Any advice for The Urbaness who struggles to cook at home for herself?

A: The biggest thing is to start the habit-building and then fill in the content later. So letís say itís every Monday night youíre going to cook something for yourselfóthatís a good starting point. You might have these dreams of how itís going to be all vegetables and no salt, and itís going to take three hours and be a masterpiece. And maybe youíll get to that point, but if youíre cooking pasta and adding jarred sauce to start, I think itís better to build that habit and begin to slowly make [healthful] changes. Another great way to start cooking is get other people involved. Get together with friends to cook with each other once in a while. Have someone hold you accountable. Food is meant to be shared, itís more fun that way! Capitalize on that.

Q: So once you have that habit in place of cooking for yourself each week, how do you go from opening up a jar of pasta sauce to something thatís a bit more special?

A: Convince yourself to get out the cutting board and the knife! Sometimes that can be a big hurdle because you only want to wash as few dishes as possible afterward! But adding one vegetable can make a big difference. A really great one to add to tons of dishes is really just bagged greens. Okay, so maybe itís not the perfect solution: it didnít come from a local farm; it most likely travelled from California. But if youíre making pasta, throw that in the sautť pan and sautť that up. Or have a side salad. Try to add one veggie to each meal, even if you donít have to cook it.

Q: You are a part of the Chicago Food Planet team, giving eating and walking tours to natives and tourists alike. Whatís that like? Tell us everything!

A: Chicago Food Planet is a really great company! We do three neighborhood walking and eating tours in Chinatown and on the north side. When I moved back to Chicago, I was working at Sepia in the back of the house, and stumbled upon the tours. Maybe I was Googling ďChicago FoodĒ or something! Anyway, I was so impressed with what they were doing, that I emailed them right away and it just happened that they were looking for tour guides. The tours combine things that I really loveófood and Chicago neighborhoods. It was a really nice counterpoint when I was starting my business, because I only had one client at the time. So it was nice to have a part time gig. When I meet other people now who are trying to start businesses, thatís my advice to them: have a part time job and slowly build it up.

Want more from Chef Alia Dalal? Visit her home on the webóand donít forget to cast your vote for the next host of WTTWís Check, Please!. Voting ends Wednesday!
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh