Monday, February 10, 2014

Dining with a Food Allergy Or Intolerance And Its Consequences

Dining with a Food Allergy Or Intolerance And Its Consequences 

Several years ago, we had a patron dining in my restaurant who suffers from severe food allergies. She wisely presented me with a card that listed all the ingredients and food types that she is allergic to. Not only could that move save her life, it makes it easier for any chef to ensure her safety, too.

Unfortunately, I have encountered several people through the years who for some reason have abdicated responsibility for their allergies or food intolerances. I was impressed by this diner’s commitment to her own well-being and her consideration and respect for my kitchen.

Perhaps if people who suffer with food allergies and in tolerances carried cards detailing the ingredients and food types they react to, it would encourage a firmer understanding and eliminate anxiety on both sides of the kitchen door.

Many dining patrons have food allergies or intolerances. Among the most common allergy causing foods that we encounter in restaurants are gluten, nuts, dairy products, eggs, shellfish, soy, sesame and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Don’t confuse food allergies with food intolerance. An allergy occurs when a person’s immune system produces an antibody response to the food, causing symptoms ranging from skin rashes, to trouble breathing. Some food allergies can lead to severe reactions called anaphylaxis, which causes a dangerous drop in blood pressure and the swelling of the throat or tongue. If left untreated it can even result in death.

A person with food intolerance is unable to digest and process food correctly, often due to the lack of particular enzymes. This can lead to discomfort and unpleasant side effects, but they are not life threatening.
It’s easy to say, “If you are allergic to gluten, don’t eat it. Or, if you are allergic to dairy don’t drink it.” But it is not that simple. There are many products, from baked goods to fresh meat products that might contain added dry milk solids or slivers of wheat.  Even trace amounts of wheat from cross-contamination can make someone severely ill.

Many of us in the food business encounter customers with food allergies or in tolerances on a frequent basis. We are concerned, empathetic and, given the right conditions, quite willing to take on the responsibility of preparing their food.

It has been a long-held opinion of mine that if you suffer from a food allergy or intolerance, you are naive to put your confidence in any restaurant until you are certain beyond doubt that the staff understands your food allergy or intolerance and its consequences. 
It has also been my opinion that the person suffering from a severe food allergy should always speak directly to the person cooking the meal. If the cook is too busy to address this issue personally, you probably shouldn't be eating in that particular establishment.

It has been estimated that there are thousands of additives used in the preparation of commercial foods. This issue is further complicated by the fact that there is so little transparency and clarity in the way many products are labelled. With this in mind, how can anyone be truly certain what they are eating, no matter what assurances are given?

If all this sounds confusing, you can get an idea the kind of minefield the food allergic or intolerant diner is walking through. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chili Chowder Chow Chow

Chili Chowder Chow Chow


Decades have passed since I worked with my best pal Bonnie at the Corkscrew Restaurant in London, Ontario, yet our friendship remains steadfast. The Corkscrew was one of the ubiquitous steak and lobster, salad bar chains that plagued the culinary landscape in the late-1970's and 1980's. Surprisingly, the Corkscrew with its fake castle motif and servers in festive peasant garb attracted a hot-bed of raw talent and many employees went on to illustrious careers in the culinary world. Bonnie was not among them. She set her sights elsewhere.

At nineteen, Bonnie and I were fledglings and hungry for life experience. Though newly acquainted, we decided to backpack across Europe together. Yet it was on this trip that our culinary competitiveness first reared its head. We were boarding with the friends, of our best friend Tara’s cousin, in Barking, just east of London, England. To thank them for weeks of self-sacrificing hospitality I decided to prepare what I then deemed a typical Canadian dinner.

Today this day, I recoil when I recall that my meatloaf - a noble staple of my youth and a praiseworthy dish that personifies "peasant" rusticity - resulted in a shameful failure, due to youthful bravado and an unfamiliar, temperamental oven. Bonnie, who has since mastered the art of a well-delivered anecdote (read yarn), alleges our startled hosts hid the undercooked, uneaten meatloaf behind the sofa. She further alleges that while I was doing the washing up moved it under their bed to be disposed of at a later date.

Dreading a repeat performance, I soon learned the eccentricities of the British stove and not to attempt to pass off culinary failures, no matter how high the expectation, or how self-sacrificing the guest. Bonnie, however, did not immediately benefit from my disaster. Her pay off would come later and with alarming frequency in her self-satisfied retelling of my misfortune.
Through the years, she has continued to multiply her litany of complaints about my culinary  incompetence. Chief among them is an exaggerated version of an overly sweet blackberry crumble recipe which I served on a pleasant holiday weekend in Parry Sound some years ago. There has been no stopping her.
Shortly after my youthful calamity, she took her turn in the kitchen. In those days, blackened food had not acquired the patina of respectability it briefly enjoyed in the 1990's. The jury is still out on whether or not the smoke and the flames were intentional.

I remember, Bonnie was unaware of our host's discomfort and less-than-enthusiastic reaction to their smoke-filled living room. She asserted that this dish made with renegade vegetables and marinated and braised in stout was an ancestral Scottish recipe. She  misidentified this invention as beer steak. This was the first of many ill-fated attempts she has made to revise Scotland’s culinary repertoire.

Bonnie's true claim to culinary  fame, though, is her recipe for Chili Chowder Chow Chow. The chili part of the equation has little to do with the famed bowl of red. Chili may be a generic term, embellished by traditions, mostly to do with heat, but this logic does not apply here. Nor does the mixture bear any passing resemblance to the hearty dish known as chowder. It has crossed my mind that she calls it chowder in honour of the French chaudiere, meaning cauldron. But this explanation is unlikely, since the dish is prepared in the microwave.

Hostility has simmered for generations over New England versus Manhattan clam chowder (Maine once passed a bill prohibiting the integration of tomatoes with clams). But that is a minor dispute next to the intense arguments over chili recipes. In Texas, where it is considered a crime to add beans to chili, Bonnie would be looking at life, for this concoction.

Chow chow, an assortment of pickles of various types, especially mixed vegetables in mustard, must have been added solely for alliteration, because there is none here. If memory serves, this hodgepodge consists of a can of kidney beans, another of creamed corn, some tomatoes, perhaps some canned soup and whatever else might be on hand.

Chili Chowder Chow Chow has little hope of gaining a following but, then again, you never know.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Curb Your Appetite: Modern Food Trucks — the New Culinary Urbanism in London, Ontario

Curb Your Appetite: Modern Food Trucks — the New Culinary Urbanism in London, Ontario 


Last year London City Council agreed to get public feedback on a proposed program to allow new-style food trucks. The current bylaw is outdated, because it was drafted to deal with catering trucks, hotdog carts and other vendors that have traditionally been confined to private parking lots and special events.

The City revised their initial food truck plan, and proposed a much less restrictive version that balances the interests of stakeholders and encourages a vibrant street food experience for the public. However, there are restrictions. There is expected to be a 25-metre buffer zone separating food trucks from existing restaurants. And don’t expect to see food trucks around the Covent Garden Market, or on Dundas or King Streets downtown. They will also be required to stay clear of schools, which have healthful-food guidelines.

There are additional concerns that we are about to enter a new phase of corporate nuisance, where fast food chains will eventually begin entering a marketplace populated chiefly by innovative independents. The food truck phenomenon — up until recently, that is — has chiefly been the domain of mobile entrepreneurs.

In the meantime, an impartial food truck advisory review panel made up of volunteer representatives (based on London's Urban Design Peer Review Panel) is being formed to provide expert opinion and recommendations regarding food truck strategy in London.

In addition, the panel will be charged with encouraging culturally diverse and original menu offerings, and endorsing the promotion of healthy eating. As such, vendors would be encouraged to be innovative and consider focusing on a variety of nutritious, seasonal, fresh and local ingredients.

We are aware that modern food truck vendors can be much more than their current limiting stereotypes. Last year, some proponents of local food trucks wanted to see the health benefits and uniqueness of prospective trucks evaluated by representatives from the city or an appointed committee.    This is not something that should be evaluated arbitrarily by city officials or their proxy and the city seems to be in staunch agreement.

At the moment it appears that there will be no selection criteria based on proposed menu offerings, business plan, innovation, and level of vendor experience or overall impact to London’s food truck/street food culture. However, it is too early to try to define what that culture should look like, and consumers will ultimately determine its future and success.

Active consultation and participation in food truck and street food vending programs, in partnership with bylaw and regulatory services, will foster food safety — both in the reduction of potential food safety issues and in the promotion of healthy eating while providing advice on food safety issues.

Food trucks have their detractors in the restaurant community and there has been some special interest interference across the province. Recently, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA) got involved in discussions with various Southern Ontario municipalities, including London, on the wave of food trucks gearing up to set up operations. The argument against food trucks is that they're stealing the business of more established bricks-and-mortar restaurants. We have seen no evidence suggesting food trucks have undermined anyone’s business, restaurant or otherwise.

It is true that food trucks have some advantages over a traditional eat-in restaurant. Mobility and the ability to travel to where the customers are is a definite plus. Generally speaking, food trucks have lower overhead than restaurants, and require less staff. However, a food truck is still a labour-intensive business that requires a lot of work and attention.

Food trucks are already subject to standardized health and safety regulations and inspections. Local proponents are hoping that policies and guidelines can be developed and vetted quickly to ensure greater accessibility of food trucks/street food in a way that balances all community interests.

Modern food trucks serve a diverse variety of healthy options and cultural foods in other cities. They are positioned to incubate new businesses and become an alternative launching pad for healthy, creative food.

We like food trucks because they stimulate culinary innovation and diversity, draw culinary tourists, provide employment, and contribute revenue to the city. They help stimulate community, and are destined to become an important part of the social and culinary fabric of the city. Let’s hope to see some positive resolution in the upcoming months.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Getting in on The Local Food Act - “Good things grow in Ontario”

Getting in on The Local Food Act - “Good things grow in Ontario”

By Bryan Lavery

The Local Food Act was passed in November 2013, which the province says will help make more local food available in markets, schools, cafeterias, grocery stores and restaurants. Through education, The Local Food Act encourages the growth and development of markets for foods grown and made in Ontario. It also provides funding for collaborative local food projects and funding for experimentation and innovation in the agri-food industry.

Like many people, I started to learn about the importance of local food at a young age by visiting the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair, farmers' markets, farm gates and small town fall fairs across Ontario. These experiences left an indelible impression on a young urbanite.

They were the first opportunities that I had to get in touch with our local food heritage. “Good things grow in Ontario” that’s the message Foodland Ontario wants consumers to remember when they go food shopping. It’s a catchy jingle and I recently realized how effective it is when I heard the children of one of my colleagues singing it while at play.

When the Foodland program began in 1977, the advertising message informed consumers of the wide variety and availability of Ontario-grown food products. Both the theme line "Good things grow in Ontario" and the Foodland Ontario symbol encouraged consumers to buy Ontario.

After 37 years, Foodland Ontario continues to be a successful promotional program that helps raise consumer awareness and demand for Ontario food products in stores, farmers' markets and in restaurants. By promoting and identifying the characteristics of quality Ontario products, Foodland Ontario’s message communicates a vital Ontario food advantage: flavour.

In 2006, 95% of principal grocery shoppers recognized the Foodland Ontario symbol and demonstrated a partiality to purchase Ontario produce.

 This campaign works with all agricultural sectors and builds on the importance of supporting farmers and purchasing fresh, locally grown, quality produce. It also concentrates on the more understated message of trust.

When I say trust, I refer to the confidence we place in independent Ontario farmers, in their crops and products, in food safety, and in their contribution to the fabric of Ontario’s food culture and economy. Trust is an important factor in consumer faithfulness. If a retailer showcases “local” in its offerings, an understanding of what that means can help to reduce consumers’ confusion on what exactly is local in that particular instance.

The most significant marketing term for food this past decade is the word “local”, now firmly entrenched in the popular lexicon as a brand for freshness, seasonality, sustainability and quality. The definition of “local” is open to wide interpretation depending on whom you are talking to, but is generally recognized as food grown or produced within a certain radius such as 50 or 100 miles.
The term “local” may also be seen from a more conceptual perspective of micro climate and naturally recurring geographic boundaries, as well as referring to an area that grows food for a specific population. Global instability, dependence on other countries, and intelligent economics are among the many good reasons to promote a sustainable local agricultural sector.

The term Slow Food really refers to a few key principles that most people already know about and practice, at least sometimes. It is a reference to food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high-quality locally sourced ingredients. The opposite of fast food.

I first heard about Slow Food while attending a culinary program in a small town near the Adriatic Sea in Italy, seated with other chefs from Ontario and Quebec in a state-of-the-art culinary amphitheatre fifteen years ago.

 I had gone to increase my knowledge about the local culinary specialties of Emilia-Romagna. What I took away from that experience was so much more. In addition to learning how to make the unique regional specialties and developing an appreciation for the locally produced artisanal products, I gained invaluable insight into their culinary traditions and what the term local truly meant.

At the same time, I discerned real similarities in food culture, values and philosophies between this traditional Italian cuisine and our own Southwestern Ontario regional gastronomy.

Although I was inclined not to serve a tomato out of season in my restaurant, the terms “local” and “seasonal” suddenly had a political connotation when I went into a store or a farmers’ market and saw less expensive genetically modified California strawberries competing with local strawberries at the height of strawberry season. This was just a few short years before the “eat local” movements gained momentum.

Over time even our local supermarket chains are took notice and began to change their buying strategies in an attempt to make space in their produce aisles for more local seasonal fruits and vegetables. Of course, this is the logical alternative to grocers being handcuffed by year-round contracts with large wholesale distributors, often thousands of miles away.

Yet, as happy as this change in direction makes many of us feel, the reason behind this shift in strategy, I suspect, is not purely altruistic or a response to consumer demand. As fuel costs continue to rise to unprecedented heights, the price of processing, packaging, refrigeration and transport of food to local markets becomes less attractive for retailers.

Buying and eating “local” makes more sense not only to the consumer but also to the retailer. Add this to the increasing preference and status that consumers attach to local food, and we can see what has contributed to the success of the “local” movements.

Statistics show that grocery store shoppers consider the quality of the produce as most important to them in their choice of supermarkets. Consumer studies also indicate that 50% of women and 39% of men have changed supermarkets based solely based on the consistency and quality of fresh produce.

Today we depend on a small number of crop species for human nutrition; less than 30 plant species provide 95% of the world’s sustenance. In the past century, 300,000 plant species have become extinct. Since the beginning of the 20th century, North America has lost 93% of its agricultural products. Europe has lost almost 85%.

An important benefit of local food systems is the encouragement of multiple cropping and the growing of a variety of species and cultivars simultaneously, as opposed to the prevalent commercial practice of large scale single crop plantings. Multiple cropping is the practice of growing two or more crops simultaneously in the same space during the same growing season. For example, a farmer may grow tomatoes, onions and marigolds in the same field. The marigolds repel some pests, reducing or eliminating the farmer’s reliance on commercial pesticides.

There is now an interest in reviving and cataloguing the forgotten flavours of heirloom varieties. Heirloom is a term now commonly used to describe a cultivar that has been handed down from one generation to another. Cultivar refers to a plant variety with particular characteristics that has been created or intentionally selected and maintained through cultivation, and when propagated retains its unique attributes.

It is interesting to understand why what I call “the return to flavour” has happened. As varieties of fruits and vegetables continued to narrow to only a small number that were considered the most marketable, an interest in reviving homegrown heritage products occurred. In southern Ontario, even local field tomato production was cut in half in the late 1990’s when it became difficult to compete with low-cost foreign imports and the more lucrative greenhouse varieties that obtain a better price for export.

Fruit and vegetable varieties were discarded by big growers, food processors and the fast food restaurant industry because they were not commercially viable. They did not ship well, store well or conform to size, shape, texture or colour standards set by the industry. Many of these heirloom varieties have gradually made their way back into seed catalogues, local farms, home-based and community gardens and on restaurant menus.

I predict, in the not too distant future, the farmer and producer will have an even more pronounced profile, resulting in an increased influence in reforming the local food systems.

Food enthusiasts are now following farmers, the way they follow chefs. Farm-to-table menus identify the provenance of products, farms and farmers. Things continue to change. But here is the good news: the more things change the more they stay the same. We still have the farmer’s markets, fall agricultural fairs, farm gates and independent farmers a short distance outside of our cities.

Fortunately, the trend to buying and eating local is showing no signs of declining. Instead, the fruits of our local terroir have become a patriotic trademark of Ontario’s best tables.


Top-of-the-Line Sushi at Nobu and Eartha Kitt in New York


Top-of-the-Line Sushi at Nobu


 Eartha Kitt in New York

Sixteen years ago, wet with winter sleet, we hailed a cab from the Royalton Hotel on 44th Street to Nobu, Chef Nobu Matushia’s flagship restaurant (with a Japanese-Peruvian sensibility) in Tribeca. In those days, food enthusiasts considered Nobu the gourmet temple for Manhattan’s preferred raw fish and rice dishes.
Nobu was a mecca for celebrities and the well-heeled before it became a tourist destination. The restaurant was co-owned by Nobu, uber restaurateur Drew Nieporent and Robert De Niro in those heady days before 9/11.
The dining room paid homage to the Japanese countryside with birch trees, hardwood floors, and a wall of river stones.The sushi maintains a high level of quality, however, and the black cod with miso is still one of the most luxurious taste experiences in New York. — Ruth Reichl The sushi maintains a high level of quality, however, and the black cod with miso is still one of the most luxurious taste experiences in New York. — Ruth Reichl Like a mariner lured by the songs of a siren my dining companion and I were drawn to the magnificent raw bar featuring delicate fish and outstanding sushi and sashimi.

We put ourselves in the hands of the Itamae (sushi chef) and ordered the omakase, a multi-course tasting menu (which literally means trust me); giving him carte blanche to serve variations of the highest-quality fresh market catch.
His preparation was thoughtful and exact. The sushi was presented while the rice was still warm, which we were told was crucial. The sushi courses were offered in a precise order, and prepared only seconds before we were served. Everything came at the correct temperature, at the perfect time. The unforgettable flavours had depth and were immaculate and pristine in both their flavour and presentation.

The Itame performed theatrical feats with the beveled edge of his knife and skillfully prepared each minimalist offering with diverse accompaniments, toppings and condiments. We used our fingers so as not to injure the meticulously crafted offerings. Encouraging our requests and questions was all part of the Itamae’s subtle, unexpected cultural courtesies and personal attention. Each succulent, luxurious morsel that he proffered was a different sensation.

After a multi-course dinner, we made our way uptown by limousine to the Café Carlyle where Eartha Kitt was performing her legendary cabaret act. She was at the top of her game and announced that she had recently been notified that her birth certificate had been located.

Eartha was celebrating her 70th birthday that night. In appreciation of our enthusiastic sake-fueled response, she singled us out to sit at her table at the front of the stage. Eartha belted out a performance rife with sexual innuendo and coquettishness. Yet, everything about Eartha Kitt and the Café Carlyle spoke class and urban sophistication.

Over the years, I had come to think of this as a perfect meal and evening. It was like something out of a film – someone else’s splendid life. 


Hunting for the Ultimate Pad Thai

Hunting for the Ultimate Pad Thai

Hunting for the ultimate pad Thai may be a continuing quest. Most Thai restaurants appeal to a largely Caucasian clientele, which influences many of them to compromise their cuisine by taming the long and gradual development and release of flavour that is a Thai culinary attribute. I am always looking for serious Asian restaurants that make no concessions to Western palates. Even in these enlightened times, they are few and far between.

Contrary to common belief, not all Thai cooking vibrates the Scoville Scale (the empirical measurement of detectable heat) and every region in Thailand has its own temperament which is reflected in the cuisine.

Despite the advent of the tourism industry in Thailand in the 1960’s, Thai cuisine had no real profile outside of Thailand until the late 1980’s.

During 1940’s, as part of a campaign to promote democracy and nationalism in Thailand (formerly known as Siam), and seeking to reduce domestic rice consumption, pad Thai became widely embraced in a profile-raising effort by the government to encourage the sale of rice noodles from street carts and in small restaurants. Rice has always been at the core of Thai cuisine. To eat pad Thai became a patriotic act, one which allowed the government to make more rice products available for export.

In a few decades, pad Thai has gone from being virtually anonymous to becoming a ubiquitous restaurant and take out staple. In reality, it is a minor dish in repertoire, but it has become a global ambassador for Thai cuisine. I confess, I have always been a disciple of Thai curry but indifferent to pad Thai. For the purpose of this article I embarked on a two-month quest to distinguish the different nuances in preparation and flavouring among a diversity of restaurants. When ordering pad Thai I now have a benchmark for authenticity and an expectation of fresh, firm, medium-slender rice noodles with a particular bite profile. Precisely cooked, pad Thai noodles are never starchy, gloopy or stuck together. The properly cooked rice noodle should be dry and with separate strands, much like correctly cooked al dente pasta.

Deconstructing the recipe for pad Thai divulges a collection of ingredients that are not overly remarkable. It is only in the combining and balancing of these ingredients that we discover the resulting dish is greater than the sum of its parts. Peanuts and nearly raw bean sprouts add a required, reserved crunch and counterpart for the rice noodles. A well prepared pad Thai divulges its flavour profile incrementally: restrained sweetness with bursts of salty, sour and tart flavours in a fresh tasting, lemony, hot dish.

Pad Thai is never sickly sweet or an undignified neon orange or fluorescent tangerine. It derives its colour and aromatics from tamarind paste and fish sauce, and is ideally an unassuming brownish-red shade, studded with bits of green onions, bean sprouts, tofu, chilies, salted radish, cilantro, toasted peanut and scrambled egg.

An inordinate number of non-Thai restaurants feature pad Thai (or credible variations) on their menus, yet in far too many instances they bear only a passing acquaintance with the properly executed dish. In knowledgeable restaurants, additional lime, fish sauce, chili pepper, and rice vinegar are optional and offered by way of condiments.  No self-respecting cook would put peanut butter, ketchup, teriyaki sauce or shredded coconut in pad Thai. To those who claim that this is fusion, innovation or artistic individualism, I can assure you that it is not.

The use of chopsticks is not a Thai custom. Thai food is eaten with a fork (left hand) and a spoon (right hand); there is no need for a knife as food is served in bite-sized morsels, which are forked into the spoon and fed into the mouth. Thai meals typically consist of a single dish, or rice with several complementary shared dishes served concurrently.

Thai curries (kaeng, also written as gaeng) are unique because they are made with fresh aromatic roots, leaves and herbs, whereas Indian curries (masalas) depend on combining dry spice mixtures. All curry pastes vary widely depending on the tastes and techniques of the cook. Green is the hottest among all the Thai curries and cilantro root is commonly used in its preparation due to its intense flavour. Red is the original preparation and yellow is the mildest of the curry preparations.

Locally, there is a myriad of Thai, Viet-Thai, and Laos-Thai and other Asian-inspired restaurants. Due to the popularity of Canadian-Asian food, lots of Chinese restaurants pay homage to the Thai genre. Thai culinary repertoire of Thailand, like Korea’s, has spicing techniques and aromatic infusions of curry-inspired recipes that are suggestive of India. That is just scratching surface of the Thai culinary canon. If you want to know how good the restaurant is, you only need check out the pad Thai.