It took chef Ana Sortun about 2 1/2 years to develop her product line, Chef Set, but the project’s roots actually go back much further. “I was always that kid on a diet,’’ says Sortun, “My mom would put me on a diet for a couple of weeks, and I’d see everyone having chocolate cake and I’d get a scoop of grapefruit sorbet. It felt like a punishment.’’
Don’t think that her new project has anything to do with a healthy chocolate cake. What Sortun has done is come up with healthy meals in which she provides the grain, seasonings, spices, nuts, and garnishes — “A Fast Way to Slow Food,’’ reads the packaging — and you add salmon or chicken or whatever else the main course calls for. Each box contains three packets with instructions for how to cook the grain and roast or saute the protein.
Sortun is working with Newton-based SetPoint Health to develop Chef Set. CEO David Blackburn, who began the company three years ago, approached her and she was all for it. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to come up with a healthy meal that isn’t a punishment?’ ’’ says the chef.
SetPoint Health is a health care company that works with professionals, dietitians, doctors, and others to support patients and clients whose health is affected by their weight. Blackburn is careful to point out the difference between SetPoint and other weight-loss ventures. His company draws on the work of noted Harvard weight-loss researcher George Blackburn (who happens to be his father), and Blackburn says SetPoint “is really about a lifestyle change,’’ rather than “a structured diet that’s not realistic or sustainable.’’
Blackburn and his colleagues decided that a new food product might help support that kind of change. “We had the concept of what is now Chef Set,’’ he says. “If people could prepare healthy food that tastes great and would be convenient and easy, they’d be willing to do it.’’
SetPoint Health wanted to work with a chef, and finding the right chef, says Blackburn, fell into place through serendipity. A doctor who had trained with George Blackburn suggested Sortun. The younger Blackburn, who’d never eaten at either of Sortun’s Cambridge restaurants, Oleana and Sofra Bakery and Cafe, went to her website and picked up the phone. The two clicked, and a partnership was born.
Like many prominent chefs, Sortun had been approached about putting her name on a product, but she’d never been tempted. This was different. Chef Set meals require a minimum of fuss. Each kit comes with grains, spices, and garnish; the cook adds three fresh ingredients. One of the meals is couscous with Moroccan spices and almonds, to which chunks of sauteed chicken, carrots, onions, and olive oil are added. Another contains quinoa with crushed pistachios and za’atar spice (the Middle Eastern blend of thyme, sumac, and sesame), you add fresh salmon, frozen peas, onion, and olive oil. There are two others and six more in the works. The kits serve two and cost $5.99. With the addition of fresh ingredients, the per-person meal cost comes to around $6.
The packaging carries a note from the chef: “At my restaurant, we combine the finest ingredients with herbs and spice blends to create a balance that is deeply flavorful, satisfying, and nutritious. It’s the philosophy behind the Mediterranean cuisine that I cook every night. Now you can, too.’’
Sortun was adamant that the meals meet her standards. She worked with a product-development firm in Montreal, and the process wasn’t easy. Some recipes took several tries. “It’s using the same kinds of spices I use, giving the same taste and richness and intrigue to the dish.’’
At first, Chef Set kits were only available to SetPoint Health clients. Response was so positive that the company decided to upgrade the packaging and make the meals more widely available. Last month, Sortun introduced them at a Be Healthy Boston expo.
The meals don’t emphasize nutrition per se, but for Sortun, that’s where their greatest value lies: this healthy food isn’t punishment. (Chicken and couscous is 510 calories per serving, salmon and quinoa 500.
“If I could help just one person with this project,’’ says Sortun, “it would be worth all the effort.’’
Chef Set meals are available at Sofra Bakery and Cafe, 1 Belmont St., Cambridge, 617-661-3161, and Siena Farms South End, 106 Waltham St., Boston, 978-261-5365. They are scheduled to be at Whole Foods Markets in Cambridge later this month.
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.