How oth­ers’ al­ler­gies change what you eat

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By So­phie Egan

I’m stand­ing in a space the width of an air­plane aisle, star­ing at fry­ing oils. It’s the kitchen of Next Door, one of the coun­try’s most-high-pro­file ca­sual restau­rant com­pa­nies, at its lo­ca­tion in Sta­ple­ton, a Den­ver neigh­bor­hood. Un­til now, I’ve given very lit­tle thought to fry­ing oils. But I’m on a quest for un­der­stand­ing: to get be­hind the scenes in a kitchen that is equally friendly to gluten-free, veg­e­tar­ian, ve­gan and var­i­ous food-al­ler­gic cus­tomers as it is to ev­ery­body else.

At Next Door, eat­ing re­stric­tions don’t just pep­per the menu, sig­naled through such acronyms as “GF” (gluten-friendly), “DF” (dairy-free), “V+” (ve­gan) and “GFO (gluten-friendly op­tional). They down­right de­fine it. In­stead of top­ping a salad with nuts, Next Door chefs sprin­kle on sun­flower seeds. Be­fore fry­ing cala­mari or pick­les and pep­per­oncini, they dredge them in corn­starch or po­lenta, re­spec­tively, in­stead of the tra­di­tional wheat flour. For their veg­gie bowl, they use quinoa, be­cause it’s a whole grain that doesn’t have gluten.

The chefs also use three sep­a­rate fry­ers for dishes that are ve­gan, veg­e­tar­ian or that con­tain gluten and/or seafood (for their twice-weekly beer­bat­tered fish tacos). Noth­ing gets cooked in the wrong oil. For cus­tomers get­ting the gluten-free ham­burger bun, chefs use a dif­fer­ent toast­ing sur­face. On “the line,” lit­tle buck­ets of salad top­pings are ar­ranged to avoid cross-con­tam­i­na­tion — ba­con and dairy to­ward the bot­tom row so as not to drop into the in­no­cent in­gre­di­ents.

Peanuts aren’t al­lowed on the premises. Pe­riod.

Next Door il­lus­trates just one of many ways food sen­si­tiv­i­ties are driv­ing the culi­nary de­ci­sion-mak­ing of en­tire op­er­a­tions: Rather than ju­ryrig­ging dishes to re­spond to spe­cial needs, chefs have en­gi­neered many menus from the start to es­chew ev­ery­thing from soy to gluten. And most cus­tomers don’t have a clue.

You’ve prob­a­bly seen pizza places

menus say in fine print “gluten-free dough avail­able upon re­quest.” Or maybe you’ve had the waiter who, like a cus­toms agent, asks at the be­gin­ning of the meal if any­one has al­ler­gies to de­clare.

But af­ter learn­ing about Next Door’s ap­proach, it dawned on me: The af­flic­tions of the mi­nor­ity are start­ing to de­ter­mine the op­tions for the ma­jor­ity.

And I can’t help but won­der: In re­sponse to the dra­matic rise in in­gre­di­ent in­tol­er­ance — both real and per­ceived — among Amer­i­can con­sumers, are all of us bound to be eat­ing less of the foods that, for gen­er­a­tions, were the sta­ples of civ­i­liza­tion? What does this mean for the fu­ture of din­ing?

The eight in­gre­di­ents that most com­monly trig­ger food al­ler­gies are milk, eggs, fish, shell­fish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy­beans. (Gluten is a pro­tein found in wheat, along with bar­ley, rye and trit­i­cale.) About 8 per­cent of chil­dren and 5 per­cent of U.S. adults have a food al­lergy. The rate of peo­ple with such al­ler­gies is dou­bling about every decade, and about a quar­ter of them will have a near-fa­tal re­ac­tion at some point in their lives. About 1 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have celiac dis­ease, 6 per­cent have non-celiac gluten sen­si­tiv­ity and 33 per­cent are try­ing to avoid gluten.

Across the coun­try, cam­pus din­ing op­er­a­tions of­fer op­tions for stu­dents seek­ing every des­ig­na­tion: kosher, ha­lal, veg­e­tar­ian, ve­gan. But this year, Cor­nell Univer­sity opened an en­tire din­ing hall with no trace of glu- ten, tree nuts or peanuts. At Columbia Univer­sity, nuts have been re­moved from all recipes at two din­ing halls. There, din­ing di­rec­tors cre­ated “nut zones,” where stu­dents use spe­cial uten­sils and dishes to, say, make a peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wich or sprin­kle wal­nuts on a salad.

In case you haven’t no­ticed, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shell­fish and fish — five of the top eight food al­ler­gens — are nowhere to be found at Chipo­tle. The same is true of gluten at the Lit­tle Beet, a New York-based chain with lo­ca­tions in the District of Columbia.

Ac­cord­ing to Datassen­tial, nearly 26 per­cent of U.S. restau­rant menus now have a “gluten-free” call-out. That’s a 182 per­cent in­crease over four years. Most chefs never used to be so ac­com­mo­dat­ing. But to­day, even in up­scale din­ing realms, op­tions abound.

Next Door was founded in Boul­der in 2011 and has five lo­ca­tions in Colorado, one in Mem­phis, Tenn., and one com­ing soon to In­di­anapo­lis. Co-founder Kim­bal Musk has re­ceived the lion’s share of the press, but to un­der­stand the magic, you have to look to the culi­nary di­rec­tor, Musk’s right-hand man, who is shap­ing the dishes. Mer­lin Ver­rier came to Next Door af­ter a ca­reer in fine din­ing, hav­ing earned sev­eral Miche­lin stars; he’s cooked for celebri­ties in­clud­ing the Oba­mas and Oprah Win­frey.

Along with teach­ing tech­niques for build­ing fla­vor — he’s a self-de­clared “tex­ture freak” — he’s train­ing his grow­ing team to build in al­lergy and in­tol­er­ance aware­ness from the start, as the core of the menu R&D. “Gluten-free out­weighs ev­ery­thing, in our opin­whose ion,” Ver­rier said.

En­emy No. 2 is peanuts. Just over a year ago, Next Door elim­i­nated peanut oil. It’s a go-to fry­ing oil in restau­rants given its mild fla­vor and high smoke point, Ver­rier said, but he switched en­tirely to canola oil.

It’s a point of pride, he said, that par­ents of kids with peanut al­ler­gies who won’t go to other restau­rants feel safe com­ing to Next Door.

Soy is also not al­lowed on the premises. No soy milk, no soy sauce. Soy sauce of­ten con­tains wheat, so it’s a no-go for gluten dodgers, too.

Many of the top eight food al­ler­gens — in­clud­ing al­monds, whole wheat and sal­mon — are among the health­i­est of foods. In pri­or­i­tiz­ing food safety for the few, I worry that nu­tri­tion for the many might suf­fer.

I con­fess to Ruchi Gupta, a food-al­lergy re­searcher and pe­di­a­tri­cian at Lurie Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Chicago and North­west­ern Medicine, that I’m wor­ried that the most shunned items could grad­u­ally drop out of the food sup­ply and that lack of ex­po­sure could make more peo­ple sen­si­tive to them.

On the first front, she said, my fears are un­founded: She con­sid­ers the top eight such es­tab­lished sta­ples that even if every restau­rant changed its menu, she can’t imag­ine gro­cery stores would ever stop sell­ing them.

On the sec­ond front, while un­likely, the sci­ence is not yet set­tled, she said. More re­search is needed.

Still, the preva­lence of “free-from” la­bels is nor­mal­iz­ing food in­tol­er­ance across the pop­u­la­tion. They give the im­pres­sion that there must be some­thing wrong with ev­ery­one.

Some of the foods that trig­ger food al­ler­gies. Think­stock

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.