Living gluten-free, with a nut allergy, or just tired of the same old ingredients? Feast, "Fabulous Eats for the Allergic + Sensitive Types," an "allergy-friendly gourmet food store", is set to open in late spring at 881 Queen Street West. Co-owners Wendy Zeh, a registered nurse and self-taught lifelong baker, and her husband chef Neil Lomas, are determined to make and sell food that everyone will love. It's quite possible their "vegan doughnut trilogy" will become the ultimate summer blockbuster but only time will tell. Eater caught up with Zeh to talk delicious food, the complicated science of gluten-free baking, and how Feast plans to take food safety to a whole new level.
What is Feast?
Feast is an allergy-friendly gourmet food store. A lot of people think we're a restaurant, and I think the misconception there is because we do have an in-house kitchen, so we will be selling a lot of things that we make in-house. Our kitchen will be completely gluten-free, and free of the top eight allergens: dairy, wheat, soy, egg, nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish.
You'll be cooking with some major limitations. What on your menu are you especially excited about?
We're excited about everything! We've spent many years developing the recipes. We've used loads of resources; we've got so many cookbooks you wouldn't imagine. None of the recipes seemed to have been turning out for us so we started from scratch. We used our food science knowledge, inspiration from dreams, and we've come up with the most amazing pastry for (hand-held) pocket pies. They will be meat-filled, veggie-filled. We've also come up with a really beautiful doughnut; coconut caramel, so it's a caramel made with coconut milk and coconut sugar. It's chewy; it's got raw dehydrated fruit in it and sprinkled with smoked sea salt. We've taste-tested across people who have allergies and sensitivities and people who don't, and across both categories we're having people knock down our door to get more. It's really an honour, and what we were hoping for. We want the food to taste so fantastic that everybody gets to sit down at the table and enjoy the feast together. We don't want people with food allergies and sensitivities to be isolated anymore and have to eat their little special meal off by themselves.
Is your dough vegan?
Yes, our dough is vegan and our doughnuts and caramels are vegan.
So, what's your secret to a vegan crust?
I'd have to kill you if I tell you. My husband is saying, "don't tell him, don't tell him!" What I will tell you is that because we are allergy friendly, all of our ingredients will be posted and available for people. But there's a science to making dough. Our right way didn't match anybody else's. There's definitely science involved. There is technique, not just the ingredients.
You're a registered nurse so when did you start baking?
I started baking pies when I was 12 (years-old). And I started by asking my mom how to bake pies and she said she didn't know, "just read a cookbook," and I made a terrible pie. My dad smiled and said it was good. And I kept going from there. I taught myself to become a really excellent pastry baker. So when I became gluten-intolerant two years ago, this was a huge frustration for me because gluten-free pastry is completely different from regular pastry. It's not the same beast at all. It's not a matter of substituting cup-for-cup and you're good to go. Gluten provides a different texture to dough. Working with pasty is a little bit of science – you need to get the right temperature of the fat, you've got to not overwork it – and using different ingredients, it just reacts differently. You don't have the gluten for the stretch but you've got other things that give it a bit of stretch. How it feels in your hand feels is completely different; how you roll it out is different – taste as well. Then you have to start balancing some of these ingredients because when you're using chickpea flour, it can taste very chickpea-ish. One brand of rice flour, or gluten-free flour blend does not equal another - results can be dramatically different. That was one of our hardest lessons learned.
Why do you think has been such an increase in food allergies?
Everybody asks me that! And you know I'm not the expert on food allergies. My husband and I are sufferers of them. And we are realizing that there are a lot more people who have them. In fact, I think it's 30% of Canadians identify that they have some sort of food allergy or sensitivity. My personal thought is that our food supply has changed greatly over the last fifty years.
What are some common misconceptions about allergy-prone eaters?
Those are easy to list off because it usually flies out of people's mouths accidentally. Things like: "Oh, you're quite picky, aren't you," or that that we're doing this by choice. That it's something that we can grow out of. That there are allergy shots and pills and stuff available to treat this. It's a huge list. That we're thinking that it's more severe than it is.
It's almost sounds like all the wrong things some people would say to someone coming out of the closet.
I liken it almost to some of the bad things people say about gay people. That this is a lifestyle choice. This is part of our fabric. We didn't choose to be allergic to food. Just like people don't choose to be gay.
The allergy-prone have a hard time ordering at regular restaurants. What are some tips that you can restaurants to give them to have an easier time?
One quick tip is put some identifiers on the menu. I actually have been interested to find that some places are very allergy-friendly but they haven't advertised that, and haven't made the menu easy to navigate. Also, there's great training courses available right now through Anaphylaxis Canada. They've got a basic allergen program. All of our staff in the store will be going through that program.
And what can the allergy-prone do to help restaurants?
I would always suggest making a reservation and highlighting the allergy and asking if it's something that can be accommodated. Just do some work in advance to work with the restaurant and they're usually very accommodating and you can get your answer answered in advance. It gives the chef the time to prepare knowing that somebody allergic is coming in.
Anything you'd like to add?
One of our differentiators is that we're safe. So, we check with of all our manufacturers and suppliers on every ingredient and every product we bring into the store for cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is a big thing because the labeling requirements aren't there yet in Canada. It's voluntary. The labeling requirements require that you have to put what's in the product but you don't have to say what's in the manufacturing facility where that product is being made. We crosscheck everything to make sure there are no cross-contamination risks with what we're bringing in. And for someone who's anaphylactic, that's a big deal.
Are you going to have any eat-in seats?
We're not zoned as an eat-in. We will have a lovely little perch overlooking Trinity Bellwoods with a few seats.
When is the grand opening?
We're still working that out. Construction started on Tuesday and it's scheduled to take up to six weeks. We could open as early as four. We'll have to keep you posted on that one. It could be open in late May.
What do you say to the skeptics?
We haven't hit too many skeptics yet, especially in our taste-testers group. I think there are a lot of people who think that this is a trend or a fad. At the same time, anybody we've spoken to – almost 99% of people – say, "Ah, there's someone in my office, or my friend or my mom, or my sister has that issue." There's a lot of support for people who have allergies or food sensitivities and this will make this easier for those people, as well as the people who work with them and love them.